Its been a busy week for me and one that has been enriching and full of culture - for it was time for The Hackney Empire to host one of the most hardest working and best opera companies in the UK - English Touring Opera. ETO's spring 2008 tour is an exciting triple bill of three red hot opera's Donizetti's Anna Bolena - the first in a trilogy of operas he wrote about the Three Tudor Queens. Then a beautiful lyric American opera by Carlisle Floyd called Susannah based on the story of Susannah and the Elders from the Apocrypha set in the valleys of Appalachia in Tennesse and finally Mozart's drama giocoso of the man who sleeps with close to (or maybe more than) 10,000 woman and goes to hell - Don Giovanni.
I am a lover of bel-canto opera and one its greatest creations is the cabaletta (the fast paced ending to alot of the scenas you hear from the a term that means "as the horse runs" - it was Maria Callas (who was responsible for the revival of Donizetti bel-canto masterpieces like Anna Bolena) who said that an aria without a cabaletta is like sex without an orgasm! The story of Anna Bolena takes place in the waning years of Ann Boleyn's reign and after having just one child (a girl, the future Elizabeth I) and a sting of miscarriages Henry has grown tired with her and already has his sights on the next on - Jane Seymour (Giovanna in the opera). This opera beautifully directed by one of opera's most visionary directors, James Conway (General Director of English Touring Opera) conveys a sympathy for both Ann and Giovanna which culminates in a heart rending duet in the second act where Giovanna confesses to Ann that the King has seduced her. Brought up on trumped up charges - Ann is doomed to go to the block and as she awaits the final blow (from a French sword not an ax) we hear the canons of the wedding of Henry and Giovanna - Ann goes mad and (in the first of many mad scenes Donizetti wrote) she imagines its the day of her wedding to Henry and the block in front of her the altar. Simply stunning and James Conway has included as a stroke of genus the character of the young Mary Tudor (daughter of Kathrine of Aragon) who seems to always be in the room when Ann is in a suspicious situation and before Henry appears (shades of revenge by Kathrine on Ann?). There is also a wonderful tenor named Luciano Botelho as Percy who is definitely going to give Juan Diego Florez a run for his money!!!
Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is a morality tale that grew out of the McCarthy communism witch hunt error of the 1950's in America. I fell in love with this piece when I saw it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Renee Fleming and Samuel Ramey (indeed it was due to Renee Fleming that the MET decided to do this opera). It is replete with lyrical music (with lots of echos of Copland) and also heavy orchestration. In the English Touring Opera production - again directed masterfully by James Conway - soprano Donna Bateman plays Susannah Polk a young innocent girl in a very close knit Tennessee Community in Appalchia who is free spirited and longs, perhaps like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, longs to escape - in he first show piece aria - A'int it a Pretty Night - she dreams of going where the "folk speak nice" - but Susannah gets into trouble when she bathes in the river where next day the baptisms are going to occur - for to the town as come the preacher Olin Blitch (played with power by one of the best bass baritone's we have in the UK - Andrew Slater) who is going to save the sinful of the community. And not only does Susannah bath naked in the pond but several of the town elders she her and of course lust after her. She is banned from the community and becomes a victim to Olin Blitch who volunteers to save her soul and in the end falls prey to his own temptation (it reminded me of that American evangelist Jim Baker with his long suffering wife Tammy Faye and is very public affair with Jessica Hahn).
The third production was Mozart's Don Giovanni in a really interesting production by first timer to opera Jonathan Munby (who has directed for the RSC). The singing is fantastic and all three of the Don's women (Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina) are in top form and the production is set in 1930's Fascist Spain with the Don has a fascist soldier (I'm never quite sure who these characters are, what their backgrounds are, etc). Special mention for the tenor Eyolfur Eyolfsson as Don Ottavio the poor simp who follows Donna Anna around waiting for her to come around and gets to sing some of the most beautiful tenor aria's Mozart wrote.
English Touring Opera is one of the most hardest working opera companies in the UK - of very little resource they put these shows together and travel throughout the UK - this tour goes to Sheffield, Cheltenham, Exeter, Truro, Poole, Bexhill, Crawley, Wolverhampton, Buxton, Cambridge, Snape, Warwick, Durham, Durham and Perth - with shows are better than you'd see at some of the top opera house in the world. Bravo English Touring Opera long may you tour.
So now its back to Old Norse and my pile of Tolkien books blogging soon on Glyer's Company they Keep about the Inklings which I really enjoyed!!!