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Madama Butterfly (5/31/12), Idomeneo (6/1/12)

GRANGE PARK
Grange Park Opera

In a remotely rural corner eight miles from Winchester, the ancient county town of Hampshire (and sometime English capital), Grange Park Opera has run its summer festival season for the past fifteen years. Three works are regularly performed in a well-equipped opera house constructed inside the 1826 orangery added on to the main house, whose Jacobean origins are disguised behind its stunning early-nineteenth-century Greek portico. The result is one of the loveliest performance locations in the entire United Kingdom.

This year's opening night, May 31, featured Madama Butterfly in a production by John Doyle. It is a staging previously seen at the festival's outpost at Nevill Holt in Leicestershire, where the company regularly moves for an additional fifth week following its Hampshire event. Designed by Mark Bailey, the production is visually simple to the point of bareness, a single small screen standing in for the house that Pinkerton rents for 999 years and a rising shape in front of the backcloth indicating the slope of the hill overlooking Nagasaki harbour. The period costumes, however, are sumptuous and authentic.

In all respects this is a traditional production, with no rewrites, surprises or contradictions; but it often felt sparely directed as well as sparely visualized. Crucial scenes such as Yamadori's rejected offer of marriage, and even the Bonze's violent intervention, made less impact than they needed to. The essentials of character and narrative were there, but not enough of the detail of this realistic tragedy was fleshed out.

It didn't help that Claire Rutter's Cio-Cio-San and Marco Panuccio's Pinkerton looked an unlikely young couple in Act I. Once the difficulty of presenting a fifteen-year-old child-bride was over, Rutter's vocalism was confident, though she needed to search the text and notes more comprehensively for the richness of meaning Puccini and his librettists so liberally supplied. A weak actor, Panuccio threw away his opportunities in the last act, and throughout his voice frequently sounded ungainly and under the note. 

Stephen Gadd (Rutter's real-life husband) had far greater success with Sharpless, presenting an observant, fully credible character through his firm, well projected baritone. Sara Fulgoni's Suzuki was perfectly efficient both vocally and dramatically, though Doyle left largely unexplored the complexity of her relationship with the mistress she so loyally supports, despite her misgivings over Pinkerton's promised return. Under-directed as they were, Derek Welton's Bonze, Alex Duliba's Yamadori and Marta Fontanals-Simmons's Kate Pinkerton went for little, though Andrew Rees seized many of Goro's opportunities. Conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, Gianluca Marciano brought engagement and a sense of sweep to his task, though not all problems of balance had been ironed out, and once again some of the score's lavish detail was swept under the carpet.

Next on the bill was Idomeneo (June 1), performed in the original 1781 version with a mezzo-soprano Idamante, though with quite a few cuts (Arbace lost both of his arias while keeping the crucial accompanied recitative "Sventurata Sidon"; there was no ballet in the final act). The production was the work of designer/director Charles Edwards, working alongside costume designer Gabrielle Dalton. Closer to the Regietheater style than is usual with a British director, Edwards's production crossed periods and places to cover the intellectual ground of the opera from different perspectives. Characters in period costumes placed in an eighteenth-century room reminded us of Mozart's own difficult relationship with his controlling father Leopold, with its obvious parallels in Idamante's fractured relationship with Idomeneo. (There's an anecdote told by Mozart's widow describing her visit to Salzburg with her husband in 1783, when they sang the quartet from the opera with Mozart's father and sister. During this domestic performance of the piece in which Idamante is sent away by Idomeneo, Mozart burst into tears and left the room.) 

In Edwards's production, the room itself is eventually destroyed by the god Neptune, who smashes his way through its walls. Singing the role of the Voice of Neptune — heard only in the penultimate scene — the dark-toned Matthew Hargreaves made several earlier silent but unscripted appearances as the angry sea-god; his cult, signified by a black trident on a white background, was shown as being rigorously observed on the island of Crete. Elsewhere, references to the ancient world and the modern world commingled, reminding the audience of recent or current regimes that have atrophied and lost their moral authority.

If some elements of Edwards's staging were enigmatic, the clarity with which his cast enunciated the text showed a keen appreciation of its meaning and resonances. All of the vocal performances proved worthwhile, and some of them were special. Danish tenor David Danholt's vocal beauty and power were significant assets, granting him status and a sense of authority, however flawed; less successful were his attempts at the fearsome runs of "Fuor del mar." As Idamante, Austrian mezzo Daniela Lehner was consistently vital and expressive, her fluent lyricism negotiating the notes impeccably and with exemplary tonal range. Amy Freston's bright soprano gave Ilia's arias high-definition clarity, especially "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" and its preceding recitative. Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee made an exciting Elettra, bringing a malign brilliance to the troubled Greek princess's fiercer outbursts. Nigel Robson made something remarkable out of Arbace, even in cut form, weighing each and every word in the balance. Iain Paton was an appropriately implacable High Priest of Neptune.

Conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas Kraemer coordinated Mozart's complex score with considerable expertise, highlighting its striking colors, inventive harmony and intricate figuration. spacer

GEORGE HALL

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