THOSE of us of a certain age will picture Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren when we hear of El Cid, but Massenet’s opera, given its UK stage premiere at Dorset Opera, is a very different story.
This one is based on the five act Corneille play first seen in 1636, used as the basis for the 1885 “opera in four acts and ten tableaux”. The central character is the same as in the 1961 film, but at a different stage of his dramatic and romantic life.
It is extraordinary that the Massenet opera has not been incorporated in the general operatic repertoire, and it gives the unique chorus of Dorset Opera a chance to shine. The (frankly barmy) story is all about codes of honour and ridiculous old men, and how their wounded pride affects their children. The King of Spain is about to honour the young Rodrigue (Leonardo Capalbo making a welcome return to Dorset Opera) and at the same time to appoint a governor.
Rodrigue, son of Don Diegue, and Chimene, daughter of Count Gormas, are in love, but the Infanta also loves the young hero. The fathers, both heroic warriors in their time, are bitter rivals for position, and when the king chooses Gormas, Diegue insults him. This, of course, calls for Rodrigue to avenge the insult by killing his lover’s father (in a fight sequence that would have been more convincing done off stage).
With the unfortunate Infanta, beautifully sung and characterised by DO newcomer Simone Ricksman, hoping she might get her man, and Gormas strutting and preening, the young hero is sent off to war against impossible odds. He overcomes them, of course, and it all turns out right in the end.
Lee Bisset returns to Dorset to sing the role of Chimene, and she’s never been better than as the anguished and what we now call conflicted bereaved daughter and impassioned lover.
There are aspects of Christopher Cowell’s production that inspire awe and applause, and strange longueurs that find the principals searching for position on stage. The 11th century story has been catapulted forward to an oddly indeterminate time, when priests apparently frolicked with the members of the court, drunken soldiers wore kepis in the desert and the king (father of the Infanta) moved about without noticable ceremony.
For all that, Le Cid is heroically portrayed by Leonardo Capalbo, with his usual intensity and passion, matched by Lee Bisset’s Chimene. Paul Gay and Charles Johnston are crumblingly proud and ridiculously demanding as the old boys. The chorus, again under the direction of Benjamin Goodson, is a credit to the ethos of Dorset Opera, and would be just as welcome in the major opera houses as they are at the Coade Hall.
There is another chance to see Le Cid on Saturday afternoon. Grab a ticket if you can.
Photographs by Fritz Curzon