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Opera UK The Bloomsbury Theatre – 10 and 11 October 2006


Verdi – Simon Boccanegra

Music Director – Derek Carden

Director – Tim Heath
Set Designer – Cleo Pettitt

Costumes – Mia Flodquist & Anni Liljegren


Simon Boccanegra – James Hancock

Paulo – Dominic Barrand

Pietro – Kevin McRae

Fiesco – Ronald Nairne

Amelia Grimaldi – Scheherazade Pesante

Gabriele Adorno – Gediminas Varna


Lehar – The Merry Widow

Director – Jane McCulloch

Music Director - Stephen Hose

Choreographer – Donna Berlin

Costumes – Michael O'Connor


Hanna Glawari – Pamela Hay

Count Danilo – John Lofthouse

Baron Zeta – Martin Lamb

Valencienne – Thomasin Trezise

Camille de Rosillon – Jim Heath

St Brioche – Nicholas Lester

Viscount Cascada


Courageous was the first word that sprang to mind when I saw the programme for Opera UK's second season. Verdi produced the final version of Simon Boccanegra late in his career when he was at the height of his musical powers but lacking in the patience which would have allowed Boito to make a full revision of its libretto. Its plot remains dramatically unwieldy and it is generally considered a “difficult” piece to stage.


Tim Heath's straight forward direction took all the right choices and made better sense of the plot than versions I have seen in a couple of international houses, and was complemented by Cleo Pettitt's sets (which were imaginatively adapted to serve both operas).


So far so good, but courage was indeed needed as Loic Gurguen who had been cast in the title role, had succumbed to a throat infection and his cover, James Hancock, had to don the mantle in his place. It soon became apparent that the part lies uncomfortably high for him, but to his credit he did not allow himself to be fazed and he remained convincingly in character throughout.


Perhaps in an effort to compensate, there was a tendency for the rest of the cast to over sing. Gediminas Varna (Adorno) produced some ringing top notes, much to the excitement of a young audience whose appreciation of opera may well have been based on Pavarotti's Wold Cup recordings. Scheherazade Pesante (Amelia) is always fully committed in her singing, but more care is needed to avoid pushing her voice beyond its the comfort zone . It was left to the bass Ronald Nairne (Fiesco) to show the wisdom of restraint, matching his volume to the intimate size of the theatre to produce some lovely singing and give a well considered and mature account of his role – all the more impressive since I understand that he had graduated from understudy for the role at quite a late stage.


The Merry Widow is in many senses an equally courageous choice of repertoire. The lively tunes always make operetta seem easy, but so many skills are needed beyond the ability to sing. Acting must be convincing, spoken dialogue must be delivered with aplomb, every word must be distinct, and there will be dancing.


Opera UK 's cast scored very highly on all these counts. Acting and dialogue were first class, and the dance routines cleverly choreographed and well executed. John Lofthouse (Danilo) and Martin Lamb (Baron Zeta) teamed up well and maximised without overworking the comedy. Pamela Hay (Hannah) was the most glamorous of widows, though her sung words didn't match up to the general level of clarity. Thomasin Trezise was a lively Valencienne easily keeping one step ahead of Jim Heath's de Rosillon.


Jane McCulloch's adaptation of the plot removed much of the intrigue with the fan and left Nicholas Lester and Edmund Connolly to make much from little of their depleted roles as St Brioche and Cascada.


The small orchestra, which had sounded thin in Verdi's big tunes, took on the jaunty swagger of the palm court and we all enjoyed the fun.


Serena Fenwick


photos credit Benjamin Ealovega