Chelsea Opera Group Exhumes a Forgettable Early Verdi Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Mozart: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group, Gianluca Marcianò (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 2.6.2013. (JPr)

Mozart: Overture, Don Giovanni – in memory of Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
Verdi: Alzira
(Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, based on a play by Voltaire subtitled Les Américains, set in sixteenth-century Peru. First performed at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples on 12 August 1845.)

Alzira: Majella Cullagh
Zamoro: Mario Sofroniou
Gusman: Mark Holland
Alvaro: Paolo Battaglia
Ataliba: Francisco Javier Borda
Otumba: Jorge Navarro-Colorado
Zuma: Liora Grodnikaite
Ovando: Paul Curievici

The best thing about this performance was that it was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis who was president and first conductor of the Chelsea Opera Group and died recently. The distinguished Berlioz authority, David Cairns, gave a short eulogy at the start of this concert and reminisced how, as co-founder of COG, he had been there at the start of Colin Davis’s conducting career in 1952. He said how his personal and musical authority was evident from the start though it was seven years before he got a professional conducting job. This had, however, allowed him to perform all the Mozart operas with COG, as well as Falstaff, Fidelio and Die Freischütz, and even when he started working at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra he returned each summer to perform a different Berlioz opera. This was valuable experience for the conductor’s subsequent distinguished career at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Opera and LSO, amongst others. As Humphrey Burton concluded in his tribute in the printed programme, for everyone he ever worked with, ‘Colin was a force of nature, an inspiration who will never be forgotten.’

If enthusiasm was everything then COG did the unforgettable Sir Colin proud; however their latest operatic ‘exhumation’ was, in itself, very forgettable. Surprisingly, by 1845 it was Verdi’s eighth opera and he seems to have ‘taken the money and run’ so little care did he seem to have put into its composition. Even Verdi admitted, ‘I wrote it almost without thinking.’ As someone who cannot read all the dots on a score I admire anyone who makes any form of music. Verdi seems to have completed the short score in only 20 days – but listening to Alzira it is a bit of a surprise that it took him as long as that! There are only about 90 minutes of music and there isn’t even a typical Verdian ballet to pad it all out. It has been deservedly neglected ever since some first performances that were not well received. However, like the early works from many a great number of composers, each generation deserves an opportunity to judge for themselves: it is wonderful that there are organisations like COG to allow ‘opera-spotters’ like me to tick another one off our lists of works not previously heard ‘live’. If I could be presumptuous I would urge COG to try and somehow attract those of a younger generation to their performances as many in the audience could have been there when it was founded in 1950.

The story isn’t worthy of much analysis and the libretto gives us the operatic staple of a love-triangle with added sexual harassment. We are in Peru in the middle of the sixteenth century, though apart from a hint of cannibalism we are presented with few non-PC ‘exotic’ elements. An Incan princess Alzira refuses to marry Gusmano, a Spaniard who becomes governor of Peru. She remains faithful to the memory of her Peruvian lover, warrior Zamoro, whom everyone thinks has been killed. Unsurprisingly Zamoro shows up alive, Alzira is overjoyed and Gusmano suitably angry. In the opera’s prologue Zamoro had saved the life of Gusmano’s father, Alvaro, in order to embarrass the Spanish invaders but now leads an unsuccessful attack against them and is captured. Yet even though he reprieved his father, Gusmano has no qualms about sentencing the Peruvian to death. As expected, Alzira now desperately agrees to marry Gusmano, in exchange for Zamoro being allowed to live and go free. Nevertheless a vengeful Zamoro arrives in disguise (of course) at the wedding and stabs Gusmano — who, ludicrously, before he dies forgives his murderer and blesses his marriage to Alzira. Clearly Verdi and his librettist were mindful of their Catholic audience at this point of the opera!

Verdi’s music is banal to say the least – perhaps uninspired is a fairer way to describe it. It is ‘rum-ti-tum’ at its most rum-ti-tum. It begins as it means to go on with the opening chorus about what the American Indians want to do to Gusmano, ‘Muoia, muoia, coverto d’insulti’ (‘Let him die, let him die, heaped with insults’) that has all the gravitas of an Irish jig! At least the opera is so short that none of the other trivial music outstays it welcome. With all the forward-momentum in the music I longed for some repose that only came briefly at the start of the concluding wedding scene.

To his credit Verdi does set his singers some formidable challenges that the roster of experienced soloists fielded by COG did their very best to surmount. The three principals Majella Cullagh (Alzira), Mario Sofroniou (Zamoro) and Mark Holland (Gusmano) were valiant and unstinting. All three were pushed to the extreme of what they were capable of with little hint of bel canto. Of the three, the soprano, Majella Cullagh, had the most artistry and a better sense of phrasing. Mario Sofroniou’s tenor voice started potently but seemed to tire by the end of the opera although he was still able to hit his top notes. I wish Mark Holland would have reined in his strained, rather-too-forceful, baritone rather better on occasions: strangely he was jacketless, with rolled up sleeves and brown boots while the others were in formal dress. As often is the case with COG some of the better singing came in the minor roles; the bass, Paolo Battaglia was suitably patriarchal as Alvaro, Jorge Navarro-Colorado revealed more legato than most of his colleagues in the minor tenor role of Otumbo, and the impressive Liora Grodnikaite – the only singer not to use a score – with her burnished contralto tones made more of her small part as Zuma, Alzira’s maid, than it probably deserved.

After COG’s rather dismal recent Die Feen (review) it was good to see soloists, chorus and orchestra were ‘up for it’ on this occasion and seemed to have been thoroughly well-prepared. The conductor, Gianluca Marcianò, jollied everyone along and bounced up-and-down on the podium along with Verdi’s vigorous rhythms. At times his insistent left hand was urging his singers, especially Ms Cullagh, to sing higher and higher rather like the Phantom of the Opera does with the object of his affection in that story.

Alzira perhaps wasn’t the best tribute to Sir Colin Davis – nor was the orchestra’s rather routine playing of the Don Giovanni Overture that preceded this Verdi opera – but it was great to remember his important contribution to the history of the Chelsea Opera Group.

Jim Pritchard

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