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Rossini Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra & Catalani La Wally

Gioachino Rossini Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra
Lella Cuberli etc/Gabriele Ferro; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino

Hardy Classic Video DVD HCD 4007 [1985, 150 mins]

Alfredo Catalani La Wally
Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23 March 2003

This DVD of an opera set in Elizabethan England is strictly for Rossini collectors. Ostensibly about a young Queen Elisabeth, thwarted in love (which is why she renounced it and became the Virgin Queen) it could have been called Clemenza di Elisabetta, as executions are cancelled to achieve a happy, celebratory finale.

Opportunities to hear 'serious' Rossini are relatively few, and this one is unlikely to make converts. Rossini in 1815 goes in for self plagiarism, with The Barber putting in surprise appearances.

The presentation is unfortunately dire, though the enterprise is nearly saved by some good, idiomatic singing, notably by by Lella Cuberli as an unbelievably tolerant Good Queen Bess. The villain, unusually the tenor, gets his comeuppance and the betrayed baritone is finally allowed to keep his secret wife.

The setting is general purpose Italian opera, with a smouldering volcano for luck. The costumes for the English Court and the Scots are amusing at first, as was the marshalling of the crowds on and off stage. The style is basic 'stand and deliver', with a large rent-a-chorus and a lot of funny marches; no indication of any real direction as we now know it. Ensembles are often brought in front of the curtain so that scene changes may proceed, and the primitive camera work unwisely fades 'artistically' between close up and middle distance. The single sheet insert with the DVD has only just over half a page in English, and the subtitles are duly inept and clearly had never been checked by a native English speaker.

I found the recitatives over many and over long; I think Gabriele Ferro might have livened the pace to advantage. Yet perhaps one should not be patronising or mock; this is benchmark Rossini in an Italian city, a corrective to voguish director's opera, looking just as I remember my first experiences of the arcane entertainment some 60 years ago; cultural history preserved in aspic. Clearly the 1985 Turin audience was having a good time and the cast was well able to deal with the demands of the florid style; I wonder how much has changed in the last two decades?

Finally, the only thing that might have helped me would have been to turn up the volume and let them all belt it out; regrettably Hardy Classic Video seems to record at a low level, not too seriously so for their extremely collectable Otello with Monaco, but here far too muted; I did not find a way to adjust my TV or the DVD-player on my computer, but I guess there may be solutions to that.

During the same week that we were reviewing the Elisabetta DVD, a concert revival of Alfredo Catalani's La Wally was a very different matter.

Known mostly by one aria, and never caught on this side of the Channel, it was premiered in Milan, 1892, heralding then a possible new direction for Italian opera after Verdi - but one that never happened because the sickly composer, who was befriended by Toscannini, died at 39 of tuberculosis not long after. The rest is history, and it was Puccini's.

Under David Lloyd-Jones' calm, authorative direction, La Wally came over as a thoroughly viable opera, through-composed, with no recitatives or longeurs; the harmony and orchestration fresh, looking northwards to beyond the Italian Alps, never over-heated. The Chelsea Opera Group orchestra, amateur with professional stiffening, so I gather, was impressive and fully comparable with those in lesser Italian opera houses. The tone was suffused with warmth and, without the advantage of an orchestra pit in QEH, they never smothered the singers, a tribute also to Catalani's orchestral know-how. As was likewise the case for Elizabetta in Turin, Chelsea Opera Group fields a large chorus of some 80 lusty singers, trained by Christopher Fifield - important and necessary contributors to the success of the whole (N.B ENO !).

Apparently the requirement of a spectacular avalanche for the final denouement militated against producing it after its success in Milan and other Italian houses. Welcome though this concert performance was, allowing you to concentrate on the musical merits without distraction, it would now be well worth mounting on stage, even if not immediately at one of the top opera houses, which are ever more conservative; modern lighting and projection techniques should succeed in achieving a stunning conclusion.

Alwyn Mellor as the evening's Diva (there was much talk of a film which we have not seen, featuring La Wally's first act aria Ebben . . . ne andro lontana) is a well equipped dramatic soprano with no vocal vices and she made the character completely convincing; one has heard many a less impressive prima donna in the major opera houses. Her part is quite complex, with her remorse and eventual suicide properly motivated.

There is no need to look further for the lead parts; the rivals for Wally's affection were baritone Simon Neal as the unsuccessful Gellner, and David Barrell as the even more unfortunate Hagenbach, who is tipped into a ravine in Act 3 and swept away by an avalanche in Act 4. Both had strong voices and made the best of their good dramatic parts. For UK, it does not help that the heroine is called Wally (even though pronounced “Vally”) and her young friend is a boy called Walter. That trousers role was taken by Clare Wild, an attractive light soprano who however needs to get her vibrato under control, and really should have been more suitably costumed for the role.

The cast had strong connections with the RNCM and Opera North, of which David Lloyd-Jones was the original Artistic Director; possibly they were testing the water for a fully staged revival there?

An inspiriting evening, and I am now looking forward to hearing the Tebaldi/Monaco/Cappuccilli Decca recording.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf