Muzio Scevola, Holywell Music Room (Oxford); The Magic Flute, Il Trovatore (Coliseum)
New Statesman, Dec. 1977
All these operas began with the fashionable nonsense of their time and place (first performances in London 1721, Vienna 1791 and Rome 1853). According to John Dewey, what endures is “a substance that can enter into the experience of others and enable them to have more intense experiences of their own”. Perhaps Muzio Scevola, although buried for 250 years, can still fulfill that office for some hearers; if so, they can be grateful to Anthony Ford for his scholarly spadework. My own feeling is that last week's concert performance was less a revival than an exhumation. One apparent cause of death was the verbal anaemia of Paolo Rolli, so pernicious that not even copious Livy extracts could save it. The dull Italian libretto suggests a set textbook of Roman history; it was divided into three parts, and handed over to a triumvirate of composers. But the artificial plot could not be turned to any real advantage, even by Handel's Act Three. There is just no life left in the story of the legendary hero who thrust his hand into a flame to show his fortitude.
At the time, Italian opera was all the fashion. Before long the Beggar's Opera would laugh such aristocratic pretensions out of court, and restore entertainment power to the native bourgeoisie. Meanwhile John Gay contented himself with a mildly protesting epigram about the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by foreign artists and art-forms –
Who here blames words, or verses, songs, or singers,
Like Mutius Scaevola will burn his fingers.
The Oxford Opera Club orchestra with fire, under the spirited direction of Denis Arnold; and the young professional singers performed with considerable brightness and warmth. I especially admired the eloquence of Patrizia Kwella's Orazio. But the basic material was always wooden and has now petrified; there was little sign of any further kindling.
The Magic Flute poses the opposite problem. It plays so well and enchants audiences so readily that its potentially profound effect on experience can easily be lost in a welter of farce and fun. The safeguard lies in soft-pedalling the stage business and articulating words and music with total clarity. The present production tends to reverse this procedure. Its first flaw is the English translation, which to my ears is full of false quantities. Instead of tripping from the tongue, the syllables sprawl gracelessly athwart the melodic lines. This effect is aggravated by the direction of Lionel Friend, who bustles the work along like a panto, leaving some of the singers rather breathless.
The present production seems designed to make its appeal direct to the audience, without undue deference to the music. Thus in his search for a soul-mate, Papageno(engagingly played by Alan Opie) is required to quit the stage and examine the contents of the nearest boxes. Perhaps these and analogous effects were aimed at the many school parties in the audience. Certainly it is splendid to see young people patronising the opera; but the converse is less agreeable. What in the world can one take seriously, if not children and Mozart? In part compensation we had some admirable singing, for. Example from John Tomlinson as Sarastro; his performance will grow in stature and gravity as his involvement and confidence increase. The finest redeeming features, in my view, were those of Valerie Masterson, whose Pamina looked and sounded exquisitely convincing, whether in delight or despair.
In Il Trovatore too the night was rescued by a lady, for the third successive time. In the presence of Katherine Pring's Azucena the stage lit up. The fiery intensity of her singing was more than a match for its topic, namely the burning of a witch at the stake. At that point the rest of the cast
began to believe in the opera; and so, rather more gradually, did the audience, despite the manifold implausibilities of the Romantic melodrama. Its title, the only phrase leftuntranslated in Tom Hammond's more than competent singing version, means a wandering minstrel; or thing of shreds and patches; like the gipsy costumes of the makeshift plot. The hero Manrico well sung, especially in the lyric moments, by Tom Swift) is never quite sure whether or not he was burned to death in infancy, in which tragic event he would not be his own mother's son but somebody else's; and this perplexity so confuses his mind that he is inadvertently captured in between acts. Indeed, so much happens to him off-stage that it seemed doubly inadvisable to render his first solo almost entirely inaudible. This distancing effect suggested a troubadour on whose serenading someone had just slammed a window shut; it inhibited the establishment of the character; and it blunted the poignancy of a later melodic reprise.
Otherwise all was sweetness and light, as in the singing of Rita Hunter as Leonora, or power and darkness, as in the Conte di Luna of Christian du Plessis. Many of the brightest highlights came from the orchestra, ably directed by Noel Davis. Verdi's splendidly familiar score, like Hamlet, is full of quotations. Interestingly, the first notes of the top ten tunes are built up from the common chord, which vividly captures and conveys the common touch. Finally, one spectacular coup de théâtre earns a special mention, as the English National Opera's answer to Salome. At the Coliseum, a headless corpse is displayed: at Covent Garden, a corpseless head. Can these be the reciprocal arrangements promised at the recent press conference?