wed 26/04/2017

Cristina, Regina di Svezia, Chelsea Opera Group, Cadogan Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Cristina, Regina di Svezia, Chelsea Opera Group, Cadogan Hall

Cristina, Regina di Svezia, Chelsea Opera Group, Cadogan Hall

No neglected gem, Foroni's cod-historical opera showcases soprano Helena Dix

Helena Dix's Queen Christina denounces reluctant bride Maria (Lucia Cirillo) at Wexford last yearAll Wexford images by Clive Barda

One queen is much like another in so-called “historical” Italian early to mid 19th-century opera. Elizabeth of England, Christina of Sweden, take your pick, they all fall for a tenor courtier who loves Another (the seconda donna, soprano or mezzo). With Donizetti, the musical drama is almost as disposable as the plot until a stonking number or two rolls up. Jacopo Foroni, more or less unknown until Wexford resurrected him a year ago, has a few more felicitous orchestral touches but nothing as memorable as Donizetti's best. Cristina, regina di Svezia served at Wexford, and last night in concert at the behest of the splendid Chelsea Opera Group, as a star vehicle for Australian soprano Helena Dix, who, with a Metropolitan Opera cover just in the bag, seems about to make it big.

And in New York she probably will: the opera queens just love this sort of all-guns-firing, generous diva with the right top notes. If I’m a little more reserved in my enthusiasm, it’s because I’m not sure the bright soprano sound is entirely ballasted: I wanted a bit more tone colour, more precision in the brief coloratura which there’s so much more of in Donizetti, and for that matter in the role of Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani, which Dix is covering at the Met. In the odd and indiscriminate shape of Foroni’s opera, she starts off crowning the sort of big ensembles Verdi knew better to place at the centre of the drama (here, in typical overkill but lots of work for the chorus, there are plenty more to come). And she rises regally to Christina’s dilemma of abdication which makes this a bigger drama than the usual in the genre, a final showdown of duty versus love which foreshadows in situation, but certainly not in the clunky libretto or the one-size-fits-all music, Verdi’s Don Carlos.

Lucia Cirillo and John Bellemer in Cristina, Regina di Svezia by Clive BardaCOG always casts from strength. Here it already had two perfect foils ready-made from Wexford in the less demanding roles of lover and rival: fully Italianate sounding (and looking) American tenor John Bellemer as Gabriele de la Gardie, and the most stylish singer on the concert platform, mezzo Lucia Cirillo, as Maria Eufrosinia, making a perfunctory duet early on in the drama seem interesting (the two pictured at Wexford above). Top marks for style and meaning, too, as always, to veteran David Wilson-Johnson as a Lord High Chancellor well attuned to the sensitivities of a better number, with Dix equally sympathetic at this stage. William Dazeley might be pushing it one step too far as Italianate baritone, arriving late on the scene in the odd dramatic structure, but he gave the cadenza of Carlo Gustavo’s Act Two aria his all.

Comprimario parts all did honour to their contributions. As for the COG Orchestra and Chorus, I’ve never heard them sound better under the ardent baton of Andrew Greenwood (Deborah Miles-Johnson, too, deserves credit for transforming the dedicated amateur choristers). The orchestra actually made me sit up and listen for the only two memorable melodies. The first, in the opening Sinfonia, had me racking my brains for where I’d heard it and the light flashed just before the first scene – it’s the sad ditty sung by Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, and the programme note cites it as a popular Swedish tune, the Näckens Polka. The other was a real surprise: in the Act Two introduction, transporting us to an island in the Swedish archipelago, was the rich chordal sequence of Liszt’s “Harmonies du Soir”. A borrowing by Foroni, probably, rather than a plagiarism on Liszt’s part, as the first version of what became the Études d’exécution transcendante first appeared in 1838 and Cristina's Stockholm world premiere followed 11 years later.

These touches certainly piqued interest. For the rest, it was enough to accept that no touch of genius was going to emerge and to enjoy the sheer energy and dedication of the performance – at levels rather deafening in the confines of the Cadogan Hall – as best one could. It's surely time, though, to place Foroni’s Queen Christina back in her coffin.

  • Chelsea Opera Group's next opera is Massenet's Le roi de Lahore at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 March 2015
It was enough to accept that no touch of genius was going to emerge and to enjoy the sheer energy of the performance

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Comments

There's nothing quite like damning with faint praise is there? It's so easy to do and enables the 'critic' to hedge his bets without risk if his lack of judgement - or knowledge - places him on the wrong side of the fence. It's a particularly English disease and the London opera world is overflowing with it. I'm truly sorry that your ears have become so jaded that you are currently incapable of recognising a major new talent when it presents itself so obviously to you as Ms Dix did for the greater part of the ecstatic and not ill-educated audience in Cadogan Hall on Saturday. Perhaps you should take a reviewing holiday to refresh your batteries. In the meantime, let's see how this artist climbs and climbs...

I for one am grateful that "Cristina" has been unearthed and re-performed. I was at the COG performance and found it a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the bel canto repertoire. I must say that I was surprised that nobody had mentioned the blatant crib from Liszt's "Harmonies du Soir" - it sticks out like a sore thumb - but there is nothing in the ensuing act which echoes Liszt's treatment of the initial theme of this etude, or indeed anything which follows. I came out of the Cadogan Hall thoroughly elated, and that, for me, must be the ultimate yardstick. Judging from the comments I overheard from other members of the audience, this feeling was general. I heard not one single derogatory observation. I also met a group on the Underground who had spotted the programme in my hand and who were all agreed that it been a truly uplifting evening.

