Dorset Opera Festival, Lucia di Lammermoor and Nab­uc­co at Bryanston

IF Macbeth is The Scottish Play, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is THE Scottish Opera. So it was an interesting and logical idea for Christopher Cowell, directing the tragedy for Dorset Opera Festival to nod to the Shakespearean precedent, with three hags and a ghost.

Not everyone approved – some critics have been disparaging of the innovation – but Lucia, adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, is a grand melodrama, and the haunted figure of the young woman who was murdered by her Ravenswood lover heightened the tension and the drama. The role was danced by Miranda Spencer-Pearson, making her professional stage debut.

Lucia (the glorious soprano Letitia Vitelaru – what a find!), whose brother Enrico Ashton owns the former Ravenswood lands, is torn between her love for Edgardo Ravenswood, and her brother’s need for her to marry for money and secure his position against the shifting sands of Scottish politics.

The ghost haunts the moors above the Ravenswood estate. She draws closer to Lucia as the heroine’s fate is sealed by her brother’s treacherous behaviour. As the climax nears – the famous mad scene – the ghost mirrors Lucia’s movements and emphasises her isolation and anguish. It worked for us.

Going back to the original orchestration, conductor Jose Miguel Esandi’s excellent forces included a glass harmonica, played by the German soloist Friedrich Heinrich Kern. The ethereal, other-worldly sound highlights Lucia’s fragility and provides an eerie soundscape to her dying moments.

As Edgardo, Dorset Opera Festival was lucky indeed to have the brilliant young South Korean tenor, David Junghoon Kim. This is a voice that thrills like the young Pavarotti – you can only wonder in delight what heights it will take him to.

One of Dorset Opera’s favourite singers, the versatile baritone Pauls Putnins, brought real sincerity to the role of the Presbyterian minister, Raimondo. This was a man of God and of deep compassion. A lovely performance.

The chorus, always one of the great joys of Dorset Opera Festival, was in fine voice for Lucia, and even more so for Nabucco, a work in which the chorus is almost the star. Va Pensiero is rightly famous, and the mainly young singers did it justice.

Unfortunately, the connections that some have made between this “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ and the Risorgimento – the 19th century movement for Italian unification – proved a trap for director Peter Relton.

He took this Biblical story of the Babylonian god-king Nebuchadnezzar and the conquered Israelites – a story of overweening power and ambition and eventual redemption – and moved it into mid-19th century Italy. There was even a man in a stove pipe hat who could have been Isambard Kingdom Brunel on a Mediterranean fact-finding tour.

The magnificent Mark Doss sang as wonderfully as ever in the title role, but he looked like the Emperor Maximilian in his banana republic uniform. The equally splendid Claire Rutter as the volatile and jealous Abigaille was initially costumed as a rather oddly dressed principal boy and later, when she usurped the throne, was got up like Queen Victoria.

The messy production detracted and distracted from the music. Big ideas can be wonderful – some years ago Welsh National Opera staged Nabucco with a Second World War background that included a cattle truck train to take the Jews off to a concentration camp. It was harrowing – and it worked.

The quality of the music-making at Dorset Opera Festival now stands comparison with any of the country’s summer music events. Such a shame, in this 15th anniversary year, that a great opera, with marvellous singers, was mired in a silly production.

Fifteen years at Bryanston

Time flies when you’re having fun, and so it has been for the first (almost incredibly) 15 years of Dorset Opera “relocated” to the Coade Hall at Bryanston School outside Blandford Forum.

There were those who continued muttering about the move, from the difficult stage of the Big Schoolroom at Sherborne School where the company began in 1974. But the muttering subsided as the standards soared under artistic director Roderick Kenn­edy. Rod had both experiences, having sung with the original DO. His tenure, after the untimely death of founder Patrick Shelley, has been mar­ked by an expansive amb­i­tion and a professionalism that was probably impossible in the Sherborne setting.

The changes have been radical, and sometimes unexpected. Most “country house” opera companies bill themselves as “the Glyndebourne of  etc, etc…”, seeking to capture the combination of society picnics and great operatic productions. Certainly the former Portman Estate provides the splendid setting and rolling verdant vistas. Pic­nic­k­ing in the long Dorset Opera interval has become a must-do part of the experience, but it is happily oh-so-much-less formal than at the Sussex  house.

Inside the theatre, the orchestra pit is now filled with young music graduates. One of the company’s raisons d’etre has been to provide singers with a summer school leading to performance in the chorus. In the olden days, most of the participants were locally based, often members of choirs and amateur musical companies. The best of them remain, but there is now a scramble for places in the school, which attracts vocal students from all over Europe.

Working together at Bryan­ston, with expert workshop leaders as well as those involved in the productions, builds a real community, and although it is three weeks of very hard work, the enjoyment is evident. It is, in the current parlance, a win-win situation.

Audiences are treated to wonderful singing and acting, a sparklingly talented orchestra, and, of course, soloists of international calibre clamouring to return to the green fields of Dorset each summer.

This was also the 15th and final year for the chairman Alan Frost, who has been a stalwart supporter of Rod Kennedy. He deserves the thanks of all who love opera in general and opera in Dorset in particular.

GP-W and FC

Pictured: David Junghoon Kim, Mark S Doss, the grounds of Bryanston School

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