Chelsea Opera Group – La favourite

La favourite – Opéra in four acts to a libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, with additions by Eugène Scribe, partly based on the plot of L’ange de Nisida [sung in French]

Léonor – Liora Grodnikaite
Fernand – Michael Spyres
Alphonse XI – Stephen Gadd
Balthazar – Saša Čano
Don Gaspar – Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks
Inès – Stephanie Corley

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Gianluca Marcianò

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 16 November, 2008
Venue: Cadagan Hall, London

The chance to hear “La favorite”, the original, French version of Donizetti’s opera, premièred in Paris in 1840, is one which should be seized. One is grateful to the adventurous Chelsea Opera Group for presenting it in Cadogan Hall, a venue which I find markedly superior to the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls for its more focused sound and an acoustic in which voices are clearly heard rather than dissipated, as compared with their being spread, with little impact, if one hears them from farther back than the front section at the RFH.

Was my visit to Sloane Square worthwhile? Well, yes, and more so. The opportunity to hear the opera was one plus-factor, its performance another, quite on a par with the more than merely respectable standard that one expects from Chelsea Opera.

A touch of wiry sound from the strings at the start of the Prelude was soon despatched, and from thereon, with just one or two fluffs to remind us that the orchestra consists of gifted amateurs (in both meanings of the noun) rather than seasoned professionals (and who has not heard something less than perfect from a premier league orchestra?), a full-blooded instrumental outpouring or a softer touch as appropriate was produced under Gianluca Marcianò. He will be Chief Conductor of the Croatian National Opera in Zagreb in 2008-2009 and was a worthy addition to COG’s roster.

I did not attend COG’s “Cendrillon” this summer and thus missed Liora Grodnikaite’s singing of the title role but I am pleased thatt I witnessed her Léonor in this “La favorite”, for she produced what was the best performance that I have heard from her. She sang without a score and thus reacted to King Alphonse, whose mistress (or favourite) Léonor is, and to Léonor’s lover Fernand with fitting facial expressions. More important, of course, was her singing. Her high mezzo-soprano was easily produced with a rounded tone, be it in the firm lower reaches or in her freely emitted upper range, with no sense of strain, and she coloured it as befitted the events.

As Fernand was the American tenor Michael Spyres, possessor of a very attractive lyric voice which was just right for the role. The top was not behaving itself on this occasion, for his two high notes in ‘Un ange, une femme inconnue’ suffered a crack, which was unfortunate, as he had sung sweetly and invested the aria with pleasing modulating of his tone. In his Act Four aria, ‘Ange si pur’, the top notes were there but not exactly secure. Nevertheless, there is far more to a performance, even a tenor’s, than top notes, and Spyres’s approach was convincing and his singing well-shaped and phrased, all of which means that I certainly want to hear him again.

Stephen Gadd sang Alphonse with strength, both vocally and dramatically, and made a positive character of the Castillian King, authoritatively commanding. His baritone voice has grown in both power and range during the years since I first heard him, in the final of the 1990 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, in which he included the bass aria ‘Infelice’ from “Ernani”.

If Grodnikaite eschewed the use of a score, the Croatian bass Saša Čano (was he introduced to COG by the conductor?) focused on his intently, not once lifting his head to sing a phrase or a bar without the book. Never mind: whether he was not fully prepared or lacked self-confidence, his warm, resonant tone gave pleasure by its quality. One simply felt that his reluctance to look away from the printed page inhibited somewhat his vocal freedom.

Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, who replaced Wynne Evans, brought a pleasant light tenor to the important secondary role of Don Gaspar, and Stephanie Corley made a fair contribution in the smaller role of Inès.

Thus one heard yet another fine contribution to London’s operatic life by this praiseworthy group of enthusiasts. The next offering will be at the QEH on Sunday 15 February, when Nelly Miricioiu will sing the eponymous character in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur”. On Sunday 7 June the QEH will again be the venue, when the early version of “Simon Boccanegra” will be given.

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