This week, a baby mammoth more than 30,000 years old materialised from the Yukon permafrost. Meanwhile, in London’s Barbican, a 180-year-old opera, dug from the long-forgotten cupboard of Naples Conservatory, was brought to life by Opera Rara. Both should be decently re-interred.
Instead, the mammoth will likely have a bright future as a refrigerated curiosity. Best, however, that Saverio Mercadante’s Il proscritto be given the decent re-burial the mammoth will be denied.
Opera Rara is a “Who ‘ya gonna call”? team of international opera revivers. They have ranged the catacombs of Europe for fifty years, defibrillating tattered scores, relics of an age when opera was as disposable as last week’s old hat 1950s black and white B movie.
The problem is that many of these operas moulder for a reason. They’re fatally flawed. Il proscritto is one such, nonsense on stilts. It was a failure at its debut in 1842 and would be a failure — a comical failure, it must be said — in a fully staged production today.
But it is a complete disaster when presented in static concert form, with starched white-tied and sequinned principals lined up as if for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, singing the hokum of librettist Salvadore Cammarano, without any possibility of dramatic interaction. A row of neutered capons would have been more engaging.
The opera is set in Scotland in the second half of the 17th century. Essentially, the plot exploits the conflicting loyalties of monarchists and Cromwellians and centres on the plight of Malvina Douglas, married to a Royalist, Georgio, who is meant to have died in a shipping incident outside Leith.
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Oops! He hasn’t. Widow Malvina immediately falls for Arturo, a leading Cromwellian, and marries him. First husband returns. Much roosterfish bravado from the guys, then Malvina commits suicide.
This is, admittedly, a brutally brief synopsis of Il proscritto, so the full version for dedicated operatic morticians among our readership is here.
The observant may already be wondering why the name Malvina does not figure among any known Scottish acquaintances. Malvina Douglas, to be precise. Do you know a Celtic Malvina?
There is a Malvina Douglas from Chicago, but she died in 2008. In Chicago. None from 17th century Edinburgh I could find. And the whole “tartanification” of the characters is reflected in a weak plot that does not attempt to get to grips with the conflicted Scottish political scene in the run-up to The Restoration of 1660.
As Mercadante was writing “reform” operas, breaking away from the popular, light Rossini, Donizetti tradition, this failure to pay any real attention to history matters. It’s a bit like arguing today that the teaching of English literature in English universities is outmoded. Fundamentals matter a lot. This opera, like so much of today’s higher education curriculum, is built on shaky foundations.
We are also graced with the intriguing presence of Giorgio Argyll, Arturo Murray, Gugliemo Ruthven and Odoardo Douglas. All weel kent faces on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Perhaps not.
Now, I know the Scottish Enlightenment forged close links between Scotland and Continental Europe, but this is going it a bit. In fact, Il proscritto is a knock-off of Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia de Lammermoor on steroids and was probably seen as such in its day. Hence oblivion.
Carlo Rizzi, the conductor and musical director of Opera Rara, is highly skilled, with huge experience and is fired up with enthusiasm for his revival. He is opening the New York Met’s autumn season with Cherubini’s Médée and is immersed in the Italian repertoire of the early/mid 19th century.
To be sure, the Britten Symphonia, under his baton, delivered a powerful performance, but in the nature of a 1970s Meat Loaf concert, simply an exhausting all-out wall of orchestral and choral sound experience, supplemented by a brass ensemble in the balcony, trying to blow the roof off.
The soloists, constantly traipsing distractingly on and off stage for their short arias, duets and ensembles, were in valiant, but ultimately doomed competition with this strange music with no dynamic other than full on. They must have craved the interval. I know I did.
Why on earth they didn’t just sit down between parts was beyond me. Maybe they needed a stiffener backstage.
Act II of Il proscritto was musically more engaging, with less blast and more nuance and the vocal range of the chorus was better exploited.
Roger Parker, the distinguished King’s College musicologist provided historical justification for “reform” opera in the programme, but undermined his case by conceding, “the operas did not take decisive root, the old, singer-centred way of doing things remained stubbornly in place.”
Heaven forfend! Opera is for singers, is it? Hear it for the singers, I say!
