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05 Mar 2019

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, English Touring Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Mary Plazas and the ETO Chorus

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Donizetti had several stabs at historical non-verisimilitude, in a ‘trilogy’ comprising Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1835) and Robert Devereux (1837), and in an earlier opera, Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829), based on Walter Scott's Kenilworth, in which Donizetti dramatised Elizabeth I’s infatuation with the young Earl of Leicester.

When one reflects, though, it’s not difficult to see why the Italians might have been so captivated by Tudor treasons and treacheries, for they offered a roll call of fated heroines, copious jealousies and intrigues, and plentiful palaces and posh frocks. Moreover, the hyperbolic emotions on display, from rage and despair, were perfect fodder for coloratura excess. And, of course, many protagonists lose their heads - either literally or in folly and madness. Perhaps, too, the Italians - with their country divided and largely ruled by overseas powers until re-unification in 1861 - empathised with those Tudor Brits who had defied Rome and gone their own way. Focusing on a foreign past was one way to divert the censors who might object to any hint of contemporary political comment.

Unfortunately, Rossini’s Elizabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815) is not the best example of bel canto foraging into Elizabethan intrigues. The 23-year-old composer seems to have set out to impress the theatre-goers in Naples with this opera - the first of nine Rossini wrote for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples - by gathering together some of his ‘best tunes’ to date, for self-borrowings abound. The overture was recycled from the composer’s Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and was put to further use in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and the Queen’s first aria sees her running through the roulades of Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’. The opera was innovative in some regards; for example, Rossini abandoned unaccompanied recitatives, though the accompanied ones that replace them are hardly inspired. Moreover, the casting was determined by Rossini’s need to give star roles to the San Carlo’s legendary ‘three tenors’, who were similarly served in Otello, Armida, La donna del lago and Ricciardo e Zoraide.

Mary death head.jpgMary Plazas (Elizabeth I). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

So, it was a brave decision by ETO’s General Director James Conway to select Rossini’s opera to open the company’s spring tour of works focusing on the ups and downs of kings and queens. Perhaps Conway should have been braver still? Elizabetta, regian d’Inghilterra seems to demand a period setting, and that’s what we got; but, taking a few more risks - perhaps even updating the action, as Amélie Niermeyer did at the Theater an der Wein in 2017 - might have rustled up a few more dramatic tensions than were evident during this first-night performance.

The libretto was drawn by Giovanni Schmidt from Carlo Federici’s play Il paggio di Leicester (Leicester's Page) - which in turn derived from Sophia Lee’s novel The Recess (1785). The ‘back-story’ is that during her imprisonment by Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots secretly married the Duke of Norfolk and had two children by him, Mathilde and Enrico. When fighting the Scots, the Earl of Leicester fell in love with Matilde, whom he at first assumed to be a simple peasant girl, and married her.

The opera begins with the Duke of Norfolk brooding jealously about the rising fortunes of his rival and Leicester’s glory-strewn return to court after his military victory. Leicester, shocked to find his wife - disguised in male dress - and her brother amongst the Scottish hostages, confides in Norfolk who promptly tells Elizabeth, herself enamoured of Leicester, of the secret marriage. Elizabeth makes a public proposal of marriage to Leicester whose inevitable refusal sees all three of the ‘traitors’ marched off to prison. The Queen tries to coerce Matilde into forswearing all claims on Leicester but is thwarted by the Earl’s integrity. Meanwhile, Norfolk tries to stir up rebellion among the populace who are angry at the imprisonment of their favourite, but his efforts to involve Leicester in his treachery are spurned. When Norfolk’s perfidy is exposed, he attacks the Queen but the monarch is saved by the swift intervention of Matilde and Enrico. Norfolk is condemned, everyone else is pardoned, and courtly life gets back to ‘normal’.

Botelho in prison.jpgLuciano Botelho (Earl of Leicester). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Frankie Bradshaw’s sets are necessarily minimal, given the expediencies of touring, but even so the throne room and royal apartments are bare and barren, with just an outsize wooden chair, elevated baldaquin and Tudor-rose embellished backdrop serving to gesture at the court’s renowned lavishness. Presumably the severed head of Mary Queen of Scots staring blindly from a tabernacle next to throne is intended to infer that murdering one’s rivals doesn’t solve one’s problems. When we move to the prison (in the ‘Tower of London’) in Act 2, the throne is simply moved to the other side of the stage, and Leicester shackled to it. A simple colour scheme suffices: black for the populace, white for the Virgin Queen. The opera does have several moments of considerable dramatic potential, but not all such opportunities were taken by Bradshaw and Conway.

Gyeantey Plazas Botelho.jpgJohn-Colyn Gyeantey (Duke of Norfolk), Mary Plazas (Elizabeth I) and Luciano Botelho (Earl of Leicester). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Mary Plazas sang confidently in the title role, and despatched the melodic embellishments cleanly, but she did not convincingly convey regality and authoritative hauteur - it didn’t help that she looked somewhat lost when seated in her huge throne - and her tone lent towards shrillness as the pitch rose. Luciano Bothelo was a suave Leicester and displayed a fine spinto voice. Unfortunately, John-Colyn Gyeantey couldn’t match Bothelo for focus and firmness: initially at least, his Norfolk was not as sharp of voice as he was of malevolence, although the tenor did acquire more precision in Act 2. Gyeantey is an ETO regular and at his best in moments of reflection and poise - as illustrated by his fine rendering of Tigrane’s ‘So ch’è vana la speranza’ during ETO’s Radamisto at Snape Maltings last November - but he struggled with the floridity of the Duke’s blustering rages. Lucy Hall was an excellent Matilde, singing with warmth and sincerity - in fact, she was alone in persuading me that she was a ‘real’ person, somewhat paradoxically given that Mathilde is an entirely fictitious addition to the historical plot. In the minor roles of Enrico and Guglielmo (the Queen’s Secretary), Emma Stannard and Josephy Doody acquitted themselves well.

Hall and Plazas.jpgLucy Hall (Matilde) and Mary Plazas (Elizabeth I). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

After a somewhat lacklustre overture, in which the horns sounded particularly nervous, the ETO Orchestra played well for conductor John Andrews who was alert to the details of period style. One should give Rossini credit for some vigorous ensemble writing, and the ETO Chorus, after some, understandable, hesitancy at the start were in fine voice. Their blocking was, however, not so admirable, and the stilted mass movement of the Chorus from one static position to another only added to the dramatic woodenness.

So, praise should go to Conway and ETO for their courage and commitment to Rossini’s opera: I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to see and hear it, even if I won’t be rushing back for a second helping. Macbeth and Idomeneo make up ETO’s spring menu of monarchs and machinations, and both should offer more meaty musical fare.

Claire Seymour

Elisabetta - Mary Plazas, Earl of Leicester - Luciano Botelho, Matilde - Lucy Hall, Enrico - Emma Stannard, Duke of Norfolk - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Guglielmo - Joseph Doody; Director - James Conway, Conductor - John Andrews, Associate Director - Rosie Purdie, Designer - Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, ETO Orchestra and Chorus.

Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 2nd March 2019.

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