L’homme arme (Armed Man!)

With two outings for the extremely popular The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins at Sheffield Cathedral almost upon us, it seems a good idea to expound on a far from new phenomena.

Should you know it or not, The Armed Man is actually over 600 years-old!

It is a secular tune and one-verse French song, L’ homme armé, by whom and written for what purpose being lost in the mists of time. Theories as to its origin/s have abounded.

Having apparently emerged from nowhere in early Renaissance days, i.e. the 1400s, it was hugely popular for over 200 years.

More precisely, the tune was, the song’s words:

The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared

always having being of seemingly secondary importance.

Given the content of the text it may come as something of surprise to some that the tune was extraordinarily popular as the basis with composers for settings of the Latin Mass.

It was common practice to use secular tunes and melodies as the basis for Mass settings. The tune or melody formed a fixed point, known as the Cantus Firmus, from which the composer’s polyphonic imagination took flight.

The melody, the cantus firmus of L’homme armé, overflowed with contrapuntal possibilities which lead to ‘Armed Man’ Masses appearing left, right and centre in the 16th century.

Many were penned by Franco-Flemish composers, some producing two settings. Josquin, for instance, who came up with two of the best known ‘Armed Man’ Masses.

But it was not an exclusively Gallic phenomena. A well-known contemporary Italian chap, Palestrina, was also inspired to compose two settings, for instance.

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, to give the Karl Jenkins anti-war work its full title, can be said to be a renewal of six-hundred year tradition, but using a resolutely different musical language and wholly different concept in presentation.

In case you hadn’t noticed it before amongst the goings on in the work, Jenkins does quote the L’homme armé song in the first and last movements of the piece.

Both performances at Sheffield Cathedral have been prompted by 2018 being the 100th anniversary of the end the First World War in November.

The first performance is imminent, this Saturday, the 27th of October at 7.15pm and is from the Waldershelf Singers in a rare performance with brass band – Stannington Brass Band, no less and its music director Derek Renshaw.
The concert also features music and verse from the First World War period.

On the 17th of November the Sheffield Bach Choir will be giving voice to the Jenkins work under the direction of its distinguished music director Simon Lindley with the excellent National Festival Orchestra in attendance.

This concert, ‘Lest We Forget’, also takes in Elgar’s three-movement The Spirit of England, written during WW1 and Mark Blatchly’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s WW1 poem For the Fallen which also crops up in the Elgar work.


Birth of a Cello Concerto

Millions of concertgoers, not to mention a few thousand-or-so cellists, have every reason to be eternally grateful the American operetta and light opera king Victor Herbert.

But for him, Dvořák would not have written his popular Cello Concerto in B minor which features in the opening concert of the 2018-2019 Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 5th of October.

No-one, except Dvořák himself, would have been surprised that he completed the concerto in early 1895, his last year as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York!

With a successful violin concerto and piano concerto to his name, he long resisted writing a cello concerto, despite much petitioning – he did actually write one with piano accompaniment some 30 years earlier.

He couldn’t hear the cello in a solo capacity – fine orchestral instrument, entirely deficient for a solo concerto. Josef Michl, a student of Dvořák, said the composer “was fond of the middle register, but complained about a nasal high register and a mumbling bass.”

So what caused the late-in-life change of tune?

The answer is hearing Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No 2, it is said, at least twice when the eventual composer of such immortal lighter classics as Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland premiered it in 1894 at the National Conservatory of Music where he taught.

Herbert, Irish-born (1859), German-raised, American-domiciled (from 1886), was a celebrated cellist and conductor, along with being a highly prolific and successful composer.

The bulk of what might be called his ‘classical music output’ dates from before 1890 and, on the strength of his Second Cello Concerto, is not insignificant.

Stylistically, a million miles away from Naughty Marietta, its general outlook is reflective with much introspection, mostly confined to the central movement in Dvořák’s concerto and vastly superior in imagination and treatment.

