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Dom Sèbastien, Roi de Portugal/
La Fanciulla del West

Royal Opera House

THEopening week of a new opera season should set the agenda for the whole year. A flying start is always necessary, particularly if, like the Royal Opera House, you continually have to fight off criticism that not enough new works are being produced.

Well, these two operas provided a mixed bag. The traditional concert performance to get things under way was Donizetti's much under-performed Dom Sèbastien, roi de Portugal. Much underperformed it is as this was the first time the opera had been seen at Covent Garden, and even then they saved on the vast amounts of money it would cost to stage a five-act, rather over-long love triangle set in the midst of conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Still, an opera about Christians and Muslims is rather timely, or perhaps it is because of the sensitivity of the hostilities portrayed in an opera written more than 160 years ago, that it is not fully staged either in London, or more regularly elsewhere.

The Opera House cannot be accused of not spending vast amounts on Puccini's La fanciulla del West - dramatically advertised as opera's first spaghetti western, although I haven't yet seen a lengthy queue to add to that genre. Kenneth Adam's sets for David Belasco's story, The Girl of the Golden West, are so extensive that the patrons enjoyed two rather relaxed 35-minute breaks, which is enough to allow the diners to get down their second and third courses without choking.

The cast list was also impressive. José Cura, the Argentinian who is destined to become as respected as his mentor from the same continent, Plàcido Domingo, was excellent as the outlaw Ramerrez, who disguises himself as the love-struck Dick Johnson. The interest of his advances was the delightful, if frumpy, Andrea Gruber as Minnie, a middle-aged virgin who takes gold-diggers for bible class and, it appears, has never even been kissed.

Energetic

It is difficult to come to terms with an opera set in the American West, and you even felt that Puccini, that the most global of composers, struggled on this one. Cura, Gruber and Mark Delavan, in his Royal Opera debut, as sheriff Jack Rance cannot be faulted. If there is a better young tenor/actor in opera than Cura I have yet to come across him.

If there was one thing, though, that did unite the two operas it was their conductors: Mark Elder with Dom Sèbastien and Covent Garden's musical director, Antonio Pappano, for La Fanciulla. Both put in similar energetic performances, so much so that the orchestra was the star of both nights. Elder, on stage for the concert performance, proved such a catalyst that it was difficult to take your eyes off him. Pappano, short and even shorter in the pit, did well at maintaining what drama there was, particularly the cellos soloing at the start of the card game where Minnie cheats to save Johnson from Rance.

Although both operas have lovers saved from execution, Dom Sèbastien does end in tragedy as the young virgin king (Giuseppe Filianoti) and his Moorish love Zayda (Vesselina Kasarova) plunge to a watery grave courtesy of Simon Keenlyside's Abayaldos, while Minnie and Johnson, in possibly one of the most far-fetched endings in any story never mind an opera, literally walk off hand in hand to a new life together leaving the lynch-mob rather confused that they have no one to string up and Puccini no doubt smug that for once he did not kill anyone off.

The next few months promise to be exciting with, among others, the end of the Ring Cycle, Verdi's Macbeth, new productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Domingo in a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac and, most wonderfully, Angela Gheorghiu playing Tosca on stage for the first time in Covent Garden's first new production of opera's greatest love story since the days of Callas. Marcelo Alvarez plays love interest Cavaradossi, while Bryn Terfel is Scarpia - muori, muori, muori.

Speaking of which, an exhibition of the jewels Maria Callas wore in her opera performances is littered around the Opera House until January and proves an enjoyable experience. Something to do while they change the sets in La fanciulla, perhaps.

Review by Peter Wilson


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