Donizetti making an opera around the story of Noah’s Ark? God forbid, you may think (no pun intended). Well, this concert performance of Il diluvio universale at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, proved that the composer’s dramatic instincts for shaping musical drama were already well developed, after only a few years of writing operas.
There is an extra responsibility resting on the shoulders of performers who take on totally unknown works of this sort, in that the performance has to be convincing enough to make the audience believe it was worthwhile. On this occasion, the soloists, orchestra, chorus and conductor were all so committed that their few technical shortcomings faded into insignificance, and we all left convinced.
Il diluvio universale or The Great Flood is Donizetti’s only opera based on a Bible story. It’s takes an unusual and highly rewarding take on the story by focussing on one of Noah’s followers, Sela, who is offered protection on the Ark. She is the favourite concubine and wife of Cadmo, satrap of a Babylonian city and Noah’s worst enemy. Torn between Noah’s God and her love for her husband, Sela ends up unwittingly incriminating Noah and his family, who are to be burned inside the Ark with Sela. In the end, she returns to Cadmo and tries to curse her God, but the words literally choke her and she dies. Meanwhile, along comes a flood…and you know the rest.
Musically, the opera has a lot to offer. As with Dom Sebastien in September, I was impressed by the way Donizetti finds innovative solutions to unusual plot situations whilst sticking to the basic aria, duet and finale forms invented by Rossini. The concertato or choral number which ends Act II is extraordinary, when Noah responds to Cadmo’s sentencing of his family to death by predicting the eponymous deluge as they are all led into the Ark. The action is so exciting throughout the opera that one longs for a full production; I am convinced of its stage-worthiness.
This concert performance was presented under the joint auspices of Opera Rara, the record label that specialises in little-known operas of the nineteenth century, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. During the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall they are using a range of different venues, but I wasn’t persuaded by the choice of the Theatre Royal. Yes, it’s grand, yes it was once used as an opera house. But the acoustic is appallingly dead, and it was often difficult to hear the orchestra and chorus, who were on the stage.
As so often with this orchestra, I found the upper strings far too dominant during the first act, but after the interval they integrated somewhat better. The wind instruments flowed nicely, and I particularly liked the prominent harp in the second half. The parts were always admirably clear, and they accompanied well in general. Sadly, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir was un-Italianate to the point of unacceptability at times; it can’t have helped to be placed so far back on the stage, but they lacked bite.
Some of the singers were very special, though. As Noè (Noah), Mirco Palazzi lacked physical stature but commanded the stage. He has some tough things to sing, and is frequently competing with massed forces, but he managed both good projection and elegant phrasing. As Sela, Majella Cullagh took a while to warm up, and perhaps her voice is a bit steely for my taste, but her coloratura is magnificent, her top notes piercing and her acting impassioned.
The star for me was Manuela Custer as Ada, a pagan princess who vies for Cadmo’s affection and brings about Sela’s downfall. Her aria at the start of Act II brought the house down, an acknowledgment of her high-quality bel canto singing.
Noah’s son Jafet was sung by Simon Bailey, a young bass-baritone who had such an impact in even so small a role that he may be a star in the making. Perhaps most impressive of all was Colin Lee playing Cadmo. He is unusual in having such a naturally beautiful tenor voice, which he never forced, and he always shaped the tricky scales with style. The other roles were mostly well taken, and the solid Artoo of Roland Wood deserves special mention.
The conductor Giuliano Carella was a little neurotic at first, but he overcame his nerves and led a well balanced reading of the score. The tempi were mostly well judged. Most of all, he certainly understood the composer’s fluidity as regards the continuity of the music and drama, which helped to pave the way for Verdi’s refinement of the structure of Italian opera later in the century.
In all, a memorable evening and a laudable enterprise. Don’t miss next year’s offering, Pacini’s Alessandro nell’Indie on 19 November 2006.