It was a wonderfully sunny day and it couldn’t have been more perfect for a first visit to Grange Park Opera. The kind of day country house opera really makes sense. Housed in the stabilised ruin of a Greek revival mansion it sits in acres of picturesque grounds and now in the care of English Heritage. The actual auditorium is in the remains of the grand conservatory and is a rather intimate and acoustically unobstructive House.
As with most directors Stephen Langridge thought it more apt to move the period of the piece to a heavily costumed (and at times rather ugly) early Victorian period, near enough to the time of its composition. So instead of a fortress in Plymouth, the semi transparent curtain let us into what resembles a hospital with the male choristers sleeping. Very soon it is clear that this is an asylum that is applying the pseudoscience of phrenology a much beloved discipline of the Victorians. The appearance of a woman tied to a bed and having her skull measured with a pair or calipers makes it all too clear. But nothing quite prepared us for Arturo’s arrival in a patent leather gilet with the most impressively bizarre red highlighted wig I have ever seen, not surprisingly a few faint laughs could be heard (the wig is replaced later on) .
The stage itself was dominated by a full width LED screen which comes to life it seems every time either the action slows down or the score quietens. Most notably it was used to show a video of the moving Elvira in her veil as she arrives for her mad scene. Most of the time it was more of hindrance than actually being put to any useful purpose. The electrified window dressing was added to with the chorus bringing lit bulbs on boxes which they arranged for Arturo’s first aria and for his duet with Elvira. It was a nice way to delineate space on stage (despite the formations at times looking too akin a helipad) but for all of us in the front rows of the stalls it was also quite painful to look straight at so many filament bulbs.
All this insistence on the mental illness angle to the story consumed all other content. One particularly irritating aspect was the much used directing device of having the chorus observe the audience (here with opera glasses no less) as if to make a point about our complicity to the going ons on stage. Despite the sleek movement of the chorus ultimately we cared very little about what was happening on stage. Possibly a concept better applied to Lucia than Puritani, as the political references had no real value. Did we really care that the widow of the executed Charles I shows up in a bright orange frock? No,not really. And don’t start me on the puritans!
Thank heavens for the English Chamber Orchestra who under Gianluca Marcianò provided some truly wonderful playing which was sensitive to the singers and true to Bellini’s most accomplished score. The gradations of atmosphere that were missing from the direction were all present in the pit. The chorus had a great presence and despite all the pitfalls of the direction they managed to produce wonderful singing throughout.
The most consistently brilliant singer on the night was Christophoros Stamboglis who sang with brilliance, warm tone and unwavering stamina. His Cinta di fiori in Act Two was colourful and sadness filled, providing an incredibly heart wrenching interlude before Elvira’s appearance, setting the scene perfectly. A huge feat when you see the pictures above of those hideously brown check patterned trousers that made him look like a circus act.
Damiano Salerno has a timbre that I will never find easy to listen to, his excessively fast vibrato at times making listening uncomfortable to my ears. But he did deliver his arias with great style and seemed to be totally at ease vocal with Bellini’s writing. Particularly his duet with Giorgio Suoni la tromba was terrific in its vibrancy. The Arturo of Jesus Leon felt under-developed. A large register gap on the upper part of his range made some of the high notes in the score seem conjured and sounding too untidy.
Claire Rutter, whose darker, dramatic voice is a great fit for Elvira was having a difficult first Act when she notably run out of breath at the conclusion of her Ah! vieni al tempio. A sure sign of the illness that troubled her earlier in the week and stopped her from taking part in the dress rehearsal. But after the long interval she was in much better form. Her Elvira acquired a much more assured voice and she was a total joy to listen to. Unfortunately she was also inflicted with some unflattering costumes which were verging from the ridiculously puffy to the ugly. Her delivery of O Rendetemi la Speme and Qui la voce was as good as anyone can expect. Haunting and for once the direction of having her trapped on the bed on an elevated plinth, centre stage, allowed her to dominate the action. While Bruno and his assistants were experimenting with therapies that may reverse her madness. My heart did go out to her throughout the performance as Elvira is such an exposed role and was delighted that by the second half she found her stride. I am sure she will be even more thrilling in later performances in the run. Also hope the stage managers and the set designer can sort out the problematic backdrop that gets pulled across after Elvira’s mad scene which did only pull by the sheer visible force of the stage crew, it killed the atmosphere.
Looking forward to returning to Grange Park, to see the new production of Dialogues des Carmélites on 14 June.
Trailer by Grange Park Opera
Some tweets from the day
Curtain call video