Singing for whose supper?

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Opera: Il Guarany

Chelsea Opera Group at the QEH, SBC, London

Antonio Carlos Gomes was a hugely successful Brazilian contemporary of Verdi. Il Guarany, first performed at La Scala, Milan, in 1870, contains some wonderful melodies, a series of showpiece arias for the principals, several spectacular set pieces (an Ave Maria, a drinking song, a cannibal invocation, a baptism and a gunpowder explosion) and a rubbishy plot. It would seem ideal fodder for Chelsea Opera Group, who specialise in reviving neglected works in carefully cast concert performances. On Saturday, however, Il Guarany struggled to emerge from a damp blanket of Britishness. Unusually, the chorus were not in good form (and their Italian also needed more work), but the main fault lay with the conductor, Michael Lloyd. His unloving, perfunctory performance suggested that he disapproved of the opera. Like some sniffy, seaside landlady, resentful at being in Blackpool, he made Gomes's score sound merely banal, rum-ti-tum, "no better than it ought to be". Which is a pity.

In recent times the opera has only been staged at the behest of Placido Domingo, whose Latin glamour is ideally suited to the eponymous noble savage. Chelsea Opera Group fielded Terence Robertson. He had most of the notes within his grasp but lacked any charisma, nobility or savagery. His fingers rose in stock Italian tenor gestures; his heart and his voice remained in Surrey. Johannes von Duisburg mismanaged his impressive baritone reserves and shouted his way through the role of Gonzales.

Paul Hudson kept his head buried in the score and made nothing of the juicy cameo role of the cannibal chief, Il Cacico, who won't even consider eating the tenor until he's made love to the soprano. There were more cheering contributions in smaller parts, from the sweetly voiced tenor Timothy Richards, the impressive bass Graeme Danby and the tenor Simon Bainbridge, who emerged from the chorus to sing Ruy-Bento. Jeremy White as Don Antonio, the aged noble father, demonstrated just how much can be made with a stock character, given intelligence, musicality and stage presence. The evening was redeemed by Judith Howard as his daughter, Cecilia. She relished the role's technical challenges and made every note and every word count. Judging from this performance and her recent scene-stealing appearance in the LSO's Nixon in China, she has put those "promising" years at Covent Garden behind her and is now a great star. If only we could have heard her in the ENO's current Tales of Hoffmann; her programme biography tells us that she will indeed perform all three of Offenbach's soprano roles - in Florida.

Next Chelsea Opera Group performance: Massenet's Esclarmonde, 7 June QEH, SBC, London

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