"Winslow Hall Opera ambitiously tackles Verdi's barnstorming drama, staged by Carmen Jakobi against the backdrop of Italy's wars of unification."
Neil Fisher/ The Times
"Even with the obligatory ‘country house’ dinner break, this performance sustained the momentum that is so crucial to Il trovatore, and to sweeping away any perconceptions of opacity or absurdity. At moments the singers pushed out too much sound for Winslow Hall’s marquee-like auditorium, and occasionally Oliver Gilmour drove his polished orchestra just a little too hard, but this is an opera that thrives on the viscera; thrills and a sense of careering headlong towards its final revelation.
The director Carmen Jokabi took a more pared-down approach than in her previous Winslow Hall outings, Don Giovanni and Ballo, and it bore dividends. The monochrome set by Jacob Hughes, which referenced Goya’s engravings The Disasters of War, compromised panels that could be removed to form Leonora’s balcony or an illuminated cross, or which could part admit to smoke and sinister yellow light. Against it, Penny Latter’s costumes, richly coloured and textured, evoked the mid 19th century and the Risorgimento.
Particularly powerful was the first scene of Act 3, in which the elegantly uniformed soldiers turned to brutality once Azucena’s identity had become apparent: Siv Iren Misund’s face registered alarmingly genuine fear as she was finally bundled offstage. The young Norwegian mezzo’s physical portrayal generally favoured contained intensity, but she astonished with the sweep of her singing, digging into her chest notes or ascending to a top C, and more than compensation for the brief episodes when her copper-hued middle register lost substance. The four other principals had all made previous appearances at Winslow Hall. Tsvetana Bandalovska, last year’s Amelia, was again a graceful presence, with Verdian credentials evident in her lirico-spinto weight, dictation and phrasing, yet she seemed reluctant to float her line- notably in ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’, taken at an ideally flowing tempo. Vasile Chisiu as Luna exulted justifiably in his upper register, though his tone became less full-bodied further down, while the firm, resilient core that Pablo Bemsch retained in Manrico’s heroic outbursts bore witness to new muscle in his voice, though he can still summon trubador lyricism. Piran Legg’s Ferrando was superbly resonant and always clearly defined, while the amplitude of both Mari Wyn Williams as Inez and Carlos D’Onofrio as Ruiz suggested a Leonora and a Manrico in waiting. The energy and accuracy of the 12-strong chorus, especially the men, exemplified the Verdian spirit that pulsed throughout."
"Winslow Hall, one of England's newer, most intimate and enjoyably personal summer opera venues, has established itself quickly as a company that is pure pleasure to see in action. Musical standards, both vocal and orchestral, thanks to the energetic and excitingly committed conductor Oliver Gilmour, are by common agreement impressively high. Gilmour's approach reflects early training with Bernstein, Pritchard and the superlative, driving Carlos Kleiber: can we hope for a Winslow Hall Freischütz shortly? It might go down well.
But the entire event is part of the enjoyment, for the gardens of this outstanding Christopher Wren building (owned by Oliver's brother Christopher Gilmour, who is behind the whole enterprise and takes, with help from a fast-growing range of supporters, known as the 'Trovatore', 'Traviata', 'Lucia', 'Carmen' and 'Figaro' friends, to reflect current and previous productions, the considerable risks of mounting summer opera) are opened up for interval picnics, and for Sunday performances they are made available beforehand, from midday, making an al fresco lunch possible. This year it capitalised on some of the best weather in recent years. Attending Winslow is pure joy.
By common agreement, the three operas produced by Verdi between 1851 and 1853 represent a remarkable flowering in the composer's career. Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata have certainly enjoyed an unflagging reputation since they first hit the stage in almost exactly the middle of the nineteenth century. The libretti were by Verdi's most significant collaborators, the first and the third by Francesco Piave (1810-76), and Trovatore, though completed by another, by Salvadore Cammarano (1801-52, who narrowly missed seeing the premiere, dying six months before the 1853 first performance in Rome).