An educated guess would be that it was this element of Herbert’s concerto that perhaps appealed to Dvořák and inspired the consummate masterpiece that is his Cello Concerto.

The soloist with the Hallé on the 5th of October is Laura van der Heijden, winner of the 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition who is carving out an impressive career her herself.

Despite her name, she is British, born in Sussex to a Dutch father and Swiss mother!

Live from the New York Met!

Verdi’s Aida lifts the curtain on a new series of ten live relays in high definition of Saturday afternoon matinee performances from the New York Metropolitan Opera.

However, do not mark any of the following performance dates in diaries as being at Cineworld Sheffield as usual. The cinema chain, nationally, has pulled out of transmitting MET Opera screenings!

It leaves the one, ‘newish’ Sheffield venue where they can seen, the far less vast spaces of the Curzon on George Street, formally a bank, in the city centre.

The MET’s 2018-19 season in New York opens (24/9) with Saint-Saëns’ not overly exposed masterpiece Samson et Dalila from a ‘dream team’ of Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna, Sir Mark Elder conducting, which is the second of the live relays on the 20th of October.

Aida, a fortnight earlier on the 6th of October, finds she-who-can-do-no-wrong, Anna Netrebko in the title role of an opera that has been performed nearly 1,200 times at the New York Met since 1886, six years after the opera house was founded.

Amneris is sung by the highly rated young Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili and Aleksandrs Antonenko, a much travelled Latvian tenor who gets round the world’s major opera stages, is Radamès.

Much more of a household name among present-day tenors, Jonas Kaufmann, straps on six-shooters as Dick Johnson on the 27th of October for Puccini’s ‘wild west’ opera La Fanciulla del West, commissioned and premiered by the MET in 1910.

Highly regarded Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is the ‘fanciulla‘ (girl) – a saloon keeper! – and the production, a revival, is by Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the famous tenor Mario and a celebrated Dick Johnson in the 1950s.

After a fairly spectacular and busy October the next offering on the 10th of November is much more recent MET commission, American composer Nico Muhly’s realisation of Winston Graham’s novel Marnie which Alfred Hitchcock turned into a film classic.

It premiered at English National Opera last autumn, no doubt accounting for quite a few Brits supporting American mezzo-soprano Isobel Leonard in the eponymous title role, including baritone Christopher Maltman, countertenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Janis Kelly.

Substantially more familiar before the end of the year, musically at least, is Verdi’s La Traviata on the 15th of December with another ‘dream team’ of Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez.

Early 2019, the 12th of January, sees Anna Netrebko back singing the title role in Cilea’s fabulous Adriana Lecouvreur – if you like Puccini, you will love it! – and she is again at loggerheads with Anita Rachvelishvili as a rival in love, this time playing a French princess.

After wowing audiences in her debut performances of Bizet’s Carmen last season, Clémentine Margaine is back with an encore performance of the 2nd of February.

The Don José for the live relay remains to confirmed as do singers for Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (2nd of March); Wagner’s Die Walküre (30th of March); and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (11th of May).

All performances begin at 5.55pm, except the Wagner: 4pm; and the Poulenc: 5pm, and all carry English subtitles.

*It may be worth having a look at the Curzon’s website as a fair sprinkling of Royal Opera House relays are also on offer: http://www.curzoncinemas.com/sheffield

Music in the Round – Autumn 2018

Angela Hewitt and Rachel Podger are the standout names in Music in the Round’s autumn season of concerts in Sheffield which get underway with a ‘Bach Walk’ on the 16fh of September.

The much-celebrated pianist (13th October) offers music she is world-renowned for performing, that of Bach and it is substantial: Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in the Crucible Studio.

The no-less illustrious Rachel Podger is across the road at Upper Chapel later in the year (6th December) with the distinguished, veteran York-based harpsichordist Peter Seymour and, naturally, a programme of Baroque violin music.

