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Grand Opera Gala

by on 30 September 2021

Wake the Soul

Grand Opera Gala

Instant Opera, Richmond Theatre until 25th September    

Review by Mark Aspen

“To wake the soul with tender works of art”.  Alexander Pope’s words, inscribed over the proscenium arch at Richmond Theatre, could not ring more true as the theatre reopened to the public once more after 555 dark days of the pandemic.  As its doors flung open, there was a general feeling of elation, not only from the arriving audience, but from everyone in the theatre.  “One of the most completely preserved Frank Matcham theatres” was back.  In the 122 years and 8 days since its doors first opened, nothing, including two World Wars, had forced its closure for so long.

So it was with a great sense of occasion, and a palpable excitement, that the audience took its seats for Instant Opera’s Grand Opera Gala.   For a theatre so firmly grounded in the local psyche, it was appropriate that the honour of being the first production back on the baize went to an opera company that has flourished since it was founded just under five years ago, decamping from its usual local home at Normansfield Theatre in Teddington.

Wham!  The dynamic start was Arthur Sullivan’s lively overture to HMS Pinafore.  The Instant Opera Orchestra was supplemented by additional players from The Thames Youth Orchestra and The Richmond Orchestra, to form an effective and impressive orchestra in the recreated pit stalls of the theatre, under the baton of Olive Till.  Till’s youthful appearance belies a wide experience and his measured coordination of orchestra and soloists, with their strong foundation of the Instant Opera Chorus, demonstrated his skill.  Here though is a musician who has accompanied no less than Sir Thomas Allen at The Garden.  From the stalls it was obvious that the chorus and the orchestra were enjoying the evening, as were an appreciative audience.  In age and in experience of the opera, the audience was as varied as the programme.  A ten-year old girl near us in the stalls was enthralled.

Less than half of the twenty items in the programme could accurately be described as grand opera (i.e. of the romantic period), the rest being opera of the classical period or operetta.  However, the Gala certainly was grand in several senses, but the programme provided plenty of versatility for orchestra and singers to demonstrate their skills.

Ilona Domnich

Undoubtedly within the grand opera designation is the prolific output of Giuseppe Verdi.  The Gala’s homage to Verdi was La Traviata, in four excerpts throughout the evening, all of which featured St Petersburg-born soprano lirico, Ilona Domnich, as the society courtesan Violetta Valéry, the fallen woman (la traviata) of the title.  Of her two solo arias, Sempre libera is the widest ranging emotionally and demonstrates not only the singer’s vocal range but her acting ability.   From È strano! In core scolpiti ho quegli accenti!  (It’s strange: in my heart are engraved those words), from falling in love to Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare … sentieri del piacer (Always to follow … paths of pleasure), to deciding to stick with her old hedonistic life.  Traditionally, sopranos like to add in some extra super-high notes, and Domnich was no exception, hitting the end phrasing with great power.  The second solo aria Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti… (Farewell, beautiful, happy dreams … ), when Violetta regrets that decision as she lies dying and praying for God’s forgiveness, was equally impressive, as again was the acting.   Verdi’s ensemble sections are always striking and the best known from La Traviata is the brindisi drinking song.  Instant Opera though went for the Act II finale when Germont, father of Alfredo the abandoned lover, arrives and upbraids his son.  Germont’s words Di sprezzo degno … (He is worthy of contempt …) start a musically layered section as each character adds to the mixed emotions and misunderstandings, the chorus then joining to give an expansive upwelling of feelings, which  gives a wonderful expression for interweaving voices.  Parigi, caro the duet between Violetta and Alfredo, her lover, in the final act, though gave the best vocal interaction as Violetta echoes her Alfredo’s plea Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo … (From Paris let us go away…) to lead a better life together.   Ilona Domnich and tenor Anando Mukerjee brought out all the emotional depth implied in Alfredo’s never to be realised wish in this touching duet.