There was, of course, another special blossoming of Verdi near the end of his life. Otello and Falstaff, both to loyal and vividly imaginative libretti by Arrigo Boito, also a composer of note — Mefistofele and Nerone. Yet with Verdi there is a positive queue: others will of course make a claim for Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth (two versions) and La Forza del Destino (all Piave); for Un Ballo in Maschera or Don Carlos (from other hands); or indeed, for Luisa Miller (Cammarano, after Schiller).
The flourishing, superbly proficient Winslow Hall Opera, launched in 2012with Figaro, has been doing its bit for Cammarano. Lucia di Lammermoor, which he penned for Donizetti, proved in 2014 its greatest hit to date. (Un Ballo has since made its mark.) This year's Trovatore [seen 30 June 2018] was pretty much in the same league.
Wherein (apart from the magnificent car park efficiency, courtesy, common sense and couthness of the Winslow Boy Scouts) lies Winslow's rapid, and very palpable success, placing it firmly on the roster of summer opera not to be missed? The most impressive of all its many strengths has, surely, to lie in its casting: in the immensely exciting voices it selects.
The credit for this must rest above all with Winslow's masterly music director, Oliver Gilmour, whose experience working abroad — directing the opera at Rousse, on the Bulgarian Danube, is one of his major credits — had given him not just contacts with and experience of a wealth of singers, even divas, not least from Eastern Europe, but a nose for sniffing out what voice would be ideal for the parts he has to cast. He chooses his voices well, then draws the best from them.
Indeed, Oliver Gilmour produces magic from singers and orchestra alike. As he says in his introduction to the programme, his team this year includes big hitters from both Bulgaria and Romania. The self-satisfied, authoritative but domineering Conte di Luna is sung by Vasile Chisiu, Romanian-born but now German-based, a big figure onstage and a big voice to boot.
Leonora is caught between the conflicting forces of uncouth royalist assertion — Luna lusts after her — and those of passionate revolution, represented by her rebel real lover, Manrico. Leonora is sung by Tsvetana Bandalovska (wrongly spelt twice in the programme, which would have benefited many times from closer proofing), who gave, as she must, a deeply moving performance as the maltreated female figure. Russian-born but achieving many of her most promising and notable roles at the Bulgarian State Opera in Sofia, latterly as a Principal Artist, and having studied with both Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Raina Kabaivanska, how could she not be a force to be reckoned with?
These two Winslow returnees, Chisiu and Bandalovska, played a massive part in the resounding success of Winslow's Lucia. The Manrico Gilmour selected is an Argentinian tenor, Pablo Bemsch, who made his way to a clutch of roles at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden via a period at Zurich Opera and membership of the Jette Parker young artists programme six or seven years ago. No mean feat at all. He was another voice to be reckoned with, and a performer of passion and intensity.
But for many, the highlight, possibly above all others, was the incredibly involving mezzo role of Azucena, Siv Iren Misund, a Norwegian, who, clad in rags (evoking sympathy), a kind of bag lady on the loose, somehow brought as much pathos to this role as could be hoped for. Azucena holds the secret: she knows what history remains hidden, the facts that cannot be told. (Actually they could be, but this is Verdi.) Unfortunately she spills the beans just five minutes too late: but that is why Trovatore makes for perfect Verdian tragic irony.
Strangely the voice that took the house by storm at the outset was not one of these, but a comparatively minor role. This was Ferrando, the (in this case) firm but rather civilised and unsullied adjutant to Chisiu's increasingly nauseating, unpleasant Luna. The commanding bass role of this captain of the guard was sung on the last two nights by Simon Grange, a fabulously attractive deep voice, with range and variety as well as utter assurance, and a pleasing stage presence (taking over from Piran Legg).
Grange, to judge by the massive final applause and accolades he individually earned — and magnificently deserved — took the audience by storm as much as he did me. He sang in Winslow Hall's Un Ballo in Maschera, has a range of credits since singing at the RCM and as an Oxford choral scholar, and must surely be a name to watch. Another of Oliver Gilmour's many wonderful finds, and just perfect, indeed utterly bracing and uplifting, for the opening narrative scene.
