United Kingdom Donizetti, Maria Padilla: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group, Brad Cohen (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.5.2012. (JPr)
Donizetti wrote Maria Padilla near the end of his career. It was first put on at La Scala and came up against Verdi’s Nabucco, though I doubt if it would have been any more successful if it hadn’t had such competition. It seems the composer had to fulfil a contract whilst becoming more successful elsewhere. He seemed determine to do things bit differently, including altering the ending during its first performances to widely unpopular consternation – from Maria dying ‘of joy’ to a happier one for all concerned.
The fourteenth-century Spanish plot has a certain historical basis and is a typically ludicrous one. Maria Padilla admires ‘Mendez’ (Don Pedro, crown prince of Castile, in disguise) who actually is coming to abduct her. She is willing to go along with this and live with him in secret because he has vowed to marry her by swearing on a dagger. Her father, Don Ruiz, comes to Don Pedro’s court seeking vengeance for his daughter ‘living over the brush’ in these circumstances. Before he gets a chance to announce himself he is beaten up and loses his wits. Father curses daughter and she initially wants to kill herself because Don Ruiz is unable to comprehend what is going on. Don Pedro seems to want to ‘have his cake and eat it’ by going through with his marriage to a French princess. Maria Padilla enters and reveals all at which the prince admits he has been bit of a cad and recognises ‘La Padilla’ as the rightful queen. At this point Donizetti first had her rush to her father and fall dead at his feet but later gave it a happy ending to comments from the French knights and courtiers that they had been insulted.
I suspect it all had some heavy cuts (Chelsea Opera Group routinely give its audience about two and a half hours of music) but sufficient of Donizetti’s trademark melodies remain and it is clear from its colouring that we are in Spain. I believe he was striving for a certain dramatic realism – maybe because of Verdi’s burgeoning reputation. We have the typical two-part arias with associated florid cabalettas, but there is also much evidence of Donizetti experimenting with his compositional style. Peculiarly he gives the part of Maria’s aged father to a tenor who here steals the ‘mad scene’ from the soprano! The best moments were probably the Act II duet for mezzo (Donna Inez, Maria’s sister) and soprano, and a subsequent duet for Maria and her father that is incredibly poignant.
This concert performance of Maria Padilla was announced by conductor Brad Cohen after his fulsome introduction to her as ‘a celebration of Nelly’ to celebrate ‘La Miricioiu’s’ 60th birthday. Nelly Miricioiu is now a Chelsea Opera Group regular but has had a reasonably full career in the world’s major opera houses over the last three and more decades and been honoured in her home country of Romania. In the way she presents herself on the platform and the sound of her voice there is a hint of Callas but not much more. In a silver diamante evening gown, matching bling and fingernails, she was every centimetre ‘the diva’; but for me there was too much nervous fiddling with her shawl throughout the evening which became a little annoying. She still produces the occasional thrilling top note and there is some exquisite phrasing but linking everything together is not as easy as it once was. The ovation she received was surely thanking her for her bigger successes in the past rather than for this assumption of Maria Padilla. On a few occasions she lost her place in the score in front of her and stopped the performance in Act III to catch up with a shrug and smile calling out ‘that’s 60!’. No one else on the platform seemed to be having similar problems and I wondered if the conductor, Brad Cohen, could have helped her out a little more as soon as he realised trouble was looming.
As well as the very familiar green and white printed programme, everything that is typically Chelsea Opera Group was on show; a row of music stands, performances ranging from those trying to act to those with their head deep in the score … and the insistence that the principals to dress up formally even on an incredibly hot day both inside and outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I feared for Richard Morrison (Don Pedro) in Act I who looked as if he was beginning to succumb to the heat and might pass out.
I know this wasn’t a staging but overall the casting was a little odd as the older the character was supposed to be, the younger the singer actually was – so much so, that Maria’s father (Marco Panuccio as Don Ruiz) looked more like her son! Panuccio had some good – curiously very youthful sounding – moments and some squally ones. Richard Morrison as Don Pedro displayed an eloquent baritone voice but wasn’t the commanding presence this role obviously demands. The very experienced Marianne Cornetti (Donna Ines) had the only other major female role. Apart from the excellent Act II duet (that she considerately coaxed Nelly Miricioiu through by sharing her score) her major scene is right at the beginning and her voice hadn’t properly warmed up. Some of the better singing came from the younger artists in the smallest roles, Paul Curievici (who was really trying to ‘act’ as Don Luigi), Daniel Grice (Don Ramiro) and Piotr Lempa (Don Alfonso). Best of all was Emma Carrington who made quite an impact in the short role of Francisca; she has a wonderfully rich imposing sound that I look forward hearing in something more worthwhile sooner rather than later.
The chorus looks as though it is in need of a few younger male singers but was well-prepared as usual, and the orchestra – notwithstanding a few rough passages – coped well with constantly shifting gear changes in Donizetti’s score under Brad Cohen. He seemed to have been influenced by Craig Revel Horwood’s performance on the recent TV programme Maestro, and was occasionally rather distracting as he danced about on the podium.
For further details of forthcoming performances by Chelsea Opera Group visit www.chelseaoperagroup.org.uk.