It takes in four works by Bach, two sonatas book-ending proceedings: in C minor BWV1017, and in G BWV1019 with, in between, Bach’s Cello Suite No 2 BWV1008 (transposed) and French Suite No 2 BWV813; plus, Handel’s Sonata in D and Vivaldi’s Sonata Op 2 No 12.

The season opener, the Bach Walk, is a repeat of a previous MitR event prompted by the the 250-mile walk the young Bach made on foot in 1705 to hear the revered composer Buxtehude playing the organ.

You are not being asked to walk that distance, just a mere five miles at the most between Edensor and Beeley on the Chatsworth Estate with some attractive music played by Ensemble 360’s Benjamin Nabarro and Gemma Rosefield to keep you going.

The jaunt sets off after Biber’s Passacaglia for violin at St Peter’s Church, Edensor, eventually arriving in Beeley where Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 at St Anne’s Church prepares trekkers for a return journey to Edensor by a different route.

A refreshment break over, it is then back into St Peter’s Church for Bach’s Violin Partita No 3, Britten’s Cello Suite No 3, Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No 2 and a selection from Bach’s Two-part Inventions.

A limited number of tickets will be available for this concert if the preceding stroll round the Chatsworth Estate has no appeal.

Venues in MitR’s autumn season are, in fact, somewhat spread out geographically for some reason.

The first of two concerts in season as part MitR’s ongoing World of Strings concert strand (Rachel Podger has the second) from the Ligeti Quartet, outstanding exponents of contemporary string quartet repertoire, is at The Leadmill (31st October).

So this is where you need to be to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains and George Crumb’s Black Angel, plus less familiar works by John Adams, John Zorn and Tanya Tagaq.

Two lunchtime concerts from MitR’s resident musicians, the world-class Ensemble 360, finds members of the group at St Andrew’s UR Church, near the top of Upper Hanover Street (27th September), and Sheffield University’s Firth Hall (6th November).

Kodály’s Serenade Op 12 for two violins and viola and Dvořák’s Terzetto in C Op 74 for the same instruments can be heard at the first, Schumann’s Violin Sonata and Brahms’ Horn Trio at the second.

Much nearer to home (11th December), Ensemble 360 will be playing early works by Mahler – the single movement Piano Quartet in A minor; Josef Suk (Dvořák’s future father-in-law) – Piano Quartet Op 1; and Brahms – Piano Quartet No 2, at Upper Chapel.

There is more Brahms when the ensemble performs on home-ground, the Crucible Studio (1st December), his String Quartet Op 51 No 1 which precedes a new work for piano quintet by Laurence Osborn commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Completing the concert, Korngold’s largely exuberant Piano Quintet Op 15, written nearly a decade and half before Hollywood came calling, often leaves you wondering where he would have gone had it not.

Also in the Studio, the visiting Doric String Quartet (16th November), which has come up with a highly acclaimed recording of the Korngold (with Kathryn Stott) in recent times, is on more familiar ground with Haydn’s Op 33 No 1, Bartók’s No 5 and Beethoven’s Op 131.

Meanwhile, the Leonore Piano Trio reach the sixth concert of eight taking in the complete Beethoven piano trios, violin and cello sonatas (13th November) with the Cello Sonata Op 5 No 2, Variations for Piano Trio Op 44, Violin Sonata Op 24 Spring and Trio Op 11.

The season’s collaborative concert with Sheffield Jazz (12th October) brings the Jean Toussaint All-Star Sextet to town and, in association with the University of Sheffield Concert Season, the popular world music ensemble Rafiki Jazz will be ‘Up Close!’ on the Crucible’s main stage (5th November).

Further details, including start times and ticket prices (were you aware that under 35s can see many of the concerts for £5?) at www.musicintheround.co.uk

Katherine Broderick/ Ashley Riches with Simon Lepper – review

Anyone going to the lunchtime concert on the 18th of July in the Pavilion Arts Centre as part of the Buxton International Festival to hear, and see the excellent Kathryn Rudge will have been disappointed as she had “been forced to withdraw for personal reasons.”

