Ermione or Patience Rewarded

Opera: Ermione; Glyndebourne
Click to follow
When you've waited 176 years for a UK stage premiere, then patience is hardly an issue. But patience is both required and rewarded in the matter of Rossini's Ermione. Proudly she bows in at Glyndebourne, trailing tags of "inexplicable neglect", "forgotten masterpiece". And during the overture you're thinking, perhaps they're right. The opening pages are indeed most striking, a grave and uncompromising Rossini, his orchestral dirge boldly punctuated by the unseen lamentations of the Trojan populace - the sound of despair in time of darkness.

This is innovative stuff, you're thinking, a full two minutes and he hasn't plied us with one of those silly tunes yet. But in the blink of a staccato vamp, the world of opera seria is all at once the world of opera buffa - same music, different plot - and the first of many infernal crescendos begins.

Style and expression, there's the crux of it. There are times here where the two seem so very far apart. Rossini's brand of opera seria is more often than not a blow to the funny bone. His protagonists sing of pain and grief but all the while a jaunty clarinet or frisky flute is pulling faces somewhere in the orchestra. Yet, there is great music in Ermione - and most of it in Act 2, where our heroine's lust for vengeance sends her reeling towards destiny in a gran scena of epic proportions. Now that is worth waiting for.

But it's a tricky business, this question of style. If you are Graham Vick, you can temper your respect for the genre with a gentle sense of irony. His Glyndebourne staging of Ermione is all about style and stylisation - a stylisation of opera seria which is in turn a stylisation of Greek tragedy. With a single twist of his revolve, Vick's designer Richard Hudson effects an ingenious transformation from the battle-scarred city limits of Epirus to the interior of a theatre, precariously off-kilter. Ladies- in-waiting are done up like huntresses, their golden bows and arrows promising pre-emptive strikes on behalf of a capricious Cupid.

Ermione enters like a fashionably late arrival at her own opera. This is a role, one senses, she's played before in other operas, not unlike this one. She probably wears the same gowns, graduating from purple to black as the tragedy deepens.

And as the tragedy deepens, the curtain rises on Act 2 to reveal Hudson's tilted set tilting yet more precariously. A nice visual witticism, and one typical of a team who manage to dignify this piece of dramatic nonsense - simply, and with statuesque restraint - without losing their sense of humour. It's a similar contradiction that exists in Rossini's music.

And in Rossini's music the vocal coloratura rules. Anna Caterina Antonacci (Ermione) has the best and most elaborate of it - the music of a woman scorned, floated sweet nothings exploding into irrational pyrotechnics. She's a singer of great promise, sensitive, stylish, imaginative. Her top register needs work but those hellfire descents into the chest voice would give any rival pause for thought.

The men in her life, both tenors (an embarrassment of them in this opera), were proof conclusive that the drama inherent in these often predictable vocal lines is there for a singer's taking. Jorge Lopez-Yanez's Pirro was tirelessly athletic, no holds barred on those hectic runs up to top D. But a single phrase of Bruce Ford's Oreste was enough to remind us of what a difference real vocal artistry can make. So many colours, and the coloratura tumbling so effortlessly off the vocal cords. Andrew Davis conducted somewhat bullishly, an accelerando for every crescendo. But one can forgive his zeal. These particular crescendos have been a long time coming.

n In rep to 12 July (booking: 01273 813813). Broadcast live on R3 30 May and on C4 3 June

Edward Seckerson