UC Opera, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 20th March 2017
Two Verdi operatic rewrites within four days! But whereas Jérusalem (reviewed in Liège on Friday) was a proper revision of I Lombardi for Verdi’s first Paris Opéra commission, Aroldo (presented here by UC Opera) was done out of necessity. The final scene of his 1850 opera Stiffelio was a stumbling block for the censors, with the title character a Protestant minister who forgives his adulterous wife. A bowdlerized version, Guglielmo Wellingrode turned the German pastor into a minister of state. Verdi would have nothing to do with it and resolved that the only way for Stiffelio to survive on the Italian stage would be to give it a different setting.
Taking inspiration from Sir Walter Scott’s The Betrothed, Verdi turned Stiffelio into an English crusader (Harold/Aroldo) returning from Palestine to find his wife has been unfaithful. Jorg, the elderly minister in Stiffelio, becomes the hermit Briano, whom Aroldo met in the Holy Land and who is the opera’s voice of Christian conscience (Brian is surely drawn from the hermit in Scott’s The Lady of the Lake). Unlike Jérusalem, the plot of Aroldo is not an improvement on its predecessor. As Julian Budden argued, crusaders are ten-a-penny in Italian opera, “but spiritual piety forms no part of their make-up”. Having a medieval warrior ask his wife for a divorce after failing to dispatch her seducer stretches credibility.
Musically, much of the first three acts are the same as Stiffelio. There’s a new aria for Aroldo, which Verdi pinched from his overture, and a cabaletta when Aroldo discovers his wife, Mina, is not wearing her wedding ring. The greatest interest comes in the final act though, which is entirely new. We suddenly transfer from Kent to Loch Lomond(!) where Aroldo and Briano have retreated as hermits. After a few pastoral choruses, Mina and her father, Egberto, arrive to plea forgiveness. Aroldo resists, but Briano – quoting the biblical story about the woman taken in adultery – forces a change of heart.
In her production, Pia Furtardo updates the action to the present day. Through a heavy shroud of Kentish fog, Aroldo – Harry – returns from military duty in Syria to his father-in-law’s disused nightclub. Minnie (Mina) has been ‘aving it away with Vinny (Godvino) and ‘Arry flips when ‘e finds aht. It’s all a bit Eastenders… but then we are in Stratford and the production stayed true to the spirit of Verdi’s opera. The problem comes in Act 4 which is depicted here as some sort of dream or Scottish fantasy of Aroldo. Mina arrives in a giant origami boat, in full bridal gown, Egberto in a gold suit and crown, Brian (the hermit) in cardinal’s robes… Frankly, it’s a bit late in the day for Furtado to go all Regie and it doesn’t convince. There’s probably a good contemporary setting of Aroldo about a soldier returning from duty in the Middle East suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but it doesn’t happen here.
UC Opera fields professionals in principal roles and all four turned out strong performances. Anthony Flaum, as Aroldo, has a pleasant lyric tenor, which doesn’t always quite bloom at its top just yet, but he’s an engaging actor and portrayed the troubled husband convincingly. Rich-voiced soprano Céline Forrest sang well as Mina, Aroldo’s wife. She displayed some thrilling top notes, but there was hollowness to her lower register in Act 2’s coloratura. The baritone gets the best music here and Richard Morrison (disappointingly not The Times’ chief music critic going all poacher-turned-gamekeeper) was on fine form, phrasing his big Act 3 aria splendidly and really attacking the following cabaletta. Briano doesn’t get any big solo, but Julian Debreuil’s sturdy bass made his presence felt. Minor roles were effectively taken.
The student chorus sang with conviction – young, untrained voices, but committed. Their intonation in the a cappella Act 4 prayer, anchored by Flaum and Debreuil, was solid. The orchestra, with strings and woodwinds in the Stalls, brass and percussion buried (almost unseen, Bayreuth-like) in the pit, gave a spirited reading under Charles Peebles. The overture was taken at a hell-for-leather pace that led to some scrambled playing, and intonation was variable, but the tricky trumpet solo was tackled admirably. In Act 4, aided by much net curtain choreography on stage, they stirred up a fearful tempest.
Productions of Aroldo don’t come around too often. I can think of a few operagoers who’ll be heading to Stratford to tick this one off their Verdi list. They’ll see an entertaining show.