Katherine Broderick was no mean replacement in terms of reputation; in fact, could be termed ‘super sub’ in sporting parlance. Be that as it may, there was the suggestion it had all happened at the last minute.

Very little of the originally scheduled programme remained, only one the six advertised Richard Strauss songs, reduced to four: Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day), and Finzi’s Shakespearean song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, extremely well sung by Ashley Riches with minimal histrionics.

To say the least, a highly animated singer, his account of Job’s Curse in one of three Britten transcriptions of Purcell sounded rather forceful.

The other two came over better, Katherine Broderick calming him down with Music For a While, before joining forces for Sound the Trumpet. Shortly after the soprano had the opportunity to show off her Wagnerian-proportioned voice with Strauss’s Zueignung (Devotion).

Proceedings were completed with seven of Britten’s folk song arrangements: The Plough Boy, O Waly, Waly, The Foggy, Foggy Dew, The Lincolnshire Poacher, the less familiar The Trees They Grow so High, There’s None to Soothe and the little known duet, The Deaf Woman’s Courtship.

Simon Lepper, it almost goes without saying, was an impeccable partner at the piano.


Tisbe – review, Buxton

Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello is hardly a household name among Baroque composers; in fact, a vast majority of people will have even remotely heard of him, let alone an opera by him.

Adrian Chandler’s first-rate period instrument Baroque ensemble La Serenissima is offering an opportunity to rectify the latter situation with a semi-staged concert performance of the opera, Tisbe, as part of the Buxton International Festival.

Brescianello was born in Bologna around 1690 and died in Stuttgart in 1758. Next to nothing is known about him before 1715 when he moved to Stuttgart and began playing violin in the court orchestra there.

A year later, he became court music director and completed what would appear to be his only opera, La Tisbe – seemingly, he penned a fair amount of instrumental music – in early 1718.

Although rarely heard, it is said to be of high quality and violinist Chandler, an Italian Baroque specialist, goes as far as to describe Tisbe as “a candidate for the finest Baroque opera ever.”

Monteverdi and Handel, for a start, would have something to say about that!

Nevertheless, you can appreciate where he is coming from. There is much fine music and a whole string of quality arias conveying all sorts of mood and emotion (within the confines of music development of the time), and you are rarely aware of the limited amount of linking recitative, unlike in most Baroque opera.

Brescianello’s ‘opera pastorale’ is the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to an already extant libretto by Pier Jacopo Martello who also hailed from Bologna, although there is no evidence to suggest that they knew each other.

Two outstanding performances grace La Serenissima’s concert version, the Alceste of Morgan Pearse, a superb bass-baritone, and a no less fine tenor, Robert Murray as Piramo who turns in a riveting account of his lengthy scene at the beginning of act three.

Tisbe herself, surprisingly, rarely gets music of the same inspired level to sing but what she does have is expertly and beautifully delivered by soprano Julia Doyle.

Commenting on the music of the shepherdess Licori is barely possible as Hilary Summers, an excellent contralto, was stricken with a throat infection. With what voice was at her disposable, however, she still managed an engaging performance.

The eight-member chorus renders what little it has to do without fuss, stage director Mark Burns (not averse to some harmless humour) coming up with an ingenious way to employ the octet in one of its many stretches of vocal inactivity.

Adrian Chandler and harpsichordist Robert Howarth are joint music directors and cellist Vladimir Waltham cries out for mention for his contributions to the proceedings

Further performance: 17th of July

The Daughter of the Regiment – review

Michael Tipler reviews the joint Opera della Luna/ Buxton International Festival production of Donizetti’s opera 

La Fille Du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) was the comic opera with which, in 1840, Donizetti began his domination of the opera scene in 19th century Paris – generally considered the ‘artistic capital of the western world’— after successes in Italy with Anna Bolena (1830) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).