From Verdi's three pretty ominous drumrolls at the outset, the orchestra, both en masse and severally, immediately made an impact: classic Verdi. A soft horn call, for instance, spoke reams. The woodwind detail as the story starts to unfold was superbly telling. When the troubadour (Manrico) made his appearance, it was an extended harp sequence (Rosanna Rolton) which impacted. The orchestra was magnificent throughout: and this start boded a good night.
It is Ferrando, indeed, who at his soldiers' request gives us the background to the story: a tale of burning at the stake, of baby snatching and infant immolation, the grim setting for revenge which permeates the action. The story may be about (supposed) witchcraft, but the way Ferrando told it was in itself bewitching, thanks to some fine scripting by Cammarano. The guards' direction seemed a bit stolid, lacking ideas for the blocking; but it is their attentiveness and indeed beguilement that matters, and that was patent.
As so often in opera, and to good effect, the women's opening scene is deferred till now. When we encounter Bandalovska's Leonora, she at once sweeps us off our feet with her nobility, her sincerity, and indeed her plangency, all of which she captured in a beautiful, noble and certainly dazzling voice. The scene gained from the presence of a soubrette, her attendant Inez, who supplies the confidante Leonora needs to recount her love for Manrico, of which of course she cannot speak elsewhere. Welshsoprano Mari Wyn Williams made an attractive presence, desirable showing and nicely contrasted adviser. Verdi dispenses with her later on, and that seemed a pity. She deserved more.
How about the set? Winslow has a wide but not especially deep acting space. A good attempt was made to deal with this (by designer Jacob Hughes) by facing us with a large, wide and tall wall, essentially grey, or grey and white, with a sort of pattern (inspired by Goya, though not obviously so) arching upwards and outwards, possibly fierily, but more like a bird spreading its wings: a peacock, maybe, or a turkey. Director and Designer decided to set the opera in the period of the Italian wars of Unification, 1848-9 and 1859 (ie around, broadly, the date of the opera's premiere in Rome in January 1853), an appropriate idea. In the rather bald background, windows occasionally open — an ominous, stifling, smoke-filled doorway, an upstairs prison, and particularly, a glowing blue-edged cross which shines forth to supplement Leonora's Act II scene in the convent whither she has escaped, and where Luna and Manrico cross swords with their respective forces — Luna coming off worst. Later the cross turns white, to equal effect.
Il Trovatore is rich in both solos and ensembles. The first of the latter is the trio between Leonora and her two aspiring lovers, Manrico and Luna. Slightly static, perhaps, but immensely appetisingly sung. From the choruspoint of view, the gypsy camp scene at the start of Act II was one of the best: the direction was good, the blocking imaginative, the chorus animated, the gesturing well conceived, and the vocals spirited. It needs something of the similar scene opening Act III of Carmen, and it certainly got it here. (Incidentally, Penny Latter's array of costumes was a pleasing and apt element throughout.) The first major contribution ('Stride la vampa!') from the hapless Azucena (Siv Iren Misund) was magnificent and resonant, especially powerful and impressive in her middle and lower ranges.
Carmen Jakobi, incidentally, the German here, has carved out quite a name for herself. In this context, she staged Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Giovanni for Winslow Hall. But she was also behind the hugely acclaimed Tristan und Isolde launched by Longborough Festival Opera a few seasons ago (and since revived), and worked on bringing to life their Ring cycle over more than a decade. She has done telling theatre and opera work in South Wales, and works equally on contemporary opera: two pieces by Nicola Lefanu, Dream Hunter and Dawnpath, amongst others. Nicola Lefanu is the daughter of composer Elizabeth Maconchy.
Azucena's scene with Bemsch's empathetic Manrico (the rebels are clad in the recognisable Garibaldian red shirts), brass and tympani in attendance, was both strong and moving. She was intensely affecting: you can almost feel her weighed down by the terrible secret she harbours. His voice is forceful, quite sharp, even cutting, in demeanour, but Verdi pours some of the best melodies of the piece into Manrico's role.
