fri 21/01/2022

Linda di Chamounix, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Linda di Chamounix, Royal Opera

Linda di Chamounix, Royal Opera

Does this audacious hybrid work?

The hills are alive with the sound of... well, Donizetti, actually. His mature "Melodramma Semiserio" Linda di Chamounix arrived towards the climax of a prolific career in opera and was clearly a late attempt to capitalise on his successes and give his adoring audiences a little of everything and at great length. This season-opener concert performance at the Royal Opera (recorded, incidentally, by Opera Rara) was not far short in duration of Verdi’s epic Don Carlo, a starry revival of which occupies this very stage imminently.
As the subtitle implies, the really startling thing about Linda di Chamounix is its hugely risky strategy of leavening the drama of potential tragedy with a few hefty shots of the composer’s well-practised opera buffa. This is an opera which sounds and behaves like a stirring social drama only to perform a series of unsettling volte-faces each time – and this is the kicker - the villain of the piece appears. Played here with tongue-twisting aplomb by that veteran comic showman Alessandro Corbelli, the Marquis of Boisfleury is essentially a dirty old man with lustful designs on simple farm-girl Linda. He’d like to practise the alternative version of Do-Re-Mi with her.
Now whether or not Donizetti predicted outrage from his Catholic audiences or whether he simply wanted to cash in on all his assets is neither here nor there – the real problem for me is that the applause-seeking buffa set-pieces so offset the drama that each time the tone darkens in their wake we are less inclined to buy the conceit. Or perhaps audiences back in 1842 relished the idea of an audacious hybrid – the best of Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’amore rolled into one hefty all-singing, all-purpose package. 
For sure Donizetti spins out his fragile plot line with all manner of crowd-pleasing numbers. The felicitous orchestral touches are many, beginning with a cosily inviting pastorale, replete with warbling flute, quick to morph into a bristling symphonic allegro despatched with Mendelssohnian fire by Mark Elder and the Royal Opera Orchestra displaying their best period performance manners. Elder is clearly exhilarated by this music and affords it all due care and attention. Evocative touches of sweet harmony, most notably in the horns, achieve a modicum of genuine pathos, and nowhere more so than in the recurring sounds of the hurdy-gurdy (ingeniously replicated) reminding Linda of home when she is in exile in Paris.
True to the spirit of the piece Linda’s first entrance is a false alarm, Donizetti and his librettist pulling off a naughty parody of operatic conventions. Actually there were nearly two false alarms when Eglise Gutierrez failed to appear until beckoned (with visible irritation) by maestro Elder. That’s one way of getting an entrance round. Another is nailing your entrance aria, as Gutierrez did, with dizzying roulades up to high F, I do believe. Gutierrez has an unusually dusky vocal complexion for this kind of repertoire and its "cover" does add allure to the brilliance of the pyrotechnics. Inevitably the voice closes a little at the very top but then those truly stratospheric groupings are at best a surreal extension of the natural voice.
Her love object Carlo was a prizewinning young American lyric tenor, Stephen Costello, with tall good looks and an honest way with this music. It’s not a particularly special timbre but it has more girth than is sometimes the case among bel canto tenors and with its easy transmission into mezza voce the effect of the voice can be most beguiling. Someone to watch.
And so we arrived at the point where far from losing her reason permanently (as with poor Lucia), Linda is brought back to blissful reality by the sound of her lover’s voice. An a cappella quintet of surpassing beauty signals the happy event – a moment almost worth waiting three hours for. But Donizetti immediately sells out to banality with Linda’s revelation that the odious Marquis will now become her beloved uncle. Oh, please… get the girl a therapist.

The Royal Opera season starts in earnest tonight, with a revival of Nicholas Hytner's production of Don Carlo. To book, click here

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