In defence of Foroni I am glad that David Nice enjoyed the performance of ‘Cristina’, but disappointed that we did not manage to convince him of the merits of the piece. Granted, ‘Cristina’ is not an out-and-out operatic masterpiece – the libretto is a piece of hack-work (by a singer in the touring Italian opera company that had just engaged Foroni), and the subject patently a ‘piece d’occasion’ chosen more to ingratiate the young composer/conductor with his Swedish hosts than as a subject particularly suitable for operatic treatment. But...what a score! To claim that there are only two memorable melodies in the piece and that neither are Foroni’s is risible. What about the big E flat patriotic tune sung by soloists and chorus right at the start of the opera, and the soaring A flat melody that Cristina delivers over the (‘Prendi, da me ricevi’) ensemble later in the same scene? Or, in contrast, the ‘andante’ sections of the three great duet scenes that form the heart of the opera (each even better than the last, but none ‘perfunctory’), tender, sometimes asymmetric melodies harmonised by Foroni with a romantic sweetness that Verdi shied away from until his later period operas a decade or more into the future. Then, take Cristina’s wonderful aria ‘Alma rea’, in which we hear her hurling words of condemnation at her betrayer, while simultaneously the increasing warmth of the music betrays her continuing love for him - this is the mark of a great opera composer. Even the ‘recitative’ of the opera, and there is very little of it that does not sound ‘through-composed’, never sounds routine - an apposite harmonic surprise or imaginative orchestral texture is never far away. Within the scenes, the musical construction is flawless – nothing outstays its welcome and there is not a note too many. ‘Cristina’ is a work of huge energy, creativity and warmth of expression, and I have no doubt that had Foroni continued his career in Italy and not died at the age of 33, he would have become a serious rival to Verdi. Let us perform it, enjoy and celebrate it – not ‘place (Queen Cristina) back in her coffin’.

Chapter and verse defence of Foroni much appreciated, Andrew (if I may). Even so, I'm sorry you find my opinion 'risible'. Of course you have lived with this work over a year now, and it must be irksome to read a relatively callow response. Nevertheless my duty here is to represent the approach of most of the audience - ie a first-time reaction - whether they agree with me or not (some clearly don't; several musicians I spoke to did).

True, Cristina's lines soar above the ensemble, and I admired the final move beyond personal jealousy interesting in principle if not in musical practice. But I came with very high expectations which I found confounded by the squareness and loudness of so much of the score. I wouldn't expect to grasp everything at a first hearing, but I should hope to go away wanting to hear some numbers again, and I don't. May Cristina's future lie in a CD release of the Wexford performance (broadcast, if I remember, on BBC Radio 3).

As for DMA's less polite defence of Helena Dix, I assure you I'm not hedging. Let me spell it out for you: this kind of diva is not to my taste, the voice could do with refining, but the talent is undoubtedly there. And this certain divadom IS very much to the taste of the Met audience, which has already gone overboard about Christine Goerke, a very talented singer with problems that Dix doesn't have. But do try to lay off personal speculation; it detracts from your argument

I saw the Wexford performance of Cristina last year, shortly after attending the Welsh National Opera productions of Donizetti's Three Queens. In my opinion, Foroni demonstrates rather more musical sophistication than Donizetti generally did. The fusion of bel canto conventions with a Germanic attention to detail and structure is really quite admirable (I played the overture to a friend who guessed it was by Marschner and was shocked when it turned out to be by an heir of Donizetti - this is a tribute I think to Foroni's intelligence). I also think Verdi didn't produce anything as good for some years after. The Wexford staging was really quite electrifying; maybe it's a piece that works less well in concert, but if (as seems to be the case from your review) Andrew Greenwood was on as good form here as he had been there, I regret not having been able to see it again. I certainly think it's a work that merits at least an occasional presence in the repertoire. There is already a good version on CD, recorded in Sweden under Tobias Ringborg.

Orchestral sophistication, Alex, yes, I'd agree. The sticking-point is whether the euphoria created on Saturday and, by all accounts, at Wexford was due to the manner of the many blood-and-thunder ensembles so passionately delivered rather than the actual matter, which is generically good, I thought at the time, but not (IMO) inspired. As for Verdi's inspiration still to come, don't forget Macbeth, which predates Cristina and is a work of much greater genius, no question. Luisa Miller dates from the same year, too. Thanks for the news about the CD.

Ah yes, I suppose you're right about Macbeth, it does mark a major step forward in Italian opera. I'm not really a Verdi man at heart, but obviously he did play a key role in reshaping the conventions of bel canto into a more dramatically apposite musical form. I tend to think that bel canto opera, with very few exceptions, does stand or fall by the manner of its delivery. Seeing the WNO Maria Stuarda last year, I was only mildly diverted; seeing it with Di Donato at Covent Garden, I realised how Donizetti's relatively straightforward music can work as a vehicle for the emotional commitment of a great singer. But giving the limiting conventions of the form, I think Foroni achieved something more valuable in its own right than Donizetti usually did.

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