Ilona Domnich and Anando Mukerjee perform Parigi, caro
Anando Mukerjee

Anando Mukerjee, who was born in Patna, has earnt international renown performing in many prestigious venues.  He provided quite a few highlights of the Grand Opera Gala.  With his resplendent stage presence, yet sense of ease, the audience readily warmed to his personality.  (And he looked jolly smart, his dinner suit sporting a shawl-collared waistcoat and Albert.)   His lyrical tenor has a softness across his wide range with a velvety timbre.  Mukerjee made his mark strongly across the grand opera pieces but was outstanding as Don José, the hapless corporal of the guard in Bizet’s Carmen.     The Flower Song, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée … (The flower that you threw to me …), is José’s love song to Carmen, in which he tells her that this token has sustained him during his time in prison following his court-marshal for allowing her to escape from custody.  Parenthesised between solo oboe and timpani, it is musically elegant, but this is a demanding aria, requiring a high B flat to be understated in its delivery.  Mukerjee achieved this effortlessly.  His acting throughout the aria, clutching the flower, was superb, and drew enthusiastic and prolonged applause from the audience. 

Anna Loveday

Carmen is of course one of the most widely popular operas, with memorable music (dare I say ear-worm tunes), and the title role is a gift for a good mezzo.  Enter Anna Loveday, to step into the clicking shoes of the firecracker free-spirted gypsy girl, Carmen.  Her aria is the one that leads to José’s court-marshal and incarceration.  She so enthrals him with the Seguidilla, a triple-time flamenco-like folkdance, that he unties her bonds and allows her to escape.   Les vrais plaisirs sont à deux, she sings (true pleasures are for two) and he’s hooked.  Loveday seemed a little nervous at first: I thought it was being back on stage after so long, but no, it was part of the act as Carmen flirts and then builds up the come-on.  Then Loveday punched in all the fire and vitality of the Andalusian minx. 

Anna Loveday also performed two, very different, duets with equally versatile soprano Camilla Jeppeson, both strongly supported by the Instant Opera Chorus.  The Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, The Tales of Hoffmann, another well-known set-piece.   The harp and flute tease us into the melody before Nicklausse (Loveday) and Giulietta (Jeppson) sing of their Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (beautiful night, o night of love).  Giulietta is a Venetian courtesan, and they are in a gondola (a barcarola is the traditional song format of the Venetian gondoliers).   Nicklausse is the disguised poetic muse of the real life E. T. A. Hoffmann, writer of The Tales of Hoffmann (and of The Nutcracker).  Loveday and Jeppeson certainly floated the boat for me and for the audience, depicting the pure whimsy of this piece.  In contrast the duet Trionfi Amore (the triumph of Love) from Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, whilst about love takes the concept even further, here Orpheus having rescued his wife Eurydice from death by the strength of their love.  This final piece of the opera brings Amore, the personification of love, (Elizabeth Pow) into a trio of voices to be grandly reinforced by the chorus.   Instant Opera’s performance of this piece was indeed a triumph.  Gluck originally wrote the Orpheus role for a castrato, but opera had moved out of the Baroque era and castratos were no longer in fashion.  Gluck is definitely not the earliest opera composer still performed, as was stated in the introduction to the piece.  Claudio Monteverdi, the “father of opera”, was composing his own Orfeo over a century and a half before Gluck’s. 

Camilla Jeppeson

Jeppeson is currently preparing for the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor and we were treated to the combination of Camilla Jeppeson and Anando Mukerjee in three pieces from Gaetano Donizetti’s Italian-Scottish fusion, based very loosely on Sir Walter Scott’s novel. 

Edgardo is swearing revenge for the usurpation of his Ravenswood estates by Enrico the Lord of Lammermoor, the brother of Lucia, with whom he is in love.  As he goes into exile he swears revenge sulla tomba che rinserra … (over the tomb that holds …) … his parents’ remains, but she nevertheless swears that she will marry him and that promise ever verranno a te sull’aure (will carry to you on the breeze).   In these two linked arias, Mukerjee’s delivery was powerful but unforced, beautifully complementing the coloratura of Jepperson’s ardent expression.  Verranno a te is accompanied by ranks of pizzicato strings, reminiscent of raindrops and teardrops.    This is quite prescient as it all goes tragically wrong and the opera ends with Edgardo drawing a dagger on himself to join his beloved Lucia in death, fra poco a me ricovero darà negletto avello… (soon this neglected tomb will give me refuge), another aria to demonstrate Mukerjee’s skill. 

