Ermione Nelly Miricioiu
Andromaca Patricia Bardon
Pirro John Upperton
Oreste Justin Lavender
Pilade Huw Rhys-Evans
Fenicio Martin Robson
Attalo Andrew Rees
Cleone Sarah Rhodes
Cefisa Joanna Burton
Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra
Reviewed by: John T. Hughes
Reviewed: 29 February, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
It’s all about fury and a woman scorned. The woman, as if from hell, is Ermione, daughter of the famed Helen of Troy. Rejected by Pirro, King of Epirus and son of Achilles, she plans revenge, against Pirro and Andromaca, the widow of Hector and now the object of Pirro’s love, which she does not reciprocate. The other thwarted lover is Oreste, Agamemnon’s son, whose feelings for Ermione are also spurned. Suffice it to say that Andromaca commits suicide, Pirro is murdered, and one wonders if any of the others manage to live happily ever after. The libretto, by Andrea Tottola, is based on Racine’s “Andromaque”; the music is, of course, by Rossini. The opera was not a success. In his programme-note, Simon Bainbridge points out that it received no staging between its initial run in 1819 and the revival in Pesaro in 1987, although a concert performance had been given in Sienna in 1977.
The Chelsea Opera Group decided to present it on 29 February, Rossini’s birthday, and their choice for the vindictive Ermione was, unsurprisingly, Nelly Miricioiu: a great favourite with audiences for this kind of role. She possesses the spirit, the intensity, the vocal coloration and the technique. Indeed, she seemed to find the part, created by Isabella Colbran, congenial to her abilities in all respects and she certainly did not spare herself in her involvement.
The female object of Ermione’s hatred, Andromaca, was undertaken by Patricia Bardon. We recall how well she and Miricioiu were colligated, one might say, in the splendid duets in the Semiramide that Chelsea Opera put on in 1998. Ermione does not have such duets (did Rossini and Tottola miss an opportunity?), but Bardon seized her chances in what is really a shortish role, her vocal flexibility overcoming any difficulties. Once or twice the orchestra covered her soft-grained voice in its lowest reaches, but her contribution was much enjoyed.
Of the three leading tenors, the singer of Pirro has the most to do, and Rossini did not give him an easy time. If one can perform it successfully everything is fine: John Upperton could … and did. The range is extremely wide, as Pirro soars to the stratosphere one moment and plumbs the depths the next. Roulades are legion, but Upperton conquered, surmounting the vocal hurdles without a hint of an aspirate. The voice is not silky and smooth, nor is the tone beautiful, but eyebrows were raised at his limber divisions, especially as the programme informed us that although Upperton sings bel canto roles he also has Wagner’s Mime in his repertoire! One hopes that COG will not forget him.
Oreste is another character who needs the services of a vocally supple tenor. One knew from experience that Justin Lavender would deal confidently with any ’problems’ that Rossini set. With tone lighter and softer than Upperton’s, he too possessed pliant vocal production; his scene with Miricioiu near the end of Act Two being one of the evening’s many high-points. As Pilade, Oreste’s friend, we heard Huw Rhys-Evans, who had been the worthy, late-replacing tenor in the aforementioned Semiramide. He had less to sing here but enough to show that he also could take such music in his stride, his voice perhaps a shade less strong than Upperton’s, a touch brighter than Lavender’s. It was good casting all round.
Dominic Wheeler drew the necessary zing and swing from the orchestra on the one hand and the dramatic involvement on the other. The contributions of both orchestra and chorus were as admirable as one expected. There are many fields in which people give their time for the benefit of others. In the field of music-making, the men and women of the Chelsea Opera Group provide a welcome antidote to the “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach.
On Sunday, 6 June, the QEH is due to host COG’s next offering: Giordani’s Andrea Chénier.