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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Tchaikovsky, Charodeika (The Enchantress), Grange Park Opera, 13th June 2004 (H-T W)

Of all the English Country House Opera Festivals the Grange Park Opera Festival in Hampshire is, artistically, neither standing still nor declining, but going from strength to strength with enormous speed. Founded only seven years ago by the energetic Wasfi Kani (formerly of Garsington Opera and artistic director of Pimlico Opera), this season saw the completion of its small, but perfectly balanced opera house with its warm 500-seat horseshoe auditorium, based on the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. Built in the former Orangery, and with a versatile stage sunk into the ground by about two meters, it is very well hidden behind the splendid reconstruction of the 19th century façade by the architect Robert Smirke, which connects the Greek temple "The Grange" with the Orangery.

Grange Park Opera is unique in every sense – the auditorium even offers an extensive miniature railway system, which runs under the entire glass covered floor of the foyer. Each carriage and each engine carries the name of an appeal donor, while the supporters are divided into the Schools of Hippocrates, Archimedes and Plato. Its idyllic setting, landscaped by Capability Brown, seems miles away from civilization, its spooky restaurant in the main building, where the ceilings are covered with nettings because of the old stucco decoration, which has long fallen into decay, and the extremely friendly and relaxed atmosphere, and not least its repertoire of three diverse new productions each year, makes a visit a worthwhile experience. None of the Country House Operas can always guarantee uninterrupted sunshine combined with the highest possible musical standard – quite often it is sadly the opposite. But on this very day everything turned out to be just perfect.

Tchaikovsky wrote nine operas, of which only "Eugene Onegin" and "Pique Dame" are part of the general repertoire. "Charodeika" – "The Enchantress" - which had its premiere at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on the 20th October 1887, had never crossed my path before. In this case, it was the first UK performance in Russian. It turned out to be one of those rare operatic treats one is actually never really prepared for. It is a work of Verdian dimensions and Russian soul, full of high voltage drama and exceptional music, staged, cast and interpreted to perfection in this performance. I have never experienced a Russian opera which mirrored the true Russia, where everything is bigger than life. The story is simple: Nastasia, the charming and very pretty owner of an inn and brothel near Nizhny Novgorod, had made herself an enemy in rejecting the scheming Mamirov, the right hand of the local supremo Nikita Kurliatev. He spreads the rumour that Nastasia is an enchantress as every man falls for her. Nikita’s son Yuri begins to frequent the inn, so does his father, who falls madly in love with Nastasia without any success threatening her that he would reach his goal. Of course, Mamirov has nothing better to do than to confront Nikita’s wife Evpraksia with the truth, while her son – not yet personally involved with Nastasia – swears to avenge his mother. While confronting Nastasia he learns that it is he whom she loves. They both plan to flee during the night not knowing that, by now, Mamirov has worked out an elaborate plot to wreak his revenge on Nastasia as well as on Nikita and his family with devastating effect.

"The Enchantress", for which Ippolit W. Shpazhinsky wrote the libretto, has never been a success with Russian audiences. It shows Tchaikovsky’s genius from a completely unusual side combing his very own style with the grandeur and drama of Verdi. When Nastasia prepares herself for being murdered by the only person she loves, one is reminded of Desdemona’s last aria in ‘Otello’. His delicate instrumentation, the constant change between big arias and ravishing ensemble scenes are breathtaking. It would have been a great help, however, to have had an article on the performance history of this opera included in the heavy program book, instead of a lengthy treatise about the dubious circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death.

David Fielding, responsible for production and design, as well as his lighting designer Wolfgang Goebbel, created a contemporary Russian spectacle of sheer exuberance, be it in life or death. The casting could not have been better anywhere.  Janis Kelly was indeed a beautiful erotic, temperamental and in every respect credible Nastasia – something rare nowadays. And next to the main roles – Nikita (Vassily Savenko), Evpraksia (Carole Wilson), Yuri (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and Mamirov (Stephen Richardson) -  everybody was outstanding. The last scene, when Mamirov triumphs over a self inflicted bloodbath, resembled a Last Judgement painted by Dali.

But the success of this overwhelming experience would have been unthinkable without the clarity and commitment of the sixty-two strong orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones. The slightest detail was audible – and it is the detail and its beauty which I admired in this opera the most. Moreover, everybody on stage could easily develop without being covered by a heavy sound coming from the pit. I never expected that this intimate opera house would be capable of such a brilliant balance. An unforgettable evening which I have not experienced anywhere for many years.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt   

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