Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Il Corsaro a delight and a triumph

By , 26/07/2013

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Il Corsaro

An opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Lord Byron’s poem, The Corsaire.

Presented by students of the New Zealand School of Music:

Cast: Thomas Atkins (Corrado) / Isabella Moore (Gulnara)
Christian Thurston (Pasha Seid) / Elisabeth Harris (Medora)
James Henare  (Giovanni) / William McElwee (Pirate/Aga Selimo)
Declan Cudd (Pirate/Eunuch) / Jack Blomfield (Lord Byron)
Imogen Thirlwall (Caroline Lamb)
Voice Students of Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music

Conductor: Kenneth Young
Director: Sara Brodie
Assistant Director : Frances Moore
Orchestra of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music

Opera House Wellington,

26th July 2013.

This New Zealand premiere marked the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth,  and was the first of four performances to be staged with two sets of vocal principals on alternate dates. This opening night presented Thomas Atkins as the swashbuckling pirate Corrado, Elisabeth Harris as his lady love Medora, Christian Thurston as the ruthless Pasha Seid, and Isabella Moore as the queen of his harem Gulnara.

Il Corsaro was completed in 1848, towards the end of Verdi’s early period of operatic writing, and follows Byron’s plot quite faithfully. This is a somewhat unlikely romantic tale, requiring a suspension of disbelief akin to the plots of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it is peopled by similar colourful larger-than-life characters.

The standout performers this night were undoubtedly Thomas Atkins and Isabella Moore, who portrayed their roles of piratical raider and romantic heroine most convincingly.  Each showed wonderfully assured vocal and dramatic skills, and they could comfortably project their voices out into the auditorium, never being overshadowed by the orchestra.

This was conducted by Kenneth Young, who drew from the instrumentalists an excellent performance of a varied and demanding score, conveyed with technical mastery and musical assurance.

The costumes were designed and executed with similar exuberance, as was the stage set. The male and female choruses did an excellent job, with the male group providing a particularly impressive opening scene to the work.

All these elements enhanced the strong impression that the student participants were enjoying themselves hugely – their enthusiasm carried the audience along in the colourful, dramatic sweep of the action, in a way that is so essential to a successful performance.

All the soloists showed sound vocal skills, but those of Corrado and Gulnara were exceptional and were greatly enhanced by their vocal confidence and acting abilities. There were very few wobbly nerves to be seen amongst the cast, revealed only occasionally by the odd loss of intonation.

This performance was definitely nudging its way confidently into the realms of a professional production. It was a great shame that the auditorium was not particularly full, since it was a most entertaining night out, and a most encouraging display of the youthful skills which the New Zealand School of Music is fostering.

 

Peter Mechen reviewed the following evening’s performance, featuring an alternative cast of principal singers:

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Il Corsaro

An opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Lord Byron’s poem, The Corsaire.

Presented by students of the New Zealand School of Music:

Cast: Oliver Sewell (Corrado) / Christina Orgias(Gulnara)
Frederick Jones (Pasha Seid) /Daniela-Rosa Cepeda(Medora)
James Henare  (Giovanni) / William McElwee (Pirate/Aga Selimo)
Declan Cudd (Pirate/Eunuch) / Jack Blomfield (Lord Byron)
Imogen Thirwell (Caroline Lamb)

Voice Students of Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music

Conductor: Kenneth Young
Director: Sara Brodie
Assistant Director : Frances Moore
Orchestra of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music

Opera House Wellington,
27th July 2013.

Giuseppe Verdi’s operas are reckoned to fall generally into three stages of development – rather like Beethoven’s music, in fact. The opera Il Corsaro, completed in 1848, comes towards the end of the composer’s “early” operatic body of work, but after better-known works such as Nabucco (1842), Ernani (1844) and (most surprisingly) Macbeth (1847). It ‘s such an enterprising choice of repertoire for this, the 200th composer-birth-anniversary – but given its actual lineage, why is Il Corsaro so little-known?

Verdi had read Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire in 1844, subsequently contracting his librettist, Piave, to adapt Byron’s verses for the stage. The composer then got involved in a kind of squabble with one of his publishers, and the upshot was that he seemed to lose interest in Il Corsaro, despite at an earlier stage calling it “beautiful, passionate and apt for music”. Uncharacteristically, he publicly distanced himself from the opera’s first performances, a circumstance which has contributed to the work’s subsequent neglect. We’ve lost the composer’s on-going thoughts and attitudes towards the work’s early presentation history, as ought to have been expressed in various pieces of correspondence or performance-inspired alterations to the score.