In light romantic/comic vein, it concerns Marie, a tomboyish young woman found abandoned as a baby and adopted by a regiment of soldiers, all of whom she regards affectionately as her ‘fathers.’ She has just been rescued from a dangerous situation (and had her romantic feelings stirred in the process) by Tonio, a stranger regarded at first with suspicion and hostility, but later welcomed into the ranks of the regiment so that Marie, whose feelings they fondly respect, can marry one of their own.

It becomes clear that Marie is, in fact, the product of a scandalous liaison between her natural father, an adventurer now deceased, and a young female member of the socially elite Berkenfield family. On discovering Marie’s whereabouts, her Aunt (nursing a secret of her own) reclaims the foundling, intending to smooth over her rough edges and make her fit to restore the family fortunes by marrying the son of her wealthy friend the Duchess of Crackenthorpe.

Musically, it is appropriately lightweight, with soldierly chorus numbers and sentimental ballads for the heroine, who also delivers her version of the regimental anthem. But the best-known aria is the tenor’s “Ah, mes amis….pour mon ame,” giddy with new-found love, and loaded with a notoriously demanding string of nine high C’s. This is the number that opera buffs will be waiting for.

Opera buffs, be warned! Purists, beware! This is an Opera della Luna production!

Sung in English—of a sort—the concept and the script are by company founder and Director Jeff Clarke. Aficionados of the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (now relocated to Harrogate), which for twenty years followed the Opera Festival into Buxton Opera House, will be aware of Opera della Luna’s way with G&S operettas: a disregard for the traditions and conventions of D’Oyly Carte, and a relish of modern salty suggestiveness, while maintaining affection for the original and respecting Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s wit. Jeff Clarke does not hold back from a dash of vulgarity in the language, a dose of slapstick in the comedy, even a passing suggestion of ‘queer camp’ and gender-bending cross-dressing. And so it is here with Donizetti!

Do not expect a full opera orchestra and chorus. Female choristers are dispensed with altogether and the males majorly reduced in number, though the few voices deliver their chorus work strongly. Do not expect Frenchness, or anything military. This Regiment is a cohort of Harley-riding ageing hairy bikers with their own code of Freedom and Honour, who camp out in the central desert of California with the Berkenfield mansion perched in the mountains above. Their leader retains his original name, Sulpice; his six gang members are dubbed Tulip, Beef, Tiny, Crispy, Rabbit and Lump. Californian drawl pervades the air, and Marie has learned to spit and raise a one-fingered salute if provoked.

While clearly enjoying herself in the character and throwing herself enthusiastically into the stage business, Elin Pritchard delivers Marie’s music with great accomplishment, a range of emotion, and full, sweet tone. As Tonio, the young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez is an attractive love-interest, if at times seeming a little inhibited in delivery. His strongly accented dialogue demands attentive listening. But he makes an engaging character, in this production topically suggestive of an illegal immigrant, a Mexican border-runner. If lacking the panache of a Pavarotti or Juan Diego Florez, his light tenor is pleasing to the ear, and his nine high C’s are carefully placed and secure. Job done!

But irreverent fun is the order of the day. Political correctness is out of the window and language is informal: in the first fifteen minutes Sulpice is heard to admit “I’m sh*tting myself”; when Marie is first introduced to her Aunt she exclaims “Holy crap!”; Tonio is first introduced as “a frigging spic.” In the opening of Act Two, Hortense, the Berkenfields’ camp Butler, has his suggestive way with a banana; and the famous singing lesson (designed to instil some ‘culture’ into a rebellious Marie) descends into hilarious physical comedy involving the abuse of a basket of oranges.

