Expansion of review of Il Corsaro, published by London’s Opera magazine

Il Corsaro (Verdi)

Production by the New Zealand School of Music, conducted by Kenneth Young and directed by Sara Brodie

Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the School of Music

The Opera House, Wellington

Friday 26 and Saturday 27 July 2013

This is a review of the New Zealand School of Music’s July production of Verdi’s Il Corsaro. Its core is my review for Opera magazine in London; it was printed in the December issue, and was posted on this website in mid December.  I decided to publish here what I had written, since it was a good deal more than the magazine was able to print, and have placed it chronologically about a fortnight after the performances. Frances Robinson’s review was published at the time on this website.

My colleague Nicholas Tarling, in Auckland, drew attention in the August issue [of Opera magazine] to the failure by Opera New Zealand to tackle a planned Billy Budd this year as New Zealand’s acknowledgement of the Britten centenary. Verdi was evidently not even on the horizon, since there’s enough exposure in ordinary seasons to the popular pieces.

But in Wellington, the auspices for 2013 pointed rather firmly to Verdi as the New Zealand School of Music’s biennial production (Britten had been honoured in 2011 with an enchanting production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Wagner might have seemed a little beyond the school’s ordinary resources). The head of the school, Professor Elizabeth Hudson, earned her doctorate at Cornell University with a dissertation on Verdi and she was later asked to prepare the critical edition of Il Corsaro for the University of Chicago Press and Ricordi. This production was the happy fruit of that circumstance.

Unsurprisingly, this was the New Zealand premiere; I had thought it might also have been an Australasian premiere, but I later discovered, by accident, that the semi-professional Melbourne City Opera had staged it in 2006.

Apart from an interesting little essay in the programme booklet about the problems of settling on the best possible edited version of the piece, Elizabeth Hudson refrained from direct involvement in the production.

Instead of performing in one of the venues in the school of music itself, the production was brought down town into Wellington’s ‘other’ round-1900 era, Opera House which, both nights I attended, was comfortably filled, apart from the top gallery. (It’s slightly smaller than the 1500-seat St James Theatre where professional opera in Wellington is usually staged).

Il Corsaro is one of Verdi’s shorter operas – about one hour and forty minutes – and the scope of the roles looked manageable by capable students. Such was the talent on hand that the four main roles were double cast to spread the opportunities around. On successive nights (26 and 27 July) I saw both casts.

Stage director Sara Brodie did not resist the temptation to get Byron on stage in a mute role at the start and a couple of times later. Otherwise, there were no directorial liberties or indulgences. If at first glance the story in Byron’s poetic drama is pretty straight-forward, the stage reality uncovers a story of some originality. It overturns the common shibboleth that women are always the victims in opera: for Gulnara, Pasha Seid’s favourite in his harem, murders him in order to save the captured Corsair, Corrado, to whom she is attracted. And at the end she is the only one of the four principals left alive; something of a victory for feminism in the 19th century!

Though double cast, there was no question that the first was better than the second: on average, the levels of talent and accomplishment were balanced between the two casts. One of the two Corrados, Thomas Atkins, sang with a little more swagger and command than Oliver Sewell whose voice was perhaps a little more polished and lyrical.

Both Medoras easily conveyed a fragility and an archetypical romantic disposition towards suicide: Elizabeth Harris in cast No 1 was a little more natural in the role than Daniela-Rosa Cepeda, in the second; though the latter suggested a tenderness that was touching.

The Gulnara was really a no contest, given the extraordinary gifts, musical and histrionic assurance, of Isabella Moore who has already made an impact nationally in non-student performances and competitions. Her alternate, in Cast 2, Christina Orgias, presented a somewhat less determined and murderous disposition, which lent the confrontations with Pasha Seid less conviction.

The two Seids were more even, with the Frederick Jones of Cast No 2, exhibiting just a little more
authority in both voice and acting than Christian Thurston.

The choruses were among the best things. Though there were too few pirates in the opening chorus to
make an immediate impact on the audience, the later mixed choruses were more full-blooded and showed evidence of excellent coaching both musically and in stage movement; and their frequent mélées and the Act III battle demonstrated director Sara Brodie’s flair in crowd control and at least in the general choreographic aspects of the sword conflicts between pirates and guardians of the harem.

The musical management was in the hands of Kenneth Young, among the country’s leading resident conductors; the 55-piece orchestra may have been a shade less than professional, though there was much distinguished playing and the needs of the singers and of the drama itself were splendidly served.


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