New Devon Opera Celebrates Verdi Bicentenary

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Viva Verdi!: New Devon Opera [Alison Kettlewell (mezzo-soprano), Suzanne Manuell (soprano), Lynsey Docherty (soprano), Anando Mukerjee (tenor), Philip Smith (baritone), Roderick Hunt (bass),] Jonathan Watts (musical director / accompanist), Alexander Hargreaves (director), Great Hall, Dartington. UK 18.7. 2013 (PRB)

VivaVerdi! (credit Philip R Buttall)
VivaVerdi! (credit Philip R Buttall)

Nabucco Acts I & II extracts

Fenena! O mia diletta! … Guerrieri, è preso il tempio! … Prode guerrieri! …Io t’amava! … Ben io t’invenni … Anch’io dischuiso un giorno

La Traviata Act II Scene 1 extracts

Madamigella Valery? … Pura siccome un angelo … Non sapete quale affetto … Ah! Dite alla giovine … Di Provenza

Rigoletto Act III extracts

La donna è mobile … Un dì, se ben rammentomi … Bella figlia dell’amore … Della vendetta alfin giunge l’istante! … Chi è mai, chi è qui in sua vece? … V’ho ingannato, colpevole fui

La forza del destino Act IV extracts

Le minaccie, I fieri accenti … Pace, pace, mio Dio … Non imprecare, umiliati

Aida Act IV complete

L’abborrrita rivale a me sfuggia … Già I sacerdoti adunasi … Ohimè! Morir mi sento! … Spirto del nume … A lui vivo, la tomba? Sacerdoti: compiste … La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse … Vedi? Di morte l’angelo … Immenso Fthà … O terra addioì

Exactly a year and a day ago, I wrote about New Devon Opera’s latest production, where I ended my review as follows: ‘Madam Butterfly must surely be the company’s best production so far, a terrific credit to all those involved, and totally in line with NDO’s original mission statement ‘to become the UK South West Regions’ resident professional opera company’. The downside, of course, is that this year’s offering will be a decidedly hard act to follow.’

Somewhat prophetically, as it happens, my final sentence does seem to take on a special significance for what has apparently transpired in the year since. For whatever reasons, this year’s offering of Viva Verdi! is fundamentally different from last year’s fully-staged and costumed Puccini production, with its chorus and sizeable orchestral accompaniment. As the company’s new chairman, Robert Hough writes in his introductory letter: ‘NDO has been in a transitional state, but this year’s offering cuts no artistic corners. We look forward to financial success and a return to full opera production with orchestra and chorus’.

So what exactly is Viva Verdi!? Enter NDO’s newly-appointed director, Australian-born Alexander Hargreaves, himself also an accomplished baritone who recently created the role of Hades in Julian Philip’s Followers for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Hargreaves has featured extracts from five Verdi opera to examine, and thereby provide a common link, the fact that, having lost so many young women close to him at such a young age, the composer’s works became influenced by these events, and the relationship between father and daughter in particular took on specific significance to him, and is pivotal to the drama in many of his operas. In each featured extract, in fact, the father (or father figure) plays a major role in the eventual demise of the daughter. Hargreaves has achieved all this by a series of narratives which some of the performers deliver as each opera extract unfolds.

Viva Verdi!, as with Butterfly before, will have been given at different venues around the county, in this case four, with six shows in total. Tonight’s performance follows on from one the previous night at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, the largest venue on this year’s NDO tour, and where all the facilities of a fully-equipped theatre were readily to hand.The Great Hall, Dartington, by comparison, has a glorious acoustic, but essentially little of the modern trappings of a dedicated opera theatre. It forms part of the original manor house built in 1388 but which, when Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst purchased the Dartington Hall Estate in 1925, was in ruins, just four walls without a roof. It was then restored for use as a performance space from 1926 to 1937, and now features in the annual International Summer School held on the estate, soon to embark on its 60th anniversary season.

A darkened stage eerily lit in blue signifies curtain-up, as yet another volte-face in NDO personnel, this time in the shape of musical director, Jonathan Watts, quietly enters and strikes up with a stirring section of the Nabucco overture on the piano.With more than a casual physical similarity, bass, Roderick Hunt opens the show as the composer himself, which leads naturally to the first opera to be put under the microscope, Verdi’s early Nabucco, and thereby introduces Alison Kettlewell (Fenela), Suzanne Manuell (Abigaille) and Anando Mukerjee (Ismaele).

