Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera The Verdi Collection, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this latest offering from Scottish Opera – perhaps a ‘pick’n mix’ of some of the composer’s Most Famous bits?  A few well-known pieces with some less well-known ones, perhaps from Il Giorno di Regno or Jérusalem?  What we were given was something much more coherent and illuminating – a look at ‘middle period’ Verdi, showing how the composer developed his style from set-piece arias and ensembles, producing more fluid, through-composed works in which glorious melodies emerge from a continuous stream of orchestral picture-painting with an increasingly subtle complexity in the accompaniment replacing the more ‘oom-cha-cha’ chordal style of earlier operas.

Performed without costume, set, or complex lighting effects, one could concentrate solely on the music and the drama – and what drama!  The heart-rending plight of Violetta and Amelia, forced to give up the person they hold most dear; the soul-stirring valour of Rodrigo’s choice to risk death himself to ensure the safety of Don Carlo; the tragedy of King Philip realizing that his wife never loved him; Desdemona’s concern for her husband Otello’s fluctuating moods and uneasy apprehension that she will never see her maid Emilia again; the tangled emotions twisting through the lives of Leonora, her brother Don Carlo and her would-be lover Don Alvaro; all these were melded into an evening of power and intensity.

The orchestra began with the overture to La Forza del Destino, its sharp opening doom-laden chords leading instantly into surging menace, from which emerge hints of all the major melodies from the opera.  Desdemona’s Willow song and Ave Maria were the calm before the storm, when king Filippo II commended Rodrigo on his diplomatic skills but was horrified to learn that the reward his faithful soldier wanted was liberty for the people of beleaguered Flanders – prompting the king to warn Rodrigo to beware the Grand Inquisitor – before asking him to keep a watchful eye on Carlo, the king’s son and Rodrigo’s sworn ally, whom he fears is in love with his wife Elisabetta.  Alone once more, the king reveals his fear – ella giammai m’amo – she never loved me.  Rodrigo goes to tell Carlo that he has removed incriminating documents from Carlo’s possession, knowing this will mean his own death, but determined that the life of the man he sees as the saviour of Flanders will be safe.

Respite from the extremes of emotion followed in the shape of part of the ballet music from Les vêpres siciliennes, in which a languid and sensual oboe line wove sinuously above hypnotic strings, pulsing in the heat of a Spanish summer before ominous rumblings led us into the final piece in the first half.  Amelia, wife of Renato, is in love with the king, Riccardo, but resists the pull of this emotion.  Renato wrongly accuses her of meeting her lover, and declares she must die.  She accepts her fate but in morrò, ma prima in grazia begs that first she be allowed to embrace her young son for the last time.

Part two began with a real treat – the whole opening scene from act 2 of La Traviata.  Violetta and Alfredo are blissfully happy in their secluded rural idyll – until Alfredo realises to his shame that his beloved is paying all the bills.  He leaves to sort this out and his father, Germont, comes to ask Violetta to give up his son, as their affair is adversely affecting the marriage prospects of Alfredo’s sister.  At first Violetta refuses, but she nobly gives way, and takes the one course of action that will ensure Alfredo will not try to get her back.  Alfredo returns to find her gone; his father tries to console him, but he rushes out to have his revenge.

How do you follow that?  Well, with two major scenes from La forza del destino [the force of destiny], which happens to be one of the two operas I was introduced to at the tender age of twelve [the other being Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg]. Don Alvaro laments his lost love, thinking that she has been killed many years ago. In the finale, he discovers that she has not died but become a hermit, outside whose hermitage he has been living as a monk.  Leonora’s brother Don Carlo has for years been hunting him, intent on avenging his father’s death: the two men duel and Carlo is wounded.  Leonora goes to his aid and is fatally stabbed, before her brother also dies.  The bereft Alvaro is assured by The Holy Guardian that Leonora’s soul has gone straight to heaven.

It struck me then, and unfortunately still strikes me, as being one of the least swallowable plots in opera – if only Leonora and Don Alvaro hadn’t spent so long singing loudly on the landing instead of eloping, her father would never have found them and got himself killed, and the whole tragedy could have been averted… I guess Spanish notions of Honour, Destiny, and suchlike don’t resonate very strongly with me, whereas Violetta’s tragedy still tugs at my heartstrings.

Judging by the rest of the audience’s reaction, they didn’t feel the same, greeting this final offering with prolonged and enthusiastic applause.  The orchestra, under conductor Stuart Stratford, deservedly were cheered, and all the outstanding soloists received their own appreciative salute. 

I was, I must confess, somewhat underwhelmed by soprano Eri Nakamura’s performances in the first half, her voice often getting lost in the orchestra and sounding as though it had deep and resonant low notes, and some splendid top ones, but nothing outstanding joining them.  In the second half I understood what all the fuss was about – the voice gleamed as she rode above the orchestra and poured out her very soul.  Tenor Peter Auty, a regular with Scottish Opera, was nearly always superb, pouring out gleaming tone and passion – but disappointingly strangling his very top notes.  

Baritone Lester Lynch, like Eri Nakamura making his Scottish Opera debut, allied a commanding stage presence with a ringing voice that could sound incomparably heroic but also become meltingly quiet and gentle.  Brindley Sherratt was indisposed, so Korean bass Jihoon Kim, took his place [another Scottish Opera debut] and thundered in regal splendour, lamented his wife’s failure to love him, and nobly assured the grief-stricken Don Alvaro that Leonora was assuredly going straight to heaven.  Mezzo Katherine Aitken, another debutant, had the thankless task of being ‘attendant’ to various heroines, and did a good job: she’s at the start of her career and I hope will progress well.

At the end of the evening, I overheard many departing patrons saying how much they’d enjoyed the evening and how excellent the singing was – I’m sure they would have given the fifth star I didn’t find myself able to award.   Given that Scottish Opera can’t perform everything that every composer has written, this evening was an unrivalled opportunity to revisit, or hear for the first time, some of Verdi’s greatest music.  All credit to Stuart Stratford for conceiving the project, and the soloists and orchestra for presenting it to us in all its glory.  

And now it’s just a month till audiences can relish a whole evening of Puccini – Il trittico plays in Glasgow and Edinburgh from mid-March, inviting comparisons between these two giants of Italian opera and offering another feast of passion and drama with more incredible music.  Get your tickets now!

Scottish Opera The Verdi Collection, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Run Ended the next collection is scheduled for March.


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