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Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’ (December 7th and 9th) and Opera Scenes (December 3rd and 10th), Bruntwood Opera Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (RJF)

The RNCM School of Opera and vocal Studies presents its major annual opera production each March. In 2005 this will be Rossini’s La Cenerentola, his version of the Cinderella story and after Il Barbiere di Siviglia his most popular operatic work. By March, final year students of the four year undergraduate course, together with post graduate students, are expected to be ready to take on fully staged roles in a big production, with full orchestra, in the College’s opera theatre. Such skills do not develop overnight. As well as vocal tutoring there are components on acting and movement in the courses. These combined skills need to be practised and what better way than in the opera theatre in front of the public? To this end, at the conclusion of the summer and autumn terms the student assessments are carried out via staged and costumed opera scenes with conductor and piano accompaniment. At this time of year these opera scenes are complimented by a production of a shorter opera with full orchestra. It was perhaps apt, for both the students concerned as well as the public attending, without charge for the opera scenes, that two distinguished alumni were in town as part of an international cast who presented Elijah to a packed Bridgewater Hall. The two, Sarah Fulgoni and Mary Plazas, who have trod the boards of the great opera houses of the world, made a significant vocal contribution to a magnificent performance and were a reminder of what a fine training establishment the RNCM is.

This year the short opera chosen was Puccini’s realisation of the harrowing story of Suor Angelica to which he gave a rather sugary ending. The opera is the middle one of the three one act operas he premiered at The Metropolitan Opera, New York, on December 14th 1918. These were Puccini’s last completed operatic works, Turandot being incomplete at the time of his death. The story concerns Sister Angelica who, unknown to her colleagues, was forced to take the veil after the birth of her illegitimate son. Forced to give up the child after the birth she has, for seven years, longed for news from home. Her aunt, the austere and unbending Principessa arrives to demand that Angelica sign over inheritance to her sister who is shortly to be married. Angelica pleads for news of her son. Without emotion or compassion she is told that he died two years before. She collapses distraught. After the departure of the Principessa, Angelica prepares and drinks an herb poison. Realising that she has committed a second mortal sin she prays to the Virgin for forgiveness. She witnesses a vision of her son in the care of the Madonna who sends him forward to be re-united with his mother as she dies.

The sets were simple but adaptable, the well in the cloister quickly becoming the table at which the Principessa sat. The trellises growing the necessary herbs were quickly flown and back lighting of a drop gauze affectingly created the vision of the child and the Madonna. The opera is an ideal vehicle for a dozen female voices, each with a part to act and three of which are principal parts carrying the main solo singing. The director, Jennifer Hamilton, moved, grouped and organised the singers in a thoroughly natural manner that was wholly convincing. The three principal roles of Angelica, the Principessa and Suor Genovieffa were doubled over the two evenings that the opera was given. At the performance I attended Kate Brian sang the role of Angelica. Aged 24, she is a student of Caroline Crawshaw whose list of past tutored singers is formidable. Two years ago Kate sang Donna Anna in the College’s major production of Don Giovanni and when I found her a little wooden in her acting and less than wholly secure at the top of her voice. As Angelica she sang a fully toned and vocally coloured portrayal whilst her acting was consummate. Her use of face and hands in pursuit of characterisation were excellent. She will be disappointed the she missed one, only one, high C as she exited. Dominica Mattheews sang the Principessa. Another student of Caroline Crawshaw she is an Australian who won several competitions in her own country. She is due to sing the eponymous role in the spring Rossini. Her physical portrayal of the austere Principessa could not be faulted and was backed by a richly coloured and fully toned mezzo voice. The less demanding soprano role of Genovieffa was well sung by Michaela Bloom also from Australia. There were no significant vocal weaknesses in the other singers who all moved and acted with conviction. The German conductor Lancelot Fuhry paced and phrased Puccini’s relatively lean orchestration well, allowing the singers space for their phrasing; an art many conductors brought up on the concrete platform never acquire.

The first night of Opera Scenes included extracts from Lucia di Lamermoor, Don Pasquale, La Traviata and Un Ballo in Maschera. All, like Suor Angelica sung in Italian. There were notable sung and acted performances from Rhys Jenkins and Hervé Goffings as Pasquale and Malatesta. Gillian Ramm’s singing and acting as Violetta in the act II confrontations with Germont pére was excellent, her light flexible but expressive soprano contrasted nicely with the fuller tones of Rachel Russell as Amelia in the following extract from Ballo. Rachel’s ‘Morro, ma prima in grazia’ was well launched and her full tones indicate a promising lyrico spinto voice. However, the voice of the evening was that of Mario Solimene as Renato. His singing of ‘Eri tu’ was quite outstanding with firm tone, good diction and a wide range of colour. The best Verdi baritone singing I have heard at the college, and a good few other places too, for some time. A second year post graduate from South America, his bearing and histrionic gifts match his vocal qualities. A singer name I will watch and listen out for in the next few years.

On the second evening of Opera Scenes we had a repeat of the Lucia scene, but with different singers, an extract from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West with a promising tenor in Simon Buttle and a Minnie of colour and heft from Claire Groom. Scenes 1, 7 and the finale from act II of Don Giovanni completed the evening. The histrionic tour de force of these three scenes, and the best singing, came from the bass baritone Rhys Jenkins, the Malatesta of the first evening. He is a postgraduate student and his comic Leporello really had everything one would hope for in a professional performance. He is a born actor, who can colour and inflect his firm well-controlled voice whilst giving vent to a variety of emotions with both ease and fluency. Another promising career that I will watch with interest.

On the basis of these three evenings, I look forward to RNCMs alumni gracing the boards of opera houses in all parts of the world in the coming years as they do now, and have done since the standards so firmly established by Frederic Cox.

Robert J Farr



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