Mercadante wrote another opera that featured at the Opera Festival Wexford, Il bravo in 2018. That was an altogether more compelling piece of work, but perhaps the “reform” features were less noticeable in a dynamically staged version.
The cast of soloists persuaded to adorn this concert performance was prodigious, among them Ramón Vargas, Iván Ayón-Rivas, Irene Roberts, Elisabeth Deshong and Sally Matthews. Chained to their music stands, they were denied the opportunity to deploy their acknowledged stagecraft. Greyhounds on leashes.
Opera Rara should perhaps consider a “reform” of its own. Moving to semi-staged performances, just as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was innovatively — and hugely successfully — staged by English National Opera.
Static concert performances undermine the excellent work of Rizzi and his Opera Rara team. If opera is worth reviving, unleash the drama.
And another thing!
Scottish Opera, celebrating its 60th anniversary, has gone “pop”! Well, popcorn at least. Entering the hallowed Glasgow, Hope Street Theatre Royal, which opened in 1976, seekers after Don Giovanni and his famed “chocolada” in the party scene, were confronted with a wall of buckets of salted and caramel popcorn varieties instead.
It was bizarre. Not a single member of the audience bought a bucket. The gunk can’t even have been fresh. Hanging around, perhaps, from some ghastly preceding, literally, pop concert.
Glasgow already has an unfair reputation for deep-fried Mars Bars and a drink made from girders that would stain your carpet — and indeed your face — bright orange.
Determined not to restrict famously bad diet to Glasgow’s housing scheme suburbs, Theatre Royal management has obviously now contrived, in the interests of levelling down, to suborn the Kelvinside and Bearsden middle class. Maybe that should be levelling up, if you come from the Garngad.
Opera goers may eat falafel salad at home, but stuffing culture down your throat in Glasgow now comes at the price of crunching corn as a side dish.
Away from the revamped foyer, this Sir Thomas Allen-directed and revived production, designed by Simon Higlett, was exceptional. Sir Thomas, acknowledged as one of the leading baritones of his era, turns out to have a dab hand for direction, too.
All those years at the beck and call of mad directors has given him rare practical insight into what singers can, and cannot, do. The result was one of the most engaging Don Giovannis I have seen. And there have been many.
Every nuanced interaction of the characters — asides, winks, confidences shared with the audience — was perfectly directed. Often the pace of the action blurs the detail. Not so, here.
And the whole was complemented by Higlett’s set. Higlett designs for opera companies worldwide. Here he provided a traditional, uncomplicated representation of 18th century Seville, with few distractions and a layout that allowed characters to hide, run away, climb balconies, exit windows and be ravished in towers pretty convincingly.
The set creaked a bit as it was moved to and fro, but that’s a niggle. I first saw the Don in Glasgow in 1978, set in a public urinal. Higlett has made amends.
The voices were excellent, if not top notch, but I single out Pablo Bemsch, the Argentine tenor, who sang Don Ottavio, beleaguered plaything of his inamorata, Donna Anna, for special mention.
He was miserable. Hangdog in a long black wig. An inconsequential drip of a man, who hung around his turbulent fiancé with the hots for Don Giovanni, no matter what. And that’s the whole point. Don Ottavio is all these things and Bemsch portrayed him with brilliant pathos.
Right down to the last moment when, the irresistible Don having been consumed into the fiery furnace of hell at the hands of the Commendatore, Ottavio turns to Anna singing, “Now we can be married” to be summarily told to shove off and, “Perhaps ….. wait a year”.
Mozart has given Don Ottavio an aria in Act II, Dalla sua pace, in which he stands alone, singing his heart out to the audience, that his life depends on Donna Anna’s peace alone. It is one of the musically simplest, most moving arias ever written. Bemsch was spot on. He did not grandstand, which is tempting. Worth hazarding the towering popcorn for those five minutes only.
I loved being back in the Theatre Royal, with the same crowd — now, sadly, somewhat depleted — with whom I started going to opera 40 odd years ago.
Congratulations to Scottish Opera for surviving for 60 years in a harshening economic climate, and still packing the emotive punch to make the tears flow now, as they did then.