22 May 2017

Elizabeth Llewellyn: Investec Opera Holland Park stages Puccini's La Rondine

It’s six or so years ago since soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn appeared as an exciting and highly acclaimed new voice on the UK operatic stage, with critics praising her ‘ravishing account’ (The Stage) of Mozart’s Countess in Investec Opera Holland Park’s 2011 Le nozze di Figaro in which ‘Porgi, amor’ was a ‘highlight of the evening’.

‘There is a wonderful sense of style in her delivery, which sees her stand as a goddess, eternally elegant of bearing’, wrote one commentator. She returned to OHP the following year for more Mozart, performing Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, a role which found her ‘in her element’ and forming a partnership with Julia Riley’s Dorabella which resulted ‘in a vocal blend of the utmost sweetness and beauty’ (Classical Source).

The intervening years have seen Llewellyn blossom and develop largely in European houses and she has been a fairly infrequent performer in the UK. So, it is with delight and great anticipation that we look forward to her return to Investec Opera Holland Park, to sing the role of Madga - the society-girl as free and flighty as a ‘swallow’, who falls in love with Ruggero but sacrifices her own happiness to save him ruin - in Puccini’s La Rondine.

I ask Llewellyn what ‘tempted’ her back to these shores and without a doubt the opportunity to perform the title role in one of the outliers in Puccini’s canon, but one which has become increasingly popular in recent years, was a compelling draw. Her operatic debut was in 2010 as Mimì in Jonathan Miller’s La bohème at ENO (in which I admired her ‘warm, generous’ soprano), and since then her voice has gained in weight and depth allowing her to take on the title role in Suor Angelica - ‘a sensational debut in the title role … [her] voice has a beguiling combination of duskiness and velvety warmth. ’ - and Giorgetta (Il tabarro) at Royal Danish Opera in 2015. She followed this with her first Tosca at Theater Magdeburg last year singing with members of what MDR Radio described as ‘a downright dream-cast’: ‘in the first place to mention is the English soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn who sings and plays a glowing, passionate Diva.’

Llewellyn describes herself as a lyric spinto and says that the role of Magda feels absolutely right for her voice at this time. La rondine is not ‘typical’ Puccini, though; after all, it’s a ‘comedy’ - presumably because no-one dies, jokes Llewellyn - though the lack of tragedy might seem to remove Puccini’s defining motif. But, there’s no lack of heart-wrenching and soul-wringing in La rondine; and it’s this reaching for emotional extremities which are at once both larger-than-life and yet so familiar to us all that Llewellyn seems to find so powerfully absorbing in Puccini.

La rondine has its share of tear-jerking moments but there’s plenty of comedy too, especially in the first two acts: it’s a sort of cross between La traviata (the jaded courtesan who finds and loses true love) and La bohème (bohemians in bustling bars), with a splash of Fledermaus (charming waltzes and even a fox-trot) thrown in. For, despite having vowed to his friend and agent, Angelo Eisner, that ‘an operetta is something I will never do’, in 1914 Puccini signed a contract with the Carltheater in Vienna to do just that. However, Llewellyn laughs that, having completed the first two acts, the composer seems to have decided enough was enough, and Act 3 (which Puccini revised twice) takes us to more familiar Puccinian terrain - prompting Llewellyn and Matteo Lippi, who sings Magda’s beloved Ruggero, to ‘breathe a sigh of relief’!

I ask Llewellyn what is distinctive about rehearsing and performing at OHP, and she is in no doubt that the fact that those responsible for the ‘decision-making’ are closely involved with the rehearsal process is a huge benefit to the singers, and helps to create a ‘family atmosphere’ in which old hands, new faces and returnees are equally welcomed and comfortable.

Llewellyn clearly enjoys being given freedom to explore and experiment. We discuss her roles for ENO - where she participated in the Opera Works training programme - and she speaks eagerly of her appearance as Micaëla in Calixto Bieito’s Carmen in 2012. In reviewing, this performance I remarked that, ‘This Micaëla is no innocent; in Act 1, she professes to bring a greeting from José’s mother, but bourgeois sentiment is manifestly and unashamedly discarded when, rather than offering a demure peck on the cheek, she grabs her José in a passionate embrace.’ Llewellyn explains that Bieito was adamant that she should play Micaëla not as a prepubescent ingénue but as a ‘real woman’ - no one would travel that far if they were not driven by, and determined to satisfy, their own desires - and she welcomed this interpretation, and the fact that she did not have to pretend to be a sixteen-year-old!

After ENO, opportunities in Europe beckoned, including her first Wagner (Elsa, Lohengrin) for Theatre Magdeburg, and Elvira (Don Giovanni) for Bergen National Opera. Alongside these emotionally and vocally weighty roles were lighter diversions, such as The Merry Widow for Cape Town Opera, which will surely stand her in good stead as she interprets Magda’s capriciousness.

And, Llewellyn hasn’t been entirely absent from British shores. Her performance as Amelia in English Touring Opera’s 2013 Simon Boccanegra was described by the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen as the element of the performance that ‘truly comes alive’: ‘Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Amelia shines brightly: as well as negotiating one of Verdi’s trickiest arias with elegant aplomb and crowning the wonderful Council Chamber ensemble with glory, she also makes the girl’s hopes and fears vivid, suggesting that innocent womanhood can point the way out of the mess that men have made of the world.’ No wonder her performance saw her nominated for ‘Singer of the Year’ in OpernWelt magazine that year.

There have been more unusual ventures too, such as last year’s The Iris Murder with the Hebrides Ensemble, a new chamber opera by Alasdair Nicolson and librettist John Gallas which was commissioned to mark the Hebrides Ensemble’s 25th birthday. Though she is not a regular performer of contemporary music, Llewellyn enormously valued being about to work with one of the foremost chamber music collectives in the UK which, under its artistic director and co-founder, cellist and conductor William Conway, has placed contemporary music at the heart of its repertoire.

Llewellyn is obviously an intelligent musician - thoughtful and discerning - and I ask her what led her to a career as a singer. Her Jamaican parents both enjoyed choral singing, but it was when her elder sister abandoned her piano lessons and the piano at home languished in silence, that Llewellyn’s appetite was stimulated. An accomplished pianist, she has a strong sense of the structural and harmonic architecture of the operas that she performs, which must sharpen her musico-dramatic judgment and acumen. She remarks that, in rehearsal, she always needs a musical context to fully inhabit the role: it’s no good being told ‘here’s your note’, she needs to know where that note has come from and where it’s going.

There is a quiet determination about Llewellyn. Her career has been one of steady growth and development, rather than stellar ascendancy, but she’s reaching the stage where she can take her time to choose the roles that are right for her, and she’s not without ambition. She’d love to singAida and some Strauss, possibly Rosenkavalier or Arabella, and maybe some more Wagner will beckon.

Before that, this autumn she returns to Copenhagen for more Puccini (Madame Butterfly), and 2018 will see Llewellyn make her US debut at Seattle Opera, singing Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a role she seems surprised but delighted to have bagged.

First though, it is Puccini’s sophisticated but compromised Magda whom Llewellyn will bring to life. Puccini may have struggled with the work, calling it a ‘pig of an opera’, but the ephemerality of Magda’s love - which is destroyed from without by bourgeois morality and within by Magda’s indulgent sensuousness - will surely be made poignantly tangible by Llewellyn’s elegiac lyricism.

Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn opens the Investec Opera Holland Park 2017 season as Magda in La rondine , 1-23 June.

Claire Seymour