Later, party guests (almost entirely created in imagination by the butler’s mime) assemble to mark the proposed union of the Berkenfield and Crackenthorpe families. Social-climber Marsha Berkenfield is styled for all the world as if she is playing Mrs Simpson in an Abdication drama, while a transgendered Dulcie Crackenthorpe brings to mind Arthur Askey dragged up as Charley’s Aunt. When the bikers invade the mansion to rescue their adopted daughter for Tonio, now their temporary leader, she exclaims in rich baritone, “OMG, she’s a biker’s bitch!” Finally, Aunt Berkenfield’s secret is revealed, general reconciliation follows, and the young people’s love-match is celebrated in a jubilant, typically Donizettian ensemble.

Who knows how many of the first-nighters in a very full house had done their homework and knew what they were in for, and how many were shocked by what they saw and heard? In the event, the enthusiastic, sustained applause with whoops and cheers removed any doubts—a massive verdict in favour of Opera della Luna.

Further performance: 15th of July, 2pm

Idomeneo – review

Summed up, Buxton International Festival’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo is a total triumph.

There were some niggling instances which can be put down to first night gremlins otherwise, it’s almost impossible to find fault in its three-hour duration, including an interval which couldn’t have been better placed.

Perhaps how Idamante manages to kill Neptune’s monster while he is patently on stage can be described as anomalous, while the interval is roughly mid-way through act two.

It follows Idomeneo’s scene and aria Fuor del mar, stunningly sung and acted by Paul Nilon with an intensity worthy of being witnessed on any opera stage in the world.

A break after it thus allowed the audience to recover its equilibrium and, the tenor, his composure!

Glitches aside, the whole opera is magnificently played and sung from beginning to end with Nilon, approaching the twilight of his distinguished career, simply tremendous and tireless as the tortured king in a show-stealing performance.

Not that he can be said to entirely achieve the accolade with three other singers on stage as contenders for it.

Madeleine Pierard is terrific as Elletra, a role regularly given to a dramatic soprano and she certainly has the vocal fireworks D’Oreste, D’Ajace at the end, but her softer grained singing earlier makes the character a trifle more believable.

Then there is the reason for Idomeneo’s woes, his son Idamante in a thoroughly engaging performance from fast-emerging mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe and possessor of a lovely, gently burnished chest register.

And there is Elletra’s rival in love with Idamante, Ilia, in what has to be one of Rebecca Bottone’s best role assumptions to date, the ultimate highlight here being her account of Zefferetti lusinghieri followed by the duet with Idamante in act three.

Nicholas Kok’s musical direction is a little lumpy at times while Stephen Medcalf’s stage direction round a simple uncluttered set by Isabella Bywater again proves that can convincingly stage opera without recourse to ego trips and gimmicks.

It is virtually all enacted in bright daylight, too – no fashionable dingy, dark scenes!

Wonder who sweeps the oceans of sand off the stage after curtain down!

Further performances: 11th, 14th, 21st and 19th of July

Alzira – review

Buxton International Festival’s final instalment of the Elijah Moshinsky-directed/Stephen Barlow-conducted trilogy of early Verdi operas proves to be least successful.

Sadly, it was the almost obscure Alzira that was in need of the greater championing as its level of inspiration on Verdi’s part was not as high as it was with the other two, a long way short in the case of 1847 version of Macbeth (seen last year).

It is, though, not without its inspired moments, including a novel overture of originality and much stirring ensemble work, not least the superb sextet, Nella polve genuflesso, with chorus towards the end of act one.

The solo vocal music for the three principal protagonists is a little more variable, some fine, some less so, but nearly always taxing in terms of tessitura in the arias and their inevitable showpiece cabaletta.

Kate Ladner (Alzira), Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) and James Cleverton (Gusmano) give it their vocal all, but on the strength of the opening night performance only the South Korean tenor had the requisite vocal equipment for Verdi’s music.

Cleverton, though, displays an impressive baritone voice; however, it lacks ‘Verdian’ weight.

The supporting cast does nothing wrong, while the Festival Chorus again provides outstanding singing and the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra plays Verdi’s score magnificently under the unerring beat of Stephen Barlow’s idiomatic baton.

