Unglücklich Gluck

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 25, 2012 at 8:06 am

Review – Il Trionfo di Clelia (Linbury Theatre, Sunday 24 June 2012)

Clelia – Hélène Le Corre
Orazio – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Tarquinio – Irini Karaianni
Larissa – Lito Messini
Porsenna – Vassili Kavayas
Mannio – Artemis Bogri

Director – Nigel Lowery
Costume – Paris Mexis
Lighting – George Tellos

City of London Sinfonia
Conductor – Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio

Not since the Mariinsky production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten has a production disappointed me as much.

On paper, and based on the recording of the same opera with – bar a few exceptions and the orchestra – an identical cast list, the performance of Il Trionfo di Clelia at the Linbury Theatre should have been indeed, triumphal.

Sadly it wasn’t for two reasons. The production. And the orchestra.

What a shame.

Quite simply, what did Nigel Lowery think he was doing? The principles of Metatasian opera are clean and simple. Lofty, Enlightenment ideals such as love, honour, dignity and magnanimity, are portrayed through historical or mythical characters and the composers who set these texts – among them Leo, Hasse, Vinci, Mozart and Gluck – wrote music of stunning virtuosity and incredible pathos. And as opera seria evolved, not only through the work of composers such as Gluck, but also Traetta and Jommelli, it became more complex, with the use of techniques such as accommpagnato to breathe even deeper meaning and emotional insight into the characters.

In the Eighteenth century every technique was similarly deployed on stage to heighten the audiences experience. Marvellous machines bringing to Gods to stage in chariots, dragons and demons when required, beautifully decorated backdrops and screens that flew in and out to the wonder of the audiences.

Granted this isn’t quite as possible today – except if you go to the extremes of LePage and his folly at the Met – so what Lowery offered us according to the programme note by Magnolia Albertazzi was a simpler set. To quote Singora Albertazzi, “the set recalls the simplicity of the baroque scenes, depicting a different universe beyond the proscenium arch, which, when Rome is involved, opens up into a sketched-out perspective, a sort of post-constructivist revision of a Renaissance set”.

What a load of rubbish.

What we were presented with was a set that most of the time threatened to come apart at the seams, crammed full of the worse crimes of confused RegieTheater pretention that did not hang together in any real sense of narrative.

From the very beginning nothing worked as Lowery’s farrago of ill-thought ideas flooded the stage. The characters on stage seemed to range in inspiration from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup characters for Orazio and Clelia, Larissa’s Sarah-Jessica-Parker-Grayson-Perry and the band Fleetwood Mac for Porsenna and Tarquinio. And why exactly was Mannio dressed like a bellboy?

Lowery then bombarded the audience with RegieTheater affectation after affectation. There was a book burning; some flag waving; a beach-ball-cum-globe referred to quite literally at the end by Albertazzi as “a new world rising above this small universe” as it was pathetically passed between the protagonists in the closing chorus; some unrelated potion-making at the end of the second act; some pointless undressing; a doll motif carried by the puerile Larissa; a wooden horse (thankfully not of the nature of LePage’s in his Ring cycle) to carry Clelia behind; an over-sized puppet head and worst of all a curtain splitting the stage in two which kept raining its runners onto the stage.

The one moment of inspiration – the building of the bridge over the Tiber was ruined by the animation of the battle. It just looked like a rag-tag group doing battle with someone wearing pyjamas. Dreadful.

The lighting was incredibly basic – someone behind me referred to it as being like a “High School Play” and as you may have deduced from above, the costumes were a ridiculous mixed bag.

And sadly the playing in the pit was well below par. In the recording Armonia Artenea are superlative. Their sound is rich and sonorous, their playing crisp and alert, their articulation, colour and contrast precise and invigorating. In the programme, conductor Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio comments that Il Trionfo di Clelia had a richness in orchestration that was “almost without equal in Gluck’s work”.

Where was that in evidence in the Linbury?

It wasn’t.

For whatever reason – and I think it was lack of rehearsal – the City of London Sinfonia were ragged from the start and failed almost singly to rise to the occasion. An untidy sinfonia both rhythmically and pitch-wise set the trend for lacklustre, unconfident and bland playing from the pit. And as a consequence the rich palette of Gluck’s score failed to shine through.

And a final point for Messieurs Cross and Young in the trumpet section. You can be seen in the pit and while it is fine – I suppose – to read a novel when you aren’t playing, what seemed like checking the progress of England on your mobile phones is simply distracting.

But against all this the singers put in a valiant effort and were – to a man and woman – brilliant.

Hélène Le Corre’s Clelia was well-sung and managed the tricky coloratura – scored and embellished – with ease. She conveyed great sympathy and understanding of the music and if there were moments of strain at the top of her register they were few and far between.

The Orazio of Mary-Ellen Nesi was impressive and if at times she interpreted emotional intensity as increased volume, she possesses a rich and dark mezzo that was a wonderful foil to the soprano of her lover.

Irini Karaianni as Taquinio however stole the show and it is a shame that in one of her arias Lowery directorial distractions marred her performance. A honeyed and burnished tone with an impressive vocal range, she sailed through Gluck’s music and her final aria was simply impressive.

Porsenna was sung by Vassilis Kavayas who bravely and brilliantly handled the tortuous tessitura and coloratura written by the composer. It was refreshing to hear such a clear and confident tenor, with such a light touch voice.

And finally the Larissa and Mannio of Lito Messini and Artemis Bogri respectively. It is a shame Bogri did not have more to sing because like Karaianni she had a rich, round mezzo. Messini was a last minute stand-in and handled the role – including some difficult passages of coloratura – with more confidence than I would have expected.

Looking at the programme note I did wonder what impact the crisis in Greece will have on its classical music scene. It cannot, sadly, be a positive one.

Ultimately, it is a shame that de Risio didn’t opt for a concert performance. The singers were to a person top-notch but I feel were hampered by Lowery’s ridiculous and pretentious production and perhaps the time could have been more well-spent by the orchestra learning the notes.

If you haven’t heard it though I would recommend the recording of Il Trionfo di Clelia. Not only is it a fantastic opera but also the performances are brilliant.

  1. […] the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost […]

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