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Soft Serenity and Powerful Passion: French Opera

by on 30 January 2017

French Opera

Opera Foundry at Ormond Road, Richmond, Saturday 28th January 

Review by William Vine
One of the most exciting,  but surprisingly unheralded, events in the recent musical calendar, French Opera, was a cornucopia brimful with operatic delights.   From familiar favourite pieces to exciting discoveries, scenes from operas by late 19th Century French composers were beautifully presented, works embracing soft serenity and powerful passion.

Opera Foundry is described as a Surrey based opera company aiming to develop the talents of individual opera performers through coaching and performance opportunities – a somewhat prosaic statement which gives perhaps the misleading impression that we are here to support fledgling talent, whereas what we in fact had was an evening of mature performance of the highest calibre.  All the artistes had indeed had a great range of experience, as the detailed and informative programme revealed.
The artistic and musical director Richard Cartmale is a versatile musician – former ENO tenor, conductor, coach and pianist with extensive experience in many fields.  He also narrated the evening in an engaging manner, with appropriate synopses where required, though apologising for the technical hitch which deprived us of the intended surtitles.  (But to my mind the emotional clarity of the singing rendered these unnecessary.)
The programme of familiar and lesser known excerpts, from the more frivolous and sentimental to the sombre and tragic, produced a spellbinding evening of bravura performances by mainly young artistes, who – although not (as yet) well-known –  deserve to look forward to a glittering future at the top of their profession.
First mention should go to the prodigiously talented young pianist Sarah Quantrell, who accompanied almost every item (with occasional assistance from fellow pianist and organist Anthony Merryweather).  In a demanding repertoire she succeeded in conveying on the keyboard the colour and texture of a full symphony orchestra, ranging from the gentlest gossamer-like accompaniment to the thunderous dynamic of brass and percussion.  Although this must have been a very taxing undertaking, she took it all very much in her stride.
In the uplifting opening number – the church scene from Faust –  Marguerite’s sweet soprano voice (Corinne Hart) soars heavenward in a spiritual conflict with the devil  Mephistopheles,  sung by the resonant bass of David Banbury, and his chorus of demons, comprising the remainder of the company, who emerged from the front row of the audience (a parable here?).  Marguerite, who collapses insensible on the floor, perhaps did not look quite terrified enough, and we longed for the scene to continue to the sublime  transcendent climax where the Marguerite’s soul ultimately finds salvation.
We were then treated by contrast to a joyous effervescent rendering of the flirtatious gavotte from Massenet’s Manon, performed with an impressive range of colour, dynamics and physical expression by the soprano Susanna MacRae, animating her performance with her sprightly sylph-like movements.  With her thrilling high notes, clarity and freshness this was definitely one of the highlights of the evening.
Richard Johnson gave a very dignified performance of Des Grieux’s aria from the same opera.  With his strong bright tenor voice he sang with feeling, a little restrained perhaps in movement but nonetheless very emotional.
Then came the well-known Card Trio from Carmen,  performed with much glee and frivolity by  Carmen’s two luckier companions as a counterpoint to her own tragic prophecy.    The singers were Urszula Bock, Liezel McCulloch and Diana North.
There followed a series of remarkable solo performances.
Derek S Henderson is the deepest of bass baritones, singing a little known aria from Halévy’s La Juive, in the thrilling resonant rich tones which we associate with Russia, although he is in fact a Panamanian by birth.  In this rather grim anti-Semitic story, Rachel, the Jewess of the title, is condemned to death by Count Brogni, who in this aria offers to spare her if her father Eléazar will accept Christianity.  When he refuses, Rachel is thrown into a vat of boiling oil (a scene we were mercifully spared!).   [It may be noted that the title, the Jewess, refers to Rachel and not Eléazar as the programme mistakenly tells us.]
The baritone Ian Helm and tenor Michael Connolly are two more artistes of astounding power and intensity.  The lyrically passionate aria from Massenet’s little-known opera Hérodiade – his version of the Salome story – performed by Ian Helm, conveys in no uncertain terms Herod’s erotic lust for Salome, his wife’s daughter.
