REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on English Touring Opera’s Lucrezia Borgia and Il Viaggio a Reims, York Theatre Royal

Paula Sides’s Lucrezia in English Touring Opera’s Lucrezia Borgia

English Touring Opera, York Theatre Royal, Lucrezia Borgia, March 24, and Il Viaggio a Reims, March 25

IT is always good to have English Touring Opera (ETO) back in York, especially when it is offering repertory off the beaten ‘BBC’ track – Butterfly, Bohème and Carmen, as they are known on the street.

Best of all, it is some time since we have enjoyed bel canto here, the style that prizes lightness and flexibility over weighty declamation.

Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia of 1833 is based on a play written the previous year by Victor Hugo. It has tended to underline the notoriety of the historical figure of its title, although more recently historians have been kinder to her, dissociating her from the machinations and debaucheries of her father and brothers.

Certainly that was the approach taken by Eloise Lally’s new production. Adam Wiltshire’s clever permanent set offered a colonnaded courtyard which became the Borgia residence when cast-iron gates were added and even a stateroom with handsome stained-glass windows.

Paula Sides made an appealing Lucrezia, not least because she had the flexibility to handle Donizetti’s coloratura with ease. It was good to be reminded that bel canto techniques still flourish in this country and are particularly well suited to the mainly smaller venues that a touring company must encounter.  

She reserved her finest singing for the last act, in which her initially acid tone dissolved into smoother motherly love, as she begged her dying son in vain to drink the antidote to his poison. This gave a riveting close to what had otherwise been a less gripping evening.

As her son Gennaro, Thomas Elwin’s neatly Italianate tenor was consistently passionate throughout its well-focused range, making more of his character than the slightly wimpish fellow that Donizetti offers. His closing arioso was moving.

Aidan Edwards pressed his fine bass-baritone into excellent service, making the most of his limited opportunities as Duke Alfonso. In the mezzo trouser role of Maffio Orsini, Katie Coventry made a loveable rogue, definitely one of the lads and revelling in his famous drinking-song. She is an engaging actress.

Gerry Cornelius conducted the period-style Old Street Band with stylish control, encouraging his woodwinds to supply a good deal of colour. The various minor roles also supplied the chorus of maskers, spies, guards and nobles.

Valentina Ceschi’s production of Rossini’s last Italian opera, Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey To Reims), was a merry romp. The journey, of course, never takes place and the comedy is built around the many setbacks that prevent it.

This is very much an ensemble opera, with a dozen international clients holed up at the Inn of the Golden Lily, each of whom Ceschi differentiated skilfully, all waiting to attend the imminent coronation of Charles X. The name and the event could hardly be more timely.

If there is one central figure it is the Roman poetess Corinna, who is known and admired by all her fellow guests. Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, which was given elsewhere on tour but not in York) sang her with admirable composure, notably in her delectable aria with harp (played from a box).

She was the one oasis of calm amongst a rowdy esoteric bunch. The colonnade from Lucrezia now decorated the courtyard of the hotel, looking out over the French countryside (until a coup de théâtre transformed the backdrop to blue skies).

All the guests enjoyed their moment in their sun, with at least one aria each, while also bringing a snippet of their own national music to the finale. Notable among a cast with not a single weak link were Luci Briginshaw’s French countess, lamenting the loss of her haute couture, Jean-Kristof Bouton’s pompous Spanish admiral, and the English peer of Edward Hawkins, whose aria was much enhanced by its flute obbligato.

Lucy Hall as the innkeeper maintained an appropriately tenuous hold on the proceedings and détente was satisfyingly achieved by the end. It was all delightfully frothy, kept so by the whirligig of a conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny, although the Old Street Band wisely treated some of his more outrageous gyrations with a certain scepticism.

But a word is in order for the rollicking accompaniments to the recitatives, provided only by Gavin Kibble’s cello and Carina Cosgrave’s double bass, right in style.

ETO has justly survived the Arts Council cuts that are wreaking havoc elsewhere. We should be immensely grateful for their regular visits. Long may they continue.

Review by Martin Dreyer