A pity, because the work sits on the border of Verdi’s movement towards a “middle-period” style, with lyrical elements playing an increasing part in his strongly-energised dramatic expression, one that sweeps both along with irresistible force. Despite the story’s obvious gaucheries I soon found myself caught up in it all, thanks as much to the across-the-board commitment of the cast and production team as to the composer’s directly engaging way with character, situation, plot and denouement.

It was an inspired idea of director Sara Brodie’s to give us the poet, Byron, at the very beginning, his creative persona visibly interacting with the music of the prelude (incredibly whiplash playing from the student orchestra under Ken Young’s direction – marvellous!) By the time the Corsaire’s ship entered and the pirates disembarked it was possible to imagine that the poet had dreamed and imagined us as well, a transfixed, captive audience!

From then on, the swashbuckling and rollicking yarn really took hold – the opening chorus sequences, much of them unaccompanied, had both energy and clarity, making up with focused, well-varied emphases, what was slightly lacking in girth and punch. I thought both Tony de Goldi’s powerfully unfussy set designs (I loved the sky-curtain seemingly drawn open by the ship’s prow, at the beginning!), and Hannah Rodgers’ lighting choices beautifully enhanced this and all of the following scenarios. Daphne Eriksen’s costumes further enlivened the colorful action throughout every sequence, and sat nicely upon each character.

Oliver Sewell made a strong impression right from the start as Corrado, Il Corsaro himself, the fine ring to his voice suggesting the ability to lead and command. As Medora, Corrado’s lover, Daniela-Rosa Cepeda conveyed a lovely fragility, both visually and vocally, shaping her  melismatic irruptions nicely and actually making them mean something in emotional and dramatic import. The lovers’ farewell duet was built both tenderly and then excitingly towards the cannon-shot – a great moment, the poignancy of parting all the more dramatic as a result – convincingly done.

However “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron’s sometimes mistress Caroline Lamb thought him, her reaction to the poet’s verses was here portrayed as something bordering upon hysterical mirth – her timely removal over the poet’s shoulder allowed the opera to proceed! – however, her giggling was echoed by the women of Pasha Seid’s harem as they congregated, focusing their attentions upon Gulnara, the Pasha’s favorite odalisque.

Christina Orgias as Gulnara began extremely well, making an eloquent lament for her native land, demonstrating vocal command and fearlessly attacking her high note at the end of the aria. Frederick Jones as Pasha Seid produced true and accurate tones, and as the evening progressed, seemed to increasingly warm his voice to the task, relishing both his “hundred virgins” and his “vengeance” arias. I did think there could have been more tension and dynamism in his and Gulnara’s exchanges, when he accused her of wanting to help his enemy, Corrado, whom he had captured earlier, to escape – in these Verdian situations subtleties often need to be cast aside by performers in favour of full-blooded theatrical flow.

All the while, conductor Ken Young ensured the orchestral support for the singers was right up with the play, both in vigorous passages and in places like the lovely “sighing” effect accompanying Corrado’s lament for Medora from his prisoner’s cell. Later in the same scene the orchestra raged splendidly throughout the storm (pre-echoes of Rigoletto) that accompanied Gulnara’s killing of the sleeping Pasha Seid, the lighting kicking in brilliantly at that point for a properly hallucinatory effect.

As for the final scene, I found myself abandoning my notes and surrendering to the tide of spectacle, sound and emotion the performers were able to generate. Neither Byron nor Verdi chose a “boy-gets-girl-at-the end” scenario – Byron has the unfortunate Medora, Corrado’s lover, dead from grief before his return, whereupon he  spurns his liberator, Gulnara, who has travelled with him, and exiles himself from his island home. Verdi’s scenario has Medora die of exhausted grief when Corrado arrives with Gulnara, whereupon the remorse-laden pirate abandons the former odalisque and throws himself into the sea in true, united-in-death verismo style.

It all seemed in such accord with similar operatic irruptions of passion and cut-and-thrust – and from the same composer! So, very great credit to all concerned for a splendid realization of a hugely entertaining and surprisingly well-crafted work.

This was a critical edition of the score prepared by Verdi scholar Professor Elizabeth Hudson, Director of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music, and I imagine she would have been gratified at having her work staged and delivered with such creative flair and unswerving performance commitment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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