Meyerbeer’s rarely performed five-act epic L’Africaine deals with fictitious events in the life of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and as we were told has not much to do with Africa.  In the tenor aria (performed with spine-chilling effect by Matthew Connolly) Da Gama speaks of his amazement at the wonders of the New World island which he claims for Portugal.  For me perhaps a little declamatory rather than expressive of wonderment,  but a bravura performance by a thrilling high tenor voice which provided another of the evening’s great highlights.
By contrast, in between these powerful set pieces was the duet, sung by Louise Herrington and Richard Johnson, from Spontini’s opera La Vestale, expressive of illicit love between a Vestal priestess Giulia and the war hero Licinio; a new discovery, I suspect, for most of the audience, and a chance to hear some more lovely music sung with deep emotion.  (Despite his Italian name, the composer always lived in France and wrote French opera.)  This was followed by the bel canto aria from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, sung with such feeling by Giovanni Tagliarini.
The first half ended with an ensemble piece from Act 4 of Massenet’s Don Quichotte.  In this scene the knight returns to Dulcinée a stolen necklace which he has retrieved from bandits, but when he offers her his hand he is cruelly repulsed, and is vigorously defended by the faithful Sancho Panza (David Banbury).  All the seven singers acted and performed to great effect – Derek S Henderson singing so movingly as Don Quichotte and Annette Dumville a convincing and uncaring Dulcinée – and special mention must be made here of Dulcinée’s friends who make fun of the old man, who were acting so sneeringly in the background even when not singing.
The second half opened with the glorious trio from Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann, with such exciting melodies and again so well acted and sung by Annette Dumville, Corinne Hart and Derek S Henderson.
One of the most delightful numbers was the charming flower duet from Lakmé by Delibes, sung here by Angela Voyajolu and Liezel McCulloch, in which the radiant ethereal voices seemed to hang, glistening like dew, in the still air:  another wonderful highlight in this treasure trove of operatic pearls.
The solemn doom-laden aria from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, sung by Louise Herrington, was followed by the luscious tones of Bizet’s duet from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, in a vibrant rendering by Ian Helm and Richard Johnson.
And then came the grand climax of this generous programme , the entire third act of Massenet’s Werther, 40 minutes of searing emotional intensity which, in spite of length, held the audience mesmerised, and eager for more, till the very last note.  Matthew Connolly as Werther sang and acted the love-struck young poet with passion and conviction.  Urszula Bock was equally expressive   as Charlotte, torn by the realisation of her love for Werther and respect for her husband Albert.   Angela Voyajolu as Sophie and Ian Helm as Albert both added to the intense theatricality of this wonderful finale.
Opera Foundry is planning to present a full-length staged production of this opera sometime in the future, which will certainly be something to look forward to.
The singers throughout showed palpable enjoyment in communicating with the audience,  and this was reflected in the interval when, instead of retiring  to a “green room”,  they mingled and chatted with the audience.  As keen opera-goers my companion and I were both blown away by the beauty of these voices and the freshness and excitement which they brought to all their roles.
With performances like these on our doorstep why go to Covent Garden?  The only things lacking being the orchestra – although the virtuosity of the pianist largely compensated  for this – and of course the scenery.  It is a shame that this extraordinary event had such a thin audience, which I can only ascribe to a lack of publicity.  Indeed Opera Foundry has performed in Richmond before without my being aware of the company, although an avid concert-goer myself.  They tell me that they have appeared  to sell-out audiences in Guildford but Richmond for some reason has yet to get the message.  Let us hope that this situation will be remedied for their next concert in this borough on 1st July, when they will be giving a programme of German opera.  All local opera lovers should most definitely cancel all other engagements  for that evening – with artistes of this quality they should have people queuing  at the doors!

William Vine

January 2017

From → Opera, Reviews

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