Friday, 29 July 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 29 July 2016

THERE are some highspot events this weekend and soon after for those who know what they like in classical music: the Hallé’s open-air extravaganza at Tatton Park tomorrow, their Last Night of the Proms at the Bridgewater Hall on Sunday, the Gilbert & Sullivan  Opera Company completing a visit to Buxton Opera House, and – more high-minded – the Lake District Summer Music festival getting going in Cumbria.

But I’d like to look back to an outstanding opera performance of the immediate past. You never quite know what’s coming in the context of established annual routines, but this year’s full-length summer production from Clonter Opera of La Traviata (by Verdi) was of very high quality.

It had an intelligent and imaginative production by Christopher Cowell, with design by Eleanor Wdowski, placing the story in early 20th century Vienna – and two very gifted singers in the principal roles.

Cowell’s re-timing worked well: early 20th century Vienna was as much a place of surface glitter and underlying sickness as Dumas’ Paris in The Lady of the Camellias, the novel on which La Traviata is based.

It was also a society in which you could expect to meet the poet or artist alongside members of the moneyed minor aristocracy, social butterflies and ladies of ill repute. The story was told fairly straightforwardly against this background, and Wdowski’s glistening golden backdrop accompanied every scene, with a change of stage properties enough to show each shift of location.

The small cast – Clonter Opera is essentially a training ground for young singers – provided excellent ensemble sound, with music director Clive Timms and his small but top-quality orchestra in the pit backing them up with skill and style.

The stand-out was the soprano Marlena Devoe (Violetta). She has everything a young opera star needs: lovely tone in every register, flexibly and sensitively used to serve her role, and outstanding acting ability.

And Peter Aisher, as Alfredo, is a tenor with that powerful top sound that Italian operatic heroes need. He, too, is an instinctive actor who made the diffident young man swept up in passion seem real.

Christopher Cowell no doubt contributed much to these performances – I loved the way the ‘false start’ introduction to the Act One toast song was made into Alfredo nearly bottling out of doing it altogether, and then finding his courage – but it takes top performers to make these things live.

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