The Miserly Knight [sung in Russian]
Gianni Schicchi [sung in Italian]
The Miserly Knight
Baron Sergei Leiferkus
Albert Richard Berkeley-Steele
Duke Albert Schagidullin
Money-Lender Viacheslav Voynarovsky
Servant Maxim Mikhailov
Henchmen Robert Davies & James Gower
Gianni Schicchi Alessandro Corbelli
Lauretta Sally Matthews
Zita Felicity Palmer
Rinuccio Massimo Giordano
Gherardo Adrian Thompson
Nella Olga Schalaewa
Gherardino Christopher Waite
Betto di Signa Maxim Mikhailov
Simone Luigo Roni
Marco Riccardo Novaro
La Ciesca Marie McLaughlin
Maestro Spinelloccio Viacheslav Voynarovsky
Ser Amantio di Nicolao Richard Mosley-Evans
Pinellino James Gower
Guccio Robert Davies
Corpse of Buoso Donati Matilde Leyser
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Semi-stagings directed by Annabel Arden
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 26 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
For its annual Proms showcase Glyndebourne unveiled semi-staged versions of two short operas concerned with greed and the disposal of accumulated wealth on death. This interesting double-bill in a visually stunning and cogent staging by Annabel Arden had been unveiled in Sussex earlier in the summer and it was good that the director had been brought back to reproduce as much of the original on the bare stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
In the darkened hall, the London Philharmonic’s stunning playing of the brooding and lush prelude immediately set the scene of pervading mystery and secrecy. An immediately identifiable Russian soundworld this, with repeated string figures set against softly threatening brass, and kept under admirable control by the initially baton-less conductor. Jurowski has great dramatic flair, evident throughout the evening, and the orchestra responded marvellously.
The first scene sees the Baron’s son, Albert, fretting and ranting about the penury he lives in owing to his father’s miserly nature, and about his inability to enter a forthcoming tournament with the Duke for lack of good weaponry. Richard Berkeley-Steele looked the part but vocally did not manage to judge the difficult acoustic of the hall and lacked the necessary heft and clarion timbre that this rather strenuous role demands. The part requires one of those trumpet-like Russian tenors so rare today. Maxim Mikhailov made much of little in the role of Albert’s servant. The money-lender, Solomon, which today might be seen as a rather non-PC Jewish caricature, was brought to life vocally and dramatically by the insinuating presence of Viacheslav Voynarovsky.
The opera’s central scene, when the Baron is discovered adding more gold to the chests hidden in his castle vaults, musing on the power it gives him, and his concerns for its future after his demise, is a part that could have been written for the theatrical and impressive vocal talents of Sergei Leiferkus. Fully costumed and made-up he slowly made his way to the stage from the back of the Arena, through the crowd, carrying a lantern, whilst the orchestra elaborated on the gloom of the vaults with metallic brass punctuated by chattering woodwind and slithery strings.
Leiferkus is a seasoned performed with still incisive and thrilling timbre and superb diction. His every word was audible, and although the subdued lighting made it difficult to follow the libretto, it almost did not matter given the vividness of Leiferkus and the orchestra. His sudden outpouring about the potential power of money was exciting and his gradual reverie towards the end of his 20-minute scene compelling. This is the love-interest of the opera and the baritone made it very understandable and erotic.
The last scene of this admittedly not very dramatic piece concerns the Duke who ostensibly tries to reconcile father and son to no avail. The shock of this so affects the miserly baron that he falls insensible to the ground desperate to hold onto the keys to his vaults. Arden’s production makes it clear that the ultimate gainer of the treasure is not the son but probably the duplicitous Duke, sung here by Albert Schagidullin.
This was a thrilling experience. After the interval came Puccini’s sunny comedy based on a tale of Dante. Always a good opportunity for a fine operatic ensemble, Glyndebourne responded by fielding a cast of seasoned favourites with young talent. Like all good comedy this opera has its serious side that was fully realised in Arden’s witty staging, even if it did look a little cramped here. There was some broad-brush humour, particularly the treatment of Buoso’s corpse (poor Matilde Leyser got thrown all over the place before being unceremoniously stuffed into a chest for the last 30 minutes). Dead Buoso’s relatives were nicely characterised by the large cast. It seems invidious to single anyone out, but both Felicity Palmer’s mean and vituperative Zita and Luigi Roni’s patrician yet greedy Simone made for nice cameos. Best of all was Marie McLaughlin’s fiery and mettlesome La Ciesca – it was a delight to see her on a stage again after what feels like a very long and inexplicable absence.
Of course the opera does rather rely on the baritone singing the title role and here Alessandro Corbelli was inspired casting. Slight and disreputable of appearance this Gianni was the ultimate trickster, and Corbelli relished the words and was a vivid exposer of the family’s hypocrisy. His tenderness towards his daughter was also never in doubt, and his acceptance of her love for Rinuccio was touching and made a suitable contrast to the animosity towards the couple displayed by Felicity Palmer’s Zita. The lovers have the most memorable and conventional music to sing and Sally Matthews rightly stopped the show with “that aria”, and Massimo Giordano showed his ringing Italian tenor to advantage.
Under Jurowski the LPO still seemed to be having a ball. However, some of the tempos were rather frenetic and occasionally the orchestra threatened to get dangerously ahead of the singers. Maybe Jurowski should have made greater allowance for the acoustic, although players and singers certainly rose to the challenges he set! The humour of the scoring was constantly illuminated, but the outstanding memory will be Leiferkus’s amazing twenty minutes of holding the audience spellbound in the Rachmaninov.