Battle of Two Divas

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Battle of Two Divas


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Concert performances of opera have become a regular feature of the Edinburgh Festival, and it's often hard to say that one regrets the lack of staging, especially when the standard of singing and playing is on the level that it was this year. The first was Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, a relatively familiar work, and when performed with as much panache as in the Usher Hall a welcome one, with no longueurs or excrescences and some very exciting scenes.

It is essentially a battle of two divas, and puts one in mind of the great days of the silver screen, when Hollywood glamour-- girls would slug it out with tragic results. Anna-Catering Antonacci, familiar from Glyndebourne, was a telling study in unrequited passion and consequent viciousness as Elisabetta I, and wore a most intimidating dress which clearly signalled that she was invincible. Her coloratura can be sketchy, but her abandon and identification with the role made that seem relatively unimportant. Barbara Frittoli, in the title role, looked more fragile, but rose with still greater security to her many climaxes, and made the final scene, as Maria moves to the scaffold, straightforwardly and strongly affecting. The only important male role is that of the Conte di Leicester, and Paul Charles Clarke made an attractive enough sound to be the object of both women's desire.

The galvanising conducting of Charles Mackerras was what really made the difference, though, between this and any other performance of the opera one may have heard, vindicating the view that the conductor is the crucial link in any operatic performance, even one of bel canto.

Much more exciting, though, was the UK premiere of Enescu's Oedipe, an uneven work of very great power, in the end; and one which, in its strengths and weaknesses, bears strong similarities to Busoni's Doktor Faust. Both bite off more than anyone except Wagner could possibly have chewed, and then compress the action into no more than average operatic length. The effect is, for considerable stretches of both works, of dramatised synopsis, with a failure to characterise and also the dislocation of dramatic and musical interest. Actually in Oedipe it's not always clear whether Enescu and his librettist Edmond Fleg are aiming at drama or a kind of ritual re-enactment of the myth.

There are stretches of the first two acts where interest flags, and probably staging the opera would only accentuate its often static nature. The scene of the fateful encounter between Oedipe and his father Laios is quite flat, while that of Oedipe's solving of the Sphinx's riddles is impressive, largely because Enescu seems to have found her a stimulus to weird, grotesque and potent creation: and in this performance Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a most effective account of the Sphinx, while she was oddly weak as Jocaste. …

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