Anna Bolena, English Touring Opera
Susannah, English Touring Opera
Don Giovanni, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London
A spurned bride, a sexually harassed girl and 1003 former lovers join opera's roll call of beleaguered females
Sunday 23 March 2008
Only one of the three operas in English Touring Opera's Spring Season bears a male name as its title. But just as Don Giovanni is driven by the carnal caprice of its anti-hero, Anna Bolena and Susannah are dominated by the desires of Henry VIII and Olin Blitch respectively. Henry (Riccardo Simonetti) is a coldly charismatic presence in Donizetti's exquisitely scored drama. Weary of his second wife and besotted by Jane Seymour (Julia Riley), his decision to frame Anne (Julie Unwin) as an adultress is swift and remorseless.
Remorse is a female emotion in this opera, which centres on the delicately calibrated relationship between Anne and Jane. Powerfully sung by Riley and Unwin, and beautifully supported by the orchestra under Michael Lloyd, their Act II confrontation is the highlight of an insecure production.
Designed by Soutra Gilmour, with sliding tapestried panels on a steel frame, James Conway's staging succeeds in illustrating the paranoia and claustrophobia of Henry's court. (A silent Mary Tudor glides along the galleries, watching Anne's humiliation and nursing the hated baby Elizabeth.)
But there is little distinction between formal and naturalistic movement, and only Simonetti and Riley act at the same time as they sing. Unwin is often too busy pacing herself through this marathon role to convey more than weary fortitude, making this political drama curiously domestic in tone.
Written during the fearful years of McCarthyism, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah – a Tennessee-set reworking of the story of Susannah and the Elders – lacks both the feverish horror of The Crucible and the carnival weirdness of The Night of the Hunter. Although Floyd was a Southerner, the score smacks of faux-Americana: the optimistic open fifths of Appalachian Spring (written by a boy-chick from Brooklyn), and the lonely beauty of the New World Symphony (as described by a Bohemian master who had yet to see the Prairies). The most memorable melody is, oddly, a square-dance variation on Bach's E major Partita for Violin, the heroine's "Ain't it a pretty night" is transatlantic verismo, the pine-scented orchestration a boondocks response to the affluent idyll of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
Decked with wooden slats, hung with an American Gothic pitchfork and dressed with Shaker benches, Gilmour's steel-framed set is persuasively reconfigured into the type of farmhouse, barn and revivalist chapel you might find in the type of village you wouldn't want your car to break down in. All that's missing is a wall-eyed boy with a banjo. Plump and pretty as a ripe peach, Donna Bateman's bare-shouldered, sweet-tempered Susannah is the perfect object of suspicion for this community of pinched, skinny, pious term-agants (Sandra Porter, Renée Salewski, Cheryl Enever, Niamh Kelly); some of them sporting black eyes, most of them pregnant.
Conway neatly underlines their jealousy and the sly lust of the Church Elders (Anthony Cleverton, Mark Cunningham, Stephen Anthony Brown, Jonathan Pugsley). But the production lacks focus until the arrival of Blitch (Andrew Slater), the preacher who "sure hates sin", and the only character whose words are 100 per cent discernible through the Tennessee twang and orchestra-heavy balance. Thanks to Slater's subtlety, the hysteria of the prayer meetings and Blitch's guilty seduction of Susannah have an impact that the closing image of our now-hardened, sluttish heroine lacks. Still, Floyd's concise, direct drama seems scarcely to merit the performance history it has enjoyed in the country of its creation.
Strongest of the three productions is Jonathan Munby's Don Giovanni. Here the set is clad in Moorish blue and pricked with the geometric designs of Islamic art, while the deference demanded by the 18th-century aristocracy is translated into the reluctant complicity of those living under the Franco dictatorship, making the Don (Roland Wood) a more violent, less sensual character.
I was not wholly convinced by the analogue, but the reluctance of Masetto (Adrian Powter) to raise his arm in a fascist salute at the close of Act I adds fibre to one of Mozart's least interesting characters.
Wood's Don remains strangely aloof: a joyless libertine who is revealed as a devout sinner in the opening and closing tableaux. Yet Act I, in particular, achieves a spiralling momentum that is mirrored in conductor Michael Rosewell's swift, sharp beat and clear orchestral textures.
Jonathan Gunthorpe plays Leporello as a soulless mercenary, Slater's Commendatore terrifies, while Julia Sporsen's Donna Anna seems, for once, to be more occupied with grief and justice than sex or the avoidance of sex. Ilona Domnich is a strikingly assured Zerlina, audible even in the low tessitura of the quintets, and though Eyjolfur Eyjolfsson strains to lend Don Ottavio machismo and Laura Parfitt's wide vibrato ill suits the baroque agitations of Elivira's arias, both are fine ensemble players.
'Anna Bolena'/ 'Susannah'/ 'Don Giovanni', Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (01242 572573) from 25 March, then touring
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