United Kingdom Verdi Bicentenary Concert: The Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, RNCM Chamber Choir, The Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 25.11.2013
Including a performance of the overture to La Battaglia di Legnano followed by an introduction to the Verdi and Boito story with Sir Mark Elder and Jonathan Keats and with musical illustrations by the former and members of the cast.
Simon Boccanegra (1881 Revision) Act I
Falstaff, Act II, Scene 1
Otello, Act III
As I noted in my review of the recent Festival of Britten presented by Opera North, our main regional opera companies have done little to celebrate the bicentenary of the man generally regarded as the world’s foremost opera composer – Guiseppe Verdi, described at his death as The Glory of Italy. There are twenty-eight titles in the Verdi oeuvre of which twenty-six are distinct works, the other two being radical re-writes given new titles. Others, including the likes of Macbeth and La Forza del Destino as well as Simon Boccanegra featured in this concert, were not re-titled, although the music was as radically amended as those other two.
In my early days as an opera enthusiast in the early 1950s I took a largely monotheistic view of the genre as being Verdi plus a small sprinkling of Faust, very popular in those days, and the Puccini trio. All Christmases and birthdays were celebrated by a modest extension of recordings or books. As my professional work took me to London from time to time, I was able to attend performances of operas like Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor and my interest expanded into the bel canto repertoire. However, other performances of Verdi in a generation of singers second to none in the repertoire kept me ever true to my first love. Attendance at performances of an early Verdi concert (January 2001), Verdi’s Requiem, and particularly a concert performance of Falstaff, all conducted by Sir Mark Elder during his tenure with the Hallé, convinced me that here was an inspirational Verdian with whom I could identify at every possible moment. So it was in considerable anticipation I attended this concert.
The opening of the so called Prologue with the overture to Verdi’s La Battaglia di Legnano, the fourteenth title in the oeuvre of twenty eight, was the work that really inspired the call of the Risorgimento – Viva Verdi – to echo round the opera houses of Italy at the performances of his works. Recent scholarship indicates that in this work Verdi, an ardent nationalist, specifically set out to arouse such feelings. (He later became a member of united Italy’s first parliament.) The performance of this vibrant overture by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark’s baton, without a score, did that for me at the start of the afternoon.
The dialogue between conductor and author Jonathan Keats focussed on the coming together of Verdi and Boito that produced the revised Simon Boccanegra with its extensive addition of the Council Chamber Scene. The latter, included in the concert, was wholly the idea of the librettist, with Verdi matching it with some of his most powerful music. The explanation of Verdi and Boito coming together, after manoeuvrings by the composer’s wife, Ricordi (his publisher) and the conductor Faccio with the intention of tempting the great man towards an emergence from retirement to compose an opera based on Shakespeare is well known. Less so is the fact that Boito was at first less than enthusiastic about being involved in the revision of Boccanegra. What can be said with some certainty is that without Boito on board there would not have been an Otello or Falstaff and what a loss to the repertoire that would have been!
Jonathan Keats dealt with Verdi’s earlier attitude towards Boito whose membership with the group of ‘tousle haired radicals’ (more comprehensible than the unpronounceable, at least by me, of the Italian word) and which was despite their association for Verdi’s contribution to The Great Exhibition of 1851 in the form of The Hymn of Nations.
In the week before the Concert, I had been reviewing Welsh National Opera’s Autumn Season in Llandudno. It was afflicted by withdrawals, including that of a leading role and a conductor. These travails were overcome with distinction, so I was not over worried to learn that two other singers had replaced the scheduled lead soprano at this concert, including one, Judith Howarth whom I had heard a few days earlier in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. I knew nothing about the replacement of the soprano to sing Amelia in act one of Simon Boccanegra, – Elizabeth Llewellyn. What a revelation she turned out to be. Her stage demeanour, added to her clear silvery tone, vocal strength, superb legato and vocal expression in Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna (How the stars and the sea) that emerged from Sir Mark’s reading of the quiet, ethereal, orchestral introduction, with its echoes of the sea lapping the Genoese the shores, was magical. The diversity of her vocal quality was further illustrated by her duet with Gabriele Adorno and more significantly still in her contribution in the Council Chamber scene when Amelia has to interrupt proceedings and explain about her abduction. All of which she sang without the score! She was quite formidable.