Visually, the kindest thing is perhaps to say nothing the staging. Some will like it, no doubt; some will not.

It’s almost as if Elijah Moshinsky wants to make up for the “in many ways naive” music (his words) by bringing the “action forward to near present day revolutions in South America, finding its imagery in the bright colours of the score.”

The result is much revolutionary mayhem with an element of confusion and violence, at times gratuitous, such as Gusmano shooting dead Alzira’s father at the end of act one for some reason.

None of which is in Verdi’s score about Incas and Spanish Conquistadors in Peru!

Further performances: 10th, 13th, 16th, 18th and 20th of July

* ‘Melodramatic Happenings  in Lima’ for more on Verdi’s Alzira

Melodramatic Happenings in Lima

Verdi’s opinion of his rarely heard eighth opera, Alzira, late in life was hardly high describing it as: “proprio brutta” – downright ugly!

He appears not to have been exactly enamoured with it before its premiere in 1845, writing a few days before it first saw the light of day: “if it were to fail, that wouldn’t upset me unduly.”

Wonder what he had for breakfast on the two days he uttered and earlier wrote these words!

It really isn’t that bad. Rough and ready, yes; but so was his even more rarely (than Alzira) encountered original 1847 version of Macbeth which, in the final analysis, is in many ways superior to his later regularly performed 1865 version.

But, to stay with Alzira and a few words penned by perhaps the leading authority on Verdi’s operas, the late Julian Budden, who published a three-volume set on them, along with other Verdi tomes.

Having been present at a once-in-a-blue-moon staging of Alzira at the Rome Opera in February 1967 he said it “proved that the score is genuinely alive,” adding that it is “not downright bad” and, with pertinence, “no Verdi opera is totally negligible.”

Certainly not insignificant in Alzira is the opera’s wholly original and novel overture and most of its ensembles, the pick of which has to be the big sextet with chorus towards the end of act one.

There is some fairly demanding, tessitura-testing music for the three principal singers playing Alzira (soprano), Zamoro (tenor), who has a splendid scene and aria in the opera’s prologue, and Gusmano (baritone).

The love duet in scene two of act one is thoroughly engaging; however, Budden is not overly impressed with it saying Verdi “preferred to press swiftly ahead, sustaining a dramatic momentum which the text does not imply.”

So what’s all about, you may ask?

Well, it’s a far-fetched tale about Incas and Conquistadors over a prologue and two acts ostensibly set in Peru in the 16th century with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano adapted from a play by Voltaire, Alzire, ou les Américains.

Alzira, daughter of a Peruvian tribe leader, Ataliba, is love with Zamoro, another Peruvian tribe leader. We first meet them housed as captives in the palace of the Spanish governor, initially Alvaro who hands the job over to his son, Gusmano.

He is smitten with Alzira who rejects his love until it comes to saving Zamoro’s life when she relents. Zamoro, who saved Alvaro’s life at the beginning of the opera and gets a pretty rough ride at the hands of Gusmano throughout the proceedings.

Gusmano gets an unwelcome surprise at the dénouement, though!

Voltaire anoraks will not like what Cammarano did to the great man’s play in his first libretto for a “highly delighted” Verdi. Julian Budden sums it up perfectly.

“Religion and politics, the two raisons d’être of the drama, are scarcely mentioned; and the confrontation of different creeds, different civilisations and different worlds becomes merely another variant of the eternal triangle.”

In its first major UK staging, Verdi’s Alzira can be seen at Buxton Opera House as part of this year’s Buxton International Festival when it is sung in its original Italian with English side-titles.

Performances are on 7th July, 10th July, 13th July, 16th July, 18th July and 20th July, starting at 7.15pm.

Tickets range from £20 to £78 – box office 01298 72190.

*Festival preview: ‘Ancient Greeks and Incas at Buxton 2018′