a high quality cast

Opera Now, November/December 2008

Bampton Classical Opera makes a habit of putting on less well-known operas.  Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, despite being the most famous of his 55 operas, thus received its UK premiere here.  The story is based on the same plot as Beethoven’s work, and so comparisons are inevitable.  Though this performance was sung in English, its Italian origins are shown in the continuity of its sung recitative, not the spoken dialogue of Beethoven’s Singspiel; a larger difference is more of a focus on the intimate relationships of the main characters that Beethoven’s epic portrayal of freedom.

Paer was, by all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant character, not thinking twice at slandering his fellow composers and, according to contemporary sources, frequently putting away a staggering amount of booze with seemingly no effect.  Notwithstanding these faults, his operas were extremely popular; the premiere of Paer’s Leonora was considerably more successful than Beethoven’s.

Into his struggle for freedom, Paer intersperses a fair amount of humorous moments, particularly seen in the comically turbulent relationship between Marcellina, Leonora and Giacchino, something that creates a reasonably well-rounded drama.  Unfortunately, the arias hold up this drama to the extent that much of the sense of movement or dramatic tension is lost.  Paer’s musical style is pleasant enough – much closer to Mozart than to Beethoven – but there’s something of a lack of variety here, and all those extended perfect cadences and repeats get a little wearing by the end.

The singers, however, brought the music to life.  Marcellina (Emily Rowley Jones) was a pleasure to watch and hear; her voice was freash and enticing and she had a clarity that was beguiling.  What Cara McHardy (Leonora) occasionally lacked in accuracy she made up for in power and richness of tone; their second-act duet was the stand-out highlight of the night.  The jailer Rocco (Adrian Powter) was excellent, as was Michael Bracegirdle as Florestan, who only appeared in act II, but who made up for it by singing a succession of high-tessitura and high-tension arias with admirable strength and stamina.  Samuel Evans and Jonathan Stoughton (Giacchino and the villain Don Pizzarro) were perhaps slightly less convincing, but this was a high-quality cast.  Robin Newton did his best with the orchestra – it can’t be easy playing in a tent to the side of the stage as the sun and temperature go down; the set was simple but effective.  I’m not sure I’d rush to hear Paer again, but the singers made the evening worthwhile.

Jonathan Wikely