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City of Manchester Opera Gala Showcase: The Bruntwood Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, December 11th 2004 (RJF)



The fledgling City of Manchester Opera evolved from North West Opera, a group of singers working with Carl Penlington-Williams as their coach and conductor. Penlington-Williams started his career as a chorister at St Asaph Cathedral before moving to South Wales where he worked with Welsh National Opera as singer and accompanist. In 1997 Carl joined the RNCM and also began to develop his conducting career. This has included performances of Carmen, Orfeo and Onegin for Opera74 and Il Trovatore for Wilmslow and Preston Opera. He also conducted acclaimed performances of Aida with the combined forces of Wilmslow and North West Opera together with professional soloists. With the support of the Lord Mayor of the City the change of name indicates a clear direction that has been manifested with concert performances of La Traviata and Rigoletto. This concert was a combination of orchestral overtures and solo operatic items involving members of the chorus and distinguished soloists.



After a well shaped and played overture from Die Zauberflote Clair Ormshaw, Opera North’s Amor, and on her way to Brussels for more performances of Orfeo, started the solo singing with a full toned and beautifully phrased and expressive ‘Deh, vieni from Le Nozze di Figaro. She returned in the second half to give an equally accomplished rendering of Puccini’s ‘O mio Babbino caro.’ Claire was followed by Helena Leonards fire spitting spinto singing of ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace Idomeneo from Mozart’s opera. Several years ago Rodney Milnes, when editor of the prestigious Opera magazine, admired Helena’s rock solid tone as Leonora in one of a series of performances of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. That praise didn’t quite prepare the audience for the richness of tone across her range, and the varied expression, she brought to ‘Madre Pietosa Vergine from that opera. Helena came after recently covering the role of Tosca for Scottish Opera. It beggars belief that singers such as she have to seek work abroad while our subsidised regional companies prefer to import east European singers with their often glottal Italian. The mezzo Ann Barry was similarly skilled.  Although lacking some of Carman’s sexy glamour in her ‘Habanera’ she gave an ideally voluptuously toned and seductive ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre from Samson and Delilah. Jane Hyde sang a touching Gilda in the ‘Rigoletto quartet’ and an expressive ‘Ty che di ge’l from Turandot.



Of the men, perhaps most was expected from Sean Ruane who has made quite an impression at Opera Holland Park and elsewhere. He has sung both Radames and the Duke of Mantua in the groups presentations over the last couple of years. This year his ‘Celeste Aida’ seemed more forced, less tonally free. Likewise he didn’t launch the ‘Rigoletto quartet’ with the elegance of phrase he showed last year. Some variation in dynamics and softer, headier, tones would not come amiss. On his way to Europe, Anthony Claverton, RNCMs Don Giovanni of two years ago, sang Germont Pere’sDi Provenza’ with fine control of legato and variety of expression. Other solo performances were given by members of the chorus who also sang the sextet from Lucia as well as the Wedding Chorus from the opera. Other major chorus contributions were from Die Meistersingers, Macbeth and Don Carlo. Unusually for a choral group they have more tenors than basses and this lack showed in the final ‘Spuntato ecco il di from Don Carlo where, having played excellently all evening, the orchestra were let down by their brass section.



Carl Penlington-Williams was physically rather over expressive in the two introductory overtures. More importantly he not only supports and leads his singers, giving them space for phrasing for example, he has a natural feel for the operatic idiom and Verdi’s music in particular. Gifts not always manifested by conductors coming to operatic work from the concert hall podium. Whilst he remains, and London has called this summer, the prospects of steady growth of the fledgling group will remain a distinct possibility. The audience at this well attended performance showed their appreciation enthusiastically and were, in my opinion, fully justified in doing so.



Robert J Farr




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