The ensuing excerpt from Traviata introduces two more soloists, Lynsey Docherty (Violetta) and Philip Smith (Germont), leaving Rigoletto to give Hunt an opportunity to open his singing account as Sparafucile, again with Kettlewell, this time as Maddalena.

La forza del destino, with Manuell (Leonora), Mukerjee (Alvaro), Smith (Carlo) and Hunt (Guardiano) provides the perfect antipasto to the final act of Aida, with Manuell (Aida), Docherty (Priestess), Kettlewell (Amneris), Mukerjee (Radamès), Hunt (Ramfis) and Smith (Priest).

From the very outset, Viva Verdi! certainly confirmed that, if the singing’s top-class, then it doesn’t matter too much about anything else. Of course, that’s not to say that a fully-blown staged production complete with chorus and large orchestra isn’t ultimately preferable, but this quite superb NDO offering never set out merely to imitate something which any large-scale touring company, such as Welsh National Opera or Glyndebourne on Tour, could accomplish, and with far greater ease.

Even a cursory glance at some of the singers’ biographies seemed to add a little extra ‘brio’ to their achievements on the night. For while all were seasoned performers, with experience at most of the UK’s leading opera companies, among the assembled ranks were a former zoologist and National Otter Surveyor of England, an Emeritus Professor in Biosciences, and a Cambridge University Natural Sciences Graduate.

Kettlewell has already established herself as a fine Wagner exponent, but the sheer power and drama she brought to Verdi, allied to a wonderfully well-rounded tone, could easily suggest a ‘career change’, operatically speaking. Likewise the authority with which Manuell delivered her performance, combining real agility and an extensive range, with great vocal command and control, made her a perfect foil.

Power and assured technique were the hallmark of Docherty’s singing, fused with a supreme sense of theatre, all of which conspired to produce the perfect third of this female Triumvirate, or ‘Triumfeminate’, as Jonathan Swift of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ fame might have written. Mukerjee proved himself every bit as capable as his female co-singers, in bringing great passion of almost pure Italianate proportions to each role, and nowhere more so than in the moving final duet at the end of Aida.

While Smith was able to match Mukerjee’s contribution in terms of vocal expertise, he was also readily able to bring a true sincerity to each role, largely defined, of course, by the character at the time, with his Di Provenza from Traviata providing an especially poignant moment. Completing the male musical triangle, Hunt’s splendidly rich deep tones blended perfectly in ensembles, with the well-known Rigoletto Quartet proving a show-stopping moment.

Musical Director Watts more than compensated for the absence of an orchestra with his outstanding piano accompaniment, where, at this particular venue of course, he was able to benefit from the immense dynamic range and power of the superb resident full-sized concert grand.Sets and props were kept to the bare essentials, any moves being made by the singers themselves, but which never seemed incongruous nor affected the credibility of the on-going drama – any costume changes merely involved an occasional dress change for the ladies. Lighting, although minimal too, proved highly effective throughout, with some especially spine-chilling use of silhouette where singers had surreptitiously entered from the rear, and were delivering their role from the mid-auditorium.

If the jury was out on any single aspect of the production, it was the interposed narrations which some of the singers gave from time to time, rather than using a single dedicated actor for the purpose. That not all the singers were required to be involved in this was apparently largely down to their individual workload in the run-up to the production – one, for example had literally only just come from an exhausting Ring Cycle.

Overall this did come off, and the narratives themselves weren’t overlong, and their prose-style felt appropriate in the context. But they clearly would have put an obvious added strain on the singers, by the frequent need to move in and out of character even if, on the day, they were able to disguise this effectively.While it all felt like a complete opera-experience, even though director Hargreaves’s cleverly-assembled pastiche actually gave us just a ‘5 A Day’ or ‘High Five’ of most of Verdi’s greatest works in the genre, this is nevertheless still a niche product at its very best.But if this production is anything to go by, it will surely blossom again into full operatic life, once financial stability is assured, bringing chairman Hough’s dreams and aspirations above to fruition before too long

Viva Verdi! – certainly. ‘Viva New Devon Opera!’ – let’s certainly hope so.

Philip R Buttall