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′


Mozart on Crete

Unlike Verdi’s Alzira, productions of Mozart’s Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival’s other major operatic staging this year, hardly fall into the realms of scarcity these days.

It has virtually become standard operatic repertoire since the early 1950’s when the Glyndebourne Festival was amongst its first champions.

Indeed, the opera’s title role has served the likes of Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti as a vehicle for their only excursions into Mozart.

Premiered in Munich in 1781, it took a while to reach these shores when an amateur Glasgow company gave the opera its first British outing in 1934. The work’s first American performance was in 1947.

Idomeneo is usually held up a Mozart’s first mature opera; Die Entfürhung aus dem Serail – The Abduction from the Seraglio, followed a year later. Stagings of this operatic jewel are scarcer than Idomeneo nowadays!

Mozart described Idomeneo as a dramma per musica – music drama, yet it is regularly referred to as opera seria, which it is not, beyond skeletal similarity.

Consciously or not, the 25-year-old Mozart emulated Gluck by giving the chorus a major role, unheard of in opera seria; the characters are dramatically believable and realism holds sway.

Continuo-led recitative is hardly in evidence, whereas there is lots of accompagnato, or orchestral recitative. Everything flows fluently with none of stop-start elements found in opera seria and there is not a da capo aria in sight.

And there is the ballet music (25 minutes of it spread out), totally taboo in opera seria, and usually omitted in stagings of the opera – nothing suggests Buxton’s production will go against the norm!

It is universally acknowledged that Mozart’s score is superb – Stephen Medcalf, stage director of Buxton’s production describes it as “extraordinary.”

What’s it all about…?

In a nutshell: Ilia, daughter of the defeated Trojan King Priam, and Elektra, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon, both love Idamante, son of Idomeneo, King of Crete – where the action takes place – who has got himself into a spot of bother.

On his way home following the Trojan War, his ship runs into a violent storm and he vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he meets if he lands safely. The Sea God duly obliges and the first person he meets turns out to be Idamante, his son.

Idomeneo then spends the best part of two acts looking for ways to circumvent the outcome of his vow as Neptune gets ever more angry.

Highly promising young mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe plays Idamante, Mozart having written the role for a castrato before adapting it for a tenor five years later.

These days, casting the part is just about evenly divided between tenor and mezzo-soprano Idamantes, the latter probably shading it.

Vocally and dramatically, Idomeneo himself should be straight up Paul Nilon’s street, while Rebecca Bottone as Ilia and Madeleine Pierard as Elektra (Elettra, as Mozart would have her) similarly, looks like ideal casting.

Sung in its original Italian with English side-titles, Mozart’s Idomeneo is performed at Buxton Opera House on 8th July (3pm), 11th July (7.15pm), 14th July (7.30pm), 19th July (2pm) and 21st July (7.15pm).

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


Sheffield International Concert Season 2018 -19

Russian music features fairly prominently in the 2018-2019 Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall after it gets underway on the 5th of October with the first of six trips across the Pennines by the Hallé.

The Manchester-based orchestra actually gives the second of three all-Russian concerts (18th January) and features Rachmaninov’s multi-faceted Third Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Mussorgsky’s Prelude (Dawn on the Moscow River) to his opera Khovanshchina.

An Italianate tinge may surface every so often as the conductor is the mightily gifted Daniele Rustioni, recipient of the International Opera Award for Best Newcomer of the Year in 2013, the no less gifted Francesca Dego (aka, Mrs Rustioni) being the soloist in the concerto.

Authentic sounds should be guaranteed at the other two all-Russian concerts with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (18th October) offering Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2 – the Little Russian, Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite and Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1.

Yet a third violin concerto, Prokofiev’s No 2, is programmed by the Russian Philharmonic of Novosibirsk (10th May), the Siberian capital, with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Rimsky-Korsakov’s nod to Spain, Capriccio Espanol, and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.

Two highly rated and much-acclaimed violinists perform the concertos: Chloë Hanslip the Shostakovich, Alexander Sitkovetsky the Prokofiev, and the conductors are Valentin Uryupin and Thomas Sanderling, born in Novosibirsk and son of the legendary Kurt Sanderling.

Also performing music emanating from its own country is the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (30th November), striking up with Smetana’s familiar Overture to The Bartered Bride and rounding off proceedings with the even more familiar Dvořák Symphony No 9 – From the New World.

Still, no orchestra plays Czech music quite like a Czech orchestra and this is an extremely fine one which visited Sheffield in the mid-1990s soon after being established. There is also the bonus of hearing Nikolai Demidenko playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 and the conductor is Heiko Mathias Förster.

You could say the London Mozart Players (1st February) are home ground with the composer’s popular Piano Concerto No 21 and Symphony No 34 programmed for a 70th Birthday Concert under the direction of the orchestra’s conductor laureate Howard Shelley.

First and foremost, though, a much in demand pianist, he is also the soloist in the concerto with Haydn’s Symphony No 95 and a little-known tone poem for strings by Joaquín Turina making up the concert.

Three other celebrated concerto pianists appear at Hallé concerts, not least Benjamin Grosvenor with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2 when the orchestra is confronted by a fiery young Hungarian conductor, Gergely Madaras, at the last concert in the season (7th June).

Mahler’s Symphony No 1 and Mozart’s Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) make up the programme and it is orchestral excerpts from opera that fill out the concert when Francesco Piemontesi performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (9th November).

Sir Mark Elder is the conductor and elsewhere is Weber’s Overture to Oberon and a sizeable chunk of Wagner: the Preludes to Act 1 and Act 3 from Lohengrin and a ‘suite’ from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – just about possible to cobble one!

Brahms’ Haydn Variations and Nielsen’s warlike Fifth Symphony bookend Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 from emergent young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and the Hallé under the baton of well thought of German-born conductor Johannes Debus (22nd March).

A fourth formidable violinist, Jennifer Pike, performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3 and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending at a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert (8th March) which begins with Sibelius: Finlandia, and ends with Elgar: Enigma Variations.

The conductor is Estonian ‘maestress’ – in the absence of a female term for maestro! – Anu Tali.

Two well-known concertos are heard in the remaining two Hallé concerts: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

The first (16th February) is sandwiched between de Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) and Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 with the orchestra’s outstanding principal clarinet Sergio Castelló López as the soloist and a Mexican conductor of some note, Carlos Miguel Prieto.

The Dvořák is in the season’s opening concert (5th October) and is performed by the 2012 BBC Young Musician of Year, Laura van der Heijden with the eminent German maestro Karl-Heinz Steffens conducting. Brahms: Symphony No 4 and Sibelius: Lemminkä¡nen’s Return, are elsewhere.

Christmas Concert aside (15th December), the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus’ main involvement in the season is Bach’s B minor Mass (6th April) with the Royal Northern Sinfonia under the baton of Andrew Griffiths, a young conductor of considerable talent – it is said!

Admission prices remain unchanged, which means the top priced ticket for individual concerts is a bargain £21 for concerts of this calibre. It becomes 30% cheaper with a full season subscription, 20% with a 10-concert subscription and 10% with a 5-concert subscription.