These examples show the talents of only three of the eight featured soloists in the Grand Opera Gala.  Within a different register, German bass Tobias Odenwald gave a remarkable portrayal of the aging Prince Gremin in Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.  Tatyana, whom Onegin desires but has mistreated, is now the aristocratic wife of the elderly general, Prince Gremin.  Gremin only has the one aria, but it is a compelling testimony to love.  Personally I think it is one of the best arias in the opera: it is indeed a virtuoso piece.   Odenwald’s demeanour speaks of Gremlin’s pride in his young wife, while his richly smooth bass does full justice to the aria. 

Camilla Jeppson performs Vado ma dove

An interesting curio was included in the programme, an aria, Vado ma dove (But where am I going) from Il burbero di buon cuore (The good hearted killjoy) a comic opera by “The Valencian Mozart”, Vicente Martín y Soler, sung by Camilla Jeppeson.  The libretto is by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was working at the same time with Mozart and Antonio Salieri, while all three composers were in Vienna. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is himself well represented in the Grand Opera Gala, with the well-loved patter duet between Papagano and Papagana in Die Zauberflöte when they first meet , Pa–Pa–Papagena!  I’s love at first sight: nun so sei mein liebes Weibchen (now be my dear little wife).   Brazilian baritone, Andrè Andrade and soprano lirico Elizabeth Pow really cut a dash and had great fun with Mozart’s subversive Singspiel.  In a far more serious vein, the trio at the statue of the murdered Commendatore (Ian Henderson) in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni provided a vehicle for Anglo-Chinese baritone Franco Kong as Don Giovanni and Tobias Odenwald as Leporello, his manservant, to portray the tension of the supernatural moment in which the statue speaks. 

Light relief was provided by a generous sprinkling of Gilbert and Sullivan throughout the programme.  Bass-baritone Ian Henderson is clearly an aficionado, and was the backbone for the G&S interludes.  In his solo piece, When the night wind howls from Ruddigore, it is a picture, rather than a statue, of a dead man, Sir Roderic Murgatroyd,who speaks.  Another cameo solo was presented by baritone Nicholas George, in the guise of a certain politician known, inter alia, for his coiffure.  It was the As someday it may happen, from The Mikado; yes, the “little-list” song.  George is the resolute Artistic Director of Instant Opera, and its founder.  Also from The Mikado, the trio piece Young man despair brought in tenor Joshua Baxter, recently seen at the prestigious Grange Festival

Joshua Baxter also featured as the tragically jealous Lensky in Eugene Onegin, with Andrè Andrade as Onegin, in the birthday ball scene at the beginning of the second act, an event that propels the plot towards its calamitous climax.  Onegin agitates the situation, while Lensky seethes and all the guests gossip about them all.  And what a wonderfully gossipy lot the Instant Opera Chorus made.  The chorus provided a supportive vocal base for the large set-piece excerpts, and often characterising the narrative of the operas.  A case in point was the Trionfi Amore from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, where the duet is built to a trio by Amore, love personified, and then the whole chorus join in the praise of love, a warm finale piece for the Gala. 

Of course mention of Orpheus fires off thoughts of the galop infernal, the famous (infamous?) Can-Can, from Jacques Offenbach’s comic operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld. So, what a great excuse for a riotous encore from Instant Opera.  Great fun was had by all.

Siting on the downstage apron in the style of a music-hall chairman was our compere for the evening, Daniel Wain, looking gorgeously louche in a dapper shawl-collared velvet smoking jacket, a ship’s decanter of Madeira at his elbow.  At his own admission Wain is thespian (in fact a pretty good actor) rather than an opera buff, so his occasional inaccuracies in his introductions can be more than forgiven by his huge enthusiasm, his well-researched opera epigrams and his own ready wit.  I rather liked his introduction of himself as a postulant “Ring-master” … “except that there was no Wagner on the programme”.   There were just enough political barbs not to alienate half the Richmond audience, but his negative use of the “B-word”  …  … bagpipes, might have upset any Scottish Nationalists in the auditorium. 

One came away with the warming feeling that Instant Opera’s Grand Opera Gala had re-launched our best-known local playhouse, The Richmond Theatre, into the calm waters of renewed normality.   As Pope would have put it, “merit wins the soul.”

Mark Aspen, September 2021

Photography by Frank Lloyd, Photo Instant Opera, Robert Piwko, MAD photography and Jon Lo

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Thank you for this review, it beautifully captures the atmosphere of what was truly a memorable evening of opera.

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