Reviews

AN EVENING AT THE OPERA
Lynda Chang

The purpose of an opera chorus is multifarious.  It can act like a Greek chorus, commenting on the enfolding scene.  It can add colour and atmosphere to the story telling.  It can provide much-needed contrast.  It can be a call to action, even stirring a rebellion.  Equally, it can be reflective, sombre, showing sympathy, pity or longing.  The chorus is a wonderfully useful dramatic vehicle and at Saturday’s ECS summer concert, we got the lot.  At the end of it, I couldn’t have been the only one in the audience to feel exhilarated by the evening’s roller-coaster ride of contrasting tensions and emotions..

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A 40-strong orchestra is impressive!  Many local choral societies would be green with envy - so clearly, we must spread the news far and wide.  This band of excellent young players – silken strings, blaring brasses, wistful woodwinds, magical harp and explosive percussion – added immeasurably to the sensation of actually being at the opera.  

The trio of young soloists – Rosanna Cooper, Miranda Heldt and Ronan Busfield - as ever, brought youthful and glamorous professionalism to the occasion.

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As maestro Julian Collings told the audience – "what better way to start than with a drinking song".  Quite. Verdi’s Brindisi from Traviata set us off in rollicking style.  This hedonistic party scene was most enthusiastically toasted by the choir.  It was followed by the first appearance of two of our soloists in Parigi O Cara which comes at the end of the opera – a bitter sweet dream of a future that will never happen.  Heldt (soprano) and Busfield (tenor) trumped opening nerves to deliver a beautiful duet.

This format of mixing solo and choral items was repeated with everyone’s favourite opera - Bizet’s Carmen.   Habanera was stylishly and excitingly sung and the March of the Toreadors, taken at some speed, was full of relish and bravura.   Our third soloist for the evening, Rosanna Cooper (mezzo-soprano) gave us a Seguidilla that was aptly sassy and ardent.  No wonder all the men fell for her.

And then, an oasis of calm.  ECS tackled Puccini’s ethereally beautiful Humming Chorus from Butterfly with great sensitivity, making us wish the moment could have lasted much longer than just the three or so minutes.

More rousing choruses (two Verdi and one Borodin) led up to the interval, all delivered with great energy and panache.  That paean to wine, women and song – the Anvil chorus from Il Trovatore – was thrillingly accompanied by the orchestra.  It is easy to see how the Nabucco chorus Hebrew Slaves - a stirring lament for a lost homeland – became canonised as a political symbol of patriotism.  The basses had their work cut out here.  In Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Maestro Collings gave no quarter, directing at a fiendishly exciting speed, (taxing even some of the orchestral players), whirling us breathlessly towards the interval.

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An undoubted highlight in the second half was the re-appearance of mezzo Cooper.  Still only an undergraduate from the Royal College of Music, hers is a developing but already memorable voice that makes people sit up and take notice.  Her tackling of one of opera’s greatest roles – Dido from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – was simple, unaffected and touching.  The sudden reduction of the orchestra to just a few strings was like a sorbet on the ear - a gracious nod to the instrumentation of the 17th century - and was utterly charming.

The only other departure from the solid 19th century repertoire was two items from Handel’s Alcina.  Composed during a prolific period of creativity in the first half of the 18th century, this opera was an instant success.  In the chorus Enchanted Islands as well as the show-stopper Tornami a vagheggiar (another commendable contribution from soprano Heldt), we were treated to a distinctly baroque sound world with a plethora of period ornamentation.

Verdi featured again in the Triumphal March - and truly triumphal and gargantuan it sounded too - from Aida.  Two wedding choruses - from Wagner’s Lohengrin (a wonderful opera, too rarely performed) and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (an equally wonderful opera, perhaps too often performed) almost completed the chorus line-up of the evening.

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It must be said that from my position midway in the church, the choir and/or the soloists (who at least benefited from standing in front of the instruments) seemed at times overshadowed by the orchestra.  But no one can deny the real pleasure from hearing an orchestra at full blast.

And finally, it was an inspired choice to end the concert with the celestial Easter Hymn of devotion from Cavalleria Rusticana.  It was a tough call for the choir to produce quietly beautiful and sustained singing after the energetic demands of all the preceding items, but they rose, as ever, to the challenge.

A word about languages.  It is no mean feat to move from Italian to French to German to Russian(!) to Latin and then back again.  Undoubtedly, a great deal of hard work went on throughout the term to produce such a polished and accomplished result.

It is always a great pleasure to be entertained by the excellent ECS.  I only hope that the choir had as much fun learning this music as we had listening to them.  Bravo to one and all.

Our guest reviewer Lynda Chang is a local pianist with special interest in opera and chamber music.
Photographs by Clive Richardson. Thank you Clive.

Epsom Choral Society is a Registered Charity, number 273757