Magazine article The Spectator

Courage and Confidence

Magazine article The Spectator

Courage and Confidence

Article excerpt



University College Opera


Royal College of Music


Opera North

Reynaldo Hahn's Ciboulette is a work of fragile charm, clearly in Offenbachian vein, more Hoffmann than Helene.

When one contemplates the list of unfamiliar operas that University College Opera has mounted since 1951, it is with a sense of amazement and gratitude for their inquisitiveness and drive. Yet of the few that I have seen, it's unfortunately been true that the works need all the help that they can get, and that UC Opera hasn't usually been in a position to provide it.

Courageously they did Ciboulette in French, with surtitles, and a cast some of whose leading members are native French speakers: the heroine herself, the delightful Betsabee Haas, and the sad, senior Duparquet, taken by Raphael Sikorski. Despite an extensive training, he neither succeeded in giving any impression of maturity, nor has his voice a reassuring security, so that he wasn't able to make the most of his many lyrical opportunities. And the singers who are primarily anglophone were somewhat exposed by these natives. With the orchestra as with the singers, one could say that it came through but with nothing to spare. It's always hard to know which works are going to prove robust and which need all the resource of the most experienced performers, but slight pieces which rely on precision, verve and poise are fairly obviously not going to fare well in the hands of performers whose chief virtue is enthusiasm. What one can hope for from a production like this is that someone was there who is looking for neglected works to be put on under fully professional conditions - I'd have thought Ciboulette might become the perfect Garsington opera.

By contrast, the London Handel Festival got off to a wonderfully assured start with a production of Agrippina, with double casting (and conducting) in all the main roles. I saw the second cast, and was assured by a professional Handelian that it wasn't as good as the first, but I'm sceptical about that. Laurence Cummings's conducting, anyhow, was ideal in its unfussy approach, its lively tempi, its preparedness to relax. The title role, a superb conception of ruthless ambition, with the interesting twist that it is on behalf of someone else - her son Nerone, as it happens was taken with such aplomb by Sarah-Jane Davies that it would grace any DVD of the opera, as would the witty, simple, handsome production of Christopher Cowell (also responsible for the brilliantly alert translation) and designer Brigit Kimak.

Agrippina's part is huge, and ranges over the whole spectrum of emotions that Handel was prepared to acknowledge; Davies expressed them all with equal intensity, and her acting was every bit as good as her singing. …

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