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Ottone, King of Italy (ETO at Hackney Empire, 18 October 2014)

Handel’s greatest? Certainly one of the best musically, if afflicted with a noodly plot.

Ottone: Clint wan der Linde 
Adelberto: Andrew Radley
Emireno: Grant Doyle
Teofane: Louise Kemeny
Gismonda: Gillian Webster
Matilda: Rosie Aldridge
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny | Orchestra of ETO
Director: James Conway

This is the opera that introduced soprano Francesca Cuzzoni to England and remains famous due to the defenestration story (Falsa imagine was the aria she wasn’t happy with. Naturally Handel was right and it went on to make her a star). It’s one of those operas rife with false identities so it’s best to know the plot beforehand1. Last night Hackney Empire’s cute and anachronistic surtitle “machine” was out of order, but everybody’s diction had been good enough for me to understand what was going on.

Tonight the machine was back on, but with a hilariously – yet endearingly – old school plot synopsis. Before each aria there was a headline telling us the setting (ie, “a field of battle”, a cave by the sea etc.), or the situation (“that which was lost”, followed by “that which might be found”) as well as a short description of what the currently sung aria was about (ie, a wife and mother’s revenge on a tyrant, Ottone is disillusioned and thinks of death etc.). This was very handy, as, with the notable exception of Rosie Aldridge, everybody else’s diction was lacking. The worst offender was Louise Kemeny, whom I could barely understand.

Diction quibble aside, it was very well sung. The best were, for me, Rosie Aldridge (Matilda) and Gillian Webster (Gismonda), who both started strong and stayed that way. Their Act II duet, Notte cara2, was the highlight of the evening for me and by then the rest of the audience had caught up and they received lots of applause. It’s always great hearing a mezzo and soprano duet. But before that, Gillian Webster had the misfortune to lead the proceedings and her fist two arias flew by without applause. That was not right, let me assure you. Sometimes I didn’t understand people’s hesitation to applaud some very technically accomplished and intelligent singing coupled with lovely, distinctive tones as these two singers have. Webster is also one of those singers whose speaking and singing voices are slightly different, the singing one being by far the more pleasant one – plump, penetrating and secure. Also without applause went Grant Doyle’s (Emireno) Del minacciar del vento. It’s not that often that you get bass arias in Baroque and such good ones too. Doyle has a heroic tone and he coped well with the descending coloratura. He was also very convincing as a “corsair”. Aldridge and Webster, too, showed excellent acting skills; their characters’ personalities shone through, both physically and vocally. Aldridge’s Diresti poi cosi, where Matilda wrestles with conflicting emotions (love and the desire for revenge) came off particularly powerful, as she was able to vocally depict these different emotions.

Though good singers on their own, I had some trouble telling Clint van der Linde’s (Ottone) and Andrew Radley’s (Adelberto) voices apart, as the both of them reminded me of David Daniels. They found their groove after the intermission and did very well with soulful arias. It took me a while to warm up to Louise Kemeny’s Teofane, which might be due to more than just her poor diction. Normally I don’t care so much about diction but I had a hard time understanding the recitatives and they were in English (as was the whole thing, btw. Like ENO’s, ETO’s operas are sung in English). I’m also more of a bravura aria fan and it takes Teofane a couple of acts to get something beside very lyrical passages. She did, however, do a very good job with her anguished aria, with some neat vocal acting amidst the coloratura.

It was a traditional setting but it wasn’t the worse for it. I’m not hellbent against traditional productions if they are beautiful and work, which this was. I’m actually quite fond of Byzantine art so I was pleased with the panels. They stayed the same during the entire opera and were moved this way and that depending on what the scene was supposed to show. The cave scene worked well with the fringe curtain behind and the blue lighting suggesting water. Also, the modern acting – often very physical, with good fight scenes – didn’t make it feel old fashioned.

The orchestra sounded beautiful and the conductor did a very good job with the score tonight. The tempi were just right and the orchestra supported the singers throughout. See it if you can (here are the tour dates and locations).

  1. Long story short: in Rome, Adelberto, the son of Berengario, ex-King of Italy, wants the throne. However, Ottone, the King of Germany, has defeated his father and is on his way to Rome to claim the throne. Whilst he’s been held back by battle business, his bride, the Byzantine princess Teofane, arrives in Rome. Gismonda, Adelberto’s scheming mother, suggests to him that he should introduce himself to Teofane as Ottone and thus marry her before Ottone has the chance. To complicate matters, Adelberto is betrothed to Ottone’s cousin, Matilda, who, naturally, does not like the turn of events. After other complications, Emireno, a captured pirate, turns out to be Teofane’s exiled brother. It takes us three acts to untangle the plot. 
  2. All aria titles are in Italian as I don’t know what they are in English. 

