Sunday 10 March 2019

Rossini's Elizabeth I at the Hackney Empire, or, Simple is Best

Note: This is a review of the first night on Saturday 2nd March 2019.

Regular readers will know that I'm a Rossini fan. There have been a few stagings of the rarer end of Rossini's prolific output at the Royal Opera in recent years, often irritatingly, sometimes bafflingly over-complicated though at least usually blessed with strong singing. One of the great pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable evening therefore is James Conway's unfussy, straightforward production.

Musically there is likewise much that is excellent. On the podium John Andrews, with whom this was my first encounter, showed a perfect understanding of the Rossini style. The pacing, the build up of crescendos, that wonderful light sweep in the strings, the needed character (from playful to sad) in the winds and brass - Andrews draws all of that from his fine orchestra. As always with the best kind of Rossini performance when the mood is upbeat I simply reveled in the fun, but Andrews also knows where to linger to catch at the heart.

The pick of the singers are Lucy Hall's Matilde and Luciana Botelho's Leicester. Hall has the richest voice on stage, which she couples to a fine sense of dramatic phrasing. She soars particularly beautifully through the ensemble in the Act One finale, and brings a gripping authority to her various confrontations. Botelho often shows the ringing heroic tone this kind of role needs and has more warmth to his sound than one or two of the others. He too has a strong grasp of the different moods of the part. Occasionally there were moments of strain, but these are forgivable in the context of the toughness of the role - especially the long prison scene. The supporting role of Enrico is well taken by Emma Stannard.

The other two leads - Mara Plazas's Elisabetta and John-Colyn Gyeantey's Norfolk are not quite in the same league. Plazas has great physical stage presence (the relationship of the Queen to the rest of the ensemble is consistently well directed by Conway) and in places the voice has a fuller tone and, particularly in the quieter passages, well inflected feeling. But she doesn't quite have the richness and power to meet all the role's demands - there can be a sense of strain at the top, and the voice can't always tussle on equal terms with others in some of the confrontations. I found Gyeantey's tone in the early scenes a little bit dry and clipped. He finds more warmth, resonance as the evening progresses but overall doesn't quite equal Botelho. But, whereas on other occasions I might have been more affected by these points, here, because of the many strengths of the evening and the energy and enthusiasm both these singers bring to their performances the vocal shortcomings that did exist were largely transcended by the overall effect.

Conway's staging is effectively stripped back. The main set is Elizabeth's throne, which doubles cleverly towards the end as Leicester's cell. For most of the evening the action is focused in on the principals - others may perhaps feel there is too much stand and deliver - but it convinced me in regard to their relationships and feelings and after the last few operas I've seen at the Royal Opera it was just so refreshing to see a show concentrated on these characters, their feelings and dilemmas, rather than an excess of overcomplicated historical context, or the composer reincarnated on stage. Conway is perhaps a little less sure footed when it comes to the chorus (who also sing well throughout). I thought he was reaching for the idea of them forming walls (akin to the Royal Opera's recent Dialogues des Carmelites or Opera North's Billy Budd) but he achieves this less effectively than those shows did. Thus some of the movement does come across as a bit aimless at times but fortunately the overall effect is much less busy, much more willing to embrace the virtue of stillness than many other productions I could mention. There are also some clever touches - Elizabeth inspecting the court at the beginning and the released prisoners at the end. Conway also doesn't feel he has to apologise for the clunkier moments of the plot - for instance the brief musical moment when the rebellion has to be defeated. Indeed the production finds an alchemy which manages both to move where it needs to and to allow us to smile - at the moment just mentioned, or, for example, at Rossini's recycled overture (again I generally enjoyed spotting the recycling).

This is my third opera of the year, and the first that I've really enjoyed after two disappointing new stagings at the Royal Opera House (many of whose current roster of directors could usefully be taken to see this as a reminder that simple might just possibly be better than clever/busy). It's great to see English Touring Opera once again taking a risk with this kind of rare repertoire - and proving the work is strong enough, for all the borrowings, to make it worth other companies giving it outings. If you're within striking distance of the tour make a point to catch this. After a heavy week of work it was nice to leave a theatre with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

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