The ensuing nunnery scene included some nice, even witty, perhaps ironic, staccato whispering exchanges between Luna and his soldiery. The girls launch an enchanting, serene duo-cum-trio. The soft strings and haunting clarinet for Leonora were beautifully calibrated. So were the pattering horns for the latest exchange between Luna and Manrico. The swordsmen seemed oddly, uncomfortably frozen, but the final block was certainly effective.
The male chorus, vocally superb yet again, was also well blocked for the siege scene. Grange's superb Ferrando was again powerful and authoritative, and under Oliver Gilmour's encouragement the chorus when Luna quizzes Azucena was positively uplifting, verging on massive. True, there is endless sentimentality, and not a little cliché, scattered around the libretto. (Cammarano's work was completed, to quite a large extent, by Leone Bardare, who was behind several of the best loved arias.) The calibre of the orchestra continued to show itself: paired clarinets, and then some rather effectively strumming horns, for Manrico, whose top notes were always compelling and beautifully placed; clarinets and bassoonlinking the scenes; flute doubling and paralleling Leonora's next aria, which turns into a solemn cortège, led by horns, with Leonora's lines interleaved with first Manrico and then Luna and the tenor chorus: the whole brilliantly conceived by Verdi, and magically delivered here.
Bandalovska, who impressed at every turn, has her most glorious flowering here, with a powerfully affecting tripartite coloratura aria done, quite simply, to perfection, before Leonora falls back on her desperate ploy: to offer herself to the licentious Luna.
Chisiu is every minute appearing more of a double for Scarpia, spurning pity and interested only in revenge: 'Deh, rallentate o barbari', he loathsomely gloats — but in fact Leonora will take poison before he can work his wiles upon her. The tense and cynical exchange between the two, Luna (thoroughly rotten and corrupt) and the desperate Leonora (Bandalovska), is fired up by Gilmour's violently energetic orchestra, with piccolo(s) screaming above.
Manrico's lament — from the prison cell above: Matt Cater's lighting design did much to keep interest going against the sparse background — was as moving as his exchange with the incarcerated, almost asleep Azucena ('la stanchezza m'opprime, o figlio', 'I'll shut my eyes in sleep' in Simon Rees' endlessly intelligent, polished surtitles: stanchezza refers to fatigue). Bemsch, a marvellous find with (here) a bewitchingly lovely tone, and Gilmour together achieved a particularly affecting, meaningful legatoduring this poignant passage. Pizzicato creates the effect here, but kept by Gilmour to a lovely, mysterious pianissimo, the cellos outstanding, and flutes too.
Equally moving was the ensuing sequence. Manrico suspects that Leonora has purchased his freedom by succumbing to Luna, and explodes, in one of Bemsch's most powerful, now deliberately strident, outbursts — 'this faithless woman'. When she swallows the poison and dies, he is overwhelmed by remorse. (All this — compare Rigoletto — is part of a typical Verdian build-up: misconstruings, remorse and deaths riddled with fatal misunderstandings.)
The final trio — Leonora, Azucena and Manrico — was truly wonderful: deeply affecting, full of pathos, with Misund's Azucena adding a kind of touching berceuse below: utterly marvellous. Cater's lights turn a glaring yellow as we see Luna ominously smug, lolling in the strangely ghoulish, smoke-imbrued doorway, Bemsch's anguished Manrico having been hauled off to his death. It calls for a grim and desolate downturn of luck, and that comes as Azucena reveals that in polishing off Manrico, Luna has executed his own (stolen) brother, the subject of the initial narration.
This tragic exchange and Luna's shocked realisation is the most desolate (and to us — despite his awfulness — heartrending) moment of the entire opera: his brutality has destroyed innocence. Verdi hurtles his score to a close, brilliantly done here.
Every scene was galvanising and edge-of-seat. Much of it was searing. What a truly magnificent show."