My first visit to Dorset Opera, last year, left me very impressed. If anything this year was even better, though I found one of the three operas dull. In last year’s programme, I seem to remember, we were promised an Olympically themed opera, Jesse Owens, but that didn’t materialise, nor was there any mention of it.
As usual, after ten intensive days of rehearsal, with all concerned living in Bryanston School, Dorset Opera puts on one opera the first night, another one (this year two) the second, the first on the third, and on the last day the first is a matinée. This year’s mainstay was Il Trovatore, an opera that I have never seen satisfactorily performed, despite its musical unsinkability. Sally Burgess, the great mezzo who has now turned to training and directing, showed her experience by making this as straightforward a production as possible, with a simple set alternating arches and stairs, which turned out to be versatile enough for the other two operas as well. Disaster almost struck for this last performance: the scheduled tenor and contralto succumbed to a cold, while the soprano had it but was able to sing; the baritone was involved in a family tragedy and unable to appear; so the singers who had given what they thought was their all on the previous evening had to give what they had left the next afternoon at 2 as well.
Astonishingly, they managed, though there were signs of caution to begin with. But if anything as they warmed up they seemed to grow boundless in their confidence and their urge to communicate. Gerard Quinn’s di Luna was a most striking performance, possibly the most interesting account of the role I’ve seen, making a character normally just thought of as ‘the villain’ into as rounded a figure as Verdi permits. Anne-Marie Owens, who had a bad patch some time ago, is back on full form, giving Azucena’s gutsy music thrilling power, but without vulgarity. John Hudson sang a beefy, unsparing Manrico, he appears to be one of those fortunate artists for whom singing, especially singing loudly, is the most natural way of communicating. Lynsey Docherty’s Leonora, after early tentativeness, bloomed into a warm account of her wonderful music, though as a stage presence she suffers from a surfeit of poise, and thanks to the tiresome setting in the 1960s looked as if she were in a well-bred West End drama. These characters are all demonic, driven by violent passions, which is why the opera is so great. Phillip Thomas conducted with the utmost care and brio.
The second opera was the rarity: Lord Berners’s Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, getting its UK première. I shouldn’t wonder if it were its UK dernière too, at any rate for anyone who sat through this performance. Not that it was badly staged or sung or conducted. So far as I could tell, all of those were perfectly competent, and the only titters it evoked were production touches: maids with feather dusters naughtily showing their behinds, and so on. The work was performed in English translation, with approximate, rather free-floating surtitles which were certainly required. Berners, the ‘last eccentric’, who dyed his doves and was taken up by the Sitwells, wrote in an idiom that suggests that he was eager that Les Six should expand their membership to Les Sept. The opera has no arias or formal divisions of any kind, but moves along in a way that puts one in mind of several French composers, while never achieving the least degree of memorability. It seems constantly on the verge of wit, but never gets there, which proves tiring for the audience, all of us waiting to smile or laugh, but never getting the incentive. Hard to know whether a scintillating account of the piece might lift it into being tolerable; I didn’t see how it could. At 70 minutes the jokes and the music would need to be very good, and I didn’t sense that potential.
The Virgin Mary puts in a guest appearance at the end of Le Carrosse, and it all turns solemn. She puts in a much-needed one, too, in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, Dorset Opera’s third offering, and thereby pushes this poignant piece even closer to sentimentality than one has felt it to be throughout. Excellent production that this was, that danger was avoided, and my tears were thereby jerked, without my feeling that I was letting Puccini make indecent overtures. Realised like this, with simplicity, little movement, and a passionate performance, exquisitely realised, by Julia Melinek as Angelica, I found myself moved as I haven’t been before by this fascinating score, Puccini almost abandoning set pieces for a fluid drama which does build, gently but decisively, to a blazing climax. Next year Dorset Opera aims to celebrate the two bicentenaries with La Traviata and The Flying Dutchman. Here’s hoping.