Il low brow mondo della luna (ETO at Hackney Empire, 17 October 2014)

Surprisingly effective silly selenar shenaningas with English Touring Opera in the heart of Hackney. Ever been to Hackney Central? No? You’re not missing anything. I used to live on the Bus 254 route and passed by all the time but the shabbiness of the area never enticed me to step inside. Well, my loss. ETO has some clever tricks up its collective sleeve.

Ecclitico: Christopher Turner 
Buonafede: Andrew Slater
Clarice: Jane Harrington
Lisetta: Martha Jones
Cecco: Ronan Busfield
Conductor: Christopher Bucknall | Orchestra of the ETO

You don’t often see Haydn operas – yet – so I jumped at the opportunity, especially seeing as how it’s not a big venue (1,275 capacity) and tickets for the Gallery are bargainous. Looking at the cast you might have noticed the parts of Flaminia and Ernesto have been slashed. Boohoo, I told myself, there goes the opportunity for mezzo goatee. But I spoke too soon! Facial hair makes an even funnier appearance 😀

ETO got Cal McCrystal to direct. He’s the chap behind One Man, Two Guvnors, which I have not seen but it’s likewise based on Goldoni, so that made sense. I’m slightly acquainted with Goldoni and what I can say it’s not very high brow humour rather typical 18th century servants and young people taking the piss out of the older, ornery generation. It’s not often I say this, but the best thing about this performance was the direction. If you like slapstick this is the show for you. Also if you like coloratura taken the piss out of – or even better, the two of them done at the same time – you might bust a gut laughing. I don’t know that I’ve seen a production before where coloratura was made to serve humour quite this well1.

Clarice, the young and beautiful daughter of the misogynist miser Buonafede (Goodfaith, eh) has this elaborate aria with lots of coloratura which you can tell is supposed to mock the earnestness of opera seria. Jane Harrington sings rather well, with good attention to detail (roulades) but at the same time manages to trip over and kick (how unladylike!) stairs then knock over and break a statue and finally a topiary bush – which she also lifts back by herself. That on top of taking the piss out of the show-off highs and lows which Haydn gave to the original singer.

It’s a traditional production but really it’s “traditional”. It’s done by this chap takis who you can just tell gets both traditional and regie and will make use of whichever accordingly. McCrystal wanted gags so imagine gags done in a very serious setting. The bit where Buonafede “is looking at the Moon” through the telescope in order to get a lunar peepshow was done with people performing unspeakable things to blowup dolls behind a screen.

Remember I said there is funny facial hair? Well, in slashing the parts of the virtuous couple, the remaining characters inherited some of their business. Clarice takes Hesperus androgyny to new heights. She’s kept her previous 18th century cotton candy hair, part of which doubles as a beard! She’s also wearing the bustle of her dress, without the actual dress (Ecclitico has warned Buonafede that them lunar dwellers have unusual habits and fashions). The bustle is worn sideways, which means the hip-side is sticking out at the front and at the back. At the front there’s a moon-face – for mock modesty – which is being made much fun of during her duet with Ecclitico and keeps poking him. Cecco, who gets to be the Emperor of the Moon, wears a Michelangelo’s David suit, complete with large cod piece. An inflatable planet Earth is hung in the sky and “comets” flash by. There’s more of the same and mostly very funny.

The singing was pretty good, especially from Slater’s Buonafede and Harrington’s Clarice. Nobody was poor but I think the lack of variation in tempi might have hindered all. Most arias as well as the orchestral bits ended up sounding similar, with a few flashes of energy at rather unexpected moments. Martha Jones’ (Lisetta) intensity, for instance, varied even during the same aria. Sometimes it was spot on, other times I was on the brink of losing interest. Christopher Turner (Ecclitico) and Ronan Busfield (Cecco) were hilarious dramatically but I felt the singing missed a certain spark. Generally there was a lack of focus to the sound that kept the musical part from being as enjoyable as it could have been. However, the wedding ceremony ensemble came off rather well and it all ended in much hilarity.

  1. The coloratura in La fille du regiment does sound like a complete piss take.