Back home, I was amazed to discover that Elizabeth Llewellyn was past her mid thirties; having come back to singing after ill health marred her time at the RNCM, forcing her to drop out and seek an alternative career. Not over-stretching her voice in heavier roles at too young an age with added maturity allied to her vocal qualities, she should enjoy a significant professional career if the right people hear her, and more particularly of
As the Doge, Scott Hendricks lyric toned baritone was an ideal complement to Miss Llewellyn in the great father daughter duet, and his mezza voce mia figlia at the end was to die for. He lacked some vocal bite and tonal heft in the Council Chamber at the Doge’s call of Plebi! Patrizi! Popolo! whilst showing something of the power he was holding in reserve for his contribution to Falstaff and Otello as the Doge calls on Paolo to curse the perpetrator of Amelia’s abduction. Nahuel Di Pierro was a sonorous Fiesco, David Stout a strong Paolo, acting well too, while Jihoon Kim made a strong contribution as Pietro with Peter Auty and ardent clear toned Gabriele.
Act Two of Falstaff followed the Boccanegra. With the singers coming and going as well as interacting as in a staged performance I was able to glory in Verdi’s masterful music in this his last operatic composition and only comic opera since Un Giorno di Regno over forty years before. A little padding helped David Stout look more the part as he entered and his acolytes, Bardolph and Pistol, well sung by Alasdair Elliot and Jihoon Kim, introduced Mistress Quickly. In the latter role, Madelaine Shaw’s firm tones made the most of the repeated salutations of reverenza, with full fruity mezzo notes. Stout’s Falstaff was as vocally full as his normal figure was lean and he portrayed the knight with aplomb allied to excellent diction and varied vocal tone. His acted comic response to Quickly, and relish of the phrases of Dalle due alle tre (between two and three) as Quickly reveals when Mistress Ford’s husband will be absent from home and as he later relishes the hoped for seduction were ideal. So too was his later comic departure with Ford, the two not agreeing as to who should leave ahead of the other. Scott Hendricks sang Ford’s monologue with vigour and vehemence – no lack of bite or colour here – and entered fully into the playing up of the couple’s departure.
If what had gone before was good, what was to come was superb. Act Three of Otello is not easily brought off on the stage because of the forces involved. Here we had the most magnificent portrayal by orchestra and massed choirs of the arrival of the Venetian Ambassador I can ever hope to hear – viscerally exciting and thrillingly dynamic. The trumpets situated behind the side choir gave an added dimension. If that was outstanding what had already been apparent from Peter Auty in the title role, Scott Hendricks as Iago and Judith Howarth, understandably using a score, was even better, I search for superlatives to use.
The vocal and histrionic demands of the portrayer of Otello are renowned. Peter Auty accomplished them quite superbly. I have a dichotomy about every singer I hear in the role; always worrying about how its demands might affect their voice. Auty’s accomplishment in this concert may point his future direction, if it does, and his voice was strong enough in this act for me to think of that possibility, he could be the best Briton since Charles Craig to sing the role, one which he did in many of the best operatic addresses. Note for note, at least in the baritone register, and fully in histrionic interpretation, Scott Hendricks matched Auty in a manner that made the remaining hairs on my head stand up! Formidable, outstanding, super – I have used all these epithets in the course of this review, so I surrender and use them together to describe this final act in a truly memorable concert. This is not to forget Judith Howarth’s warm, womanly, sung portrayal of Desdemona in a last minute substitution, interrupting her run as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for Welsh National Opera (see review). Likewise the Cassio of Pablo Bench, a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden 2010/13, and the other contributors who had sung in the other operas also.
I have referred to Sir Mark’s conducting of a semi-staged Concert Performance of Falstaff, a decade or so ago. I hope he has not got to wait for his twenty fifth anniversary as Chief Conductor, as Sir John Barbirolli did before giving a concert performance of Otello in May 1968 and which I attended.
Competing with family time and football matches, a Sunday afternoon was not perhaps the ideal choice and explained the empty top tier of seats. Those opting out missed a memorable concert and a worthy tribute to the greatest opera composer of them all, Wagner not withstanding.
PS. Those not able, or wishing to attend the talk on the three operas, and not knowing how the idea of Otello led to the collaboration between Verdi and Boito, might find the appendix to my review of a recently issued video of a performance of the opera interesting (see review).
Robert J Farr