Spitting at one another like cats – “Meatball!” “Sardine!” – two duetting sopranos nearly stole the show at the Royal College of Music’s Britten theatre last week in a work that was more than two centuries old but new to most of us. Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818), an Italian composer associated with Naples, wrote 51 operas. Best known, for obvious reasons, is Don Giovanni Tenorio (1787), based on the morality tale also used by Mozart a few months later. In both works, the dissolute antihero is visited by a stone guest and gets his comeuppance. Taking a bold step, the RCM Opera Studio, the postgraduate training course for singers on the threshold of professional careers, chose Gazzaniga’s opera buffa for its winter term production.
Their success was a timely reminder – one of two examples last week – of the importance of our national conservatoires. University music departments have been in the headlines. Not helped by a minefield of uncertainty over what should be on the syllabus, they are being snipped, if not axed entirely (Oxford Brookes is the latest victim; others are under threat). Nothing is safe for ever, but conservatoires, some protected by royal charter, are at least clear in purpose: to give vocational training in music to a standard of excellence. They attract international staff and students. Problems of their own concerning one-to-one teaching practice notwithstanding, we should cherish these institutions.
In this alternative Don Giovanni, I saw the first of two casts. The Scottish tenor Marcus Swietlicki was light-voiced and suave in the title role, his fellow Scot, baritone Daniel Barrett, comical as his sidekick, Pasquariello. There was no weak link. Louise Bakker’s staging (with designs by Becky-Dee Trevenen, lighting by Joshua Gadsby) was traditional – wigs and frock coats – but deft. The orchestra, under the experienced baton of the RCM’s director of opera, Michael Rosewell, negotiated the many rapid scurries and string flourishes with stylish accuracy.
This take on the story, still shot through with menace, is more lighthearted than Mozart’s. The predominantly sunny disposition is partly explained by much of the music being in the major key (Mozart set the tone, from the opening chords, in the minor). In the habit of Italian opera at that time, music from elsewhere has been added: from Mozart himself (Leporello’s “Catalogue” aria) and by Antonio Salieri. The full cast deserves praise, especially those responsible for the angry duet: Australian soprano Georgia Melville (Donna Elvira) and as Maturina, her rival in love, South Korean soprano Henna Mun. Having put so much work into learning this unfamiliar music, let’s hope they all get a chance to perform it again in their careers.
At the Royal Academy of Music, which also has an elite postgraduate opera school, a staging of Handel’s Ariodante, directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted from the keyboard by David Bates, demonstrated the current strength of the UK’s baroque opera tradition. Designs by Yannis Thavoris were minimal and elegant, with monochrome, gender-fluid costumes. The cast took time to settle to the vocal demands of this music: some who excelled at tonal colour and pitch focus faltered in the taxing fast-note runs and ornaments; others had the agility for trills but lacked power, or struggled to encompass the high to low range required. Managing to triumph in every aspect is part of the process.
Yet as the work unfolded and confidence grew, so these problems receded, resulting in a moving, committed performance, with vigorous chorus work and punchy but subtle orchestral playing (special praise for the bassoon obbligato). Bates, who has his own group, La Nuova Musica, evidently has this music in his bloodstream. The baritone Charles Cunliffe (King of Scotland), joint winner of the 2023 Leeds Lieder/Schubert Institute UK song prize, is a name to watch, with promising work, too, from Clara Orif (Ginevra), Rebecca Hart (Polinesso), Erin O’Rourke (Dalinda) and the rest of the cast.
In the title role, the mezzo-soprano Angharad Rowlands – an Oxford Song young artist for 2022-24 – warmed to the task, unleashing her full range of expression in her joyful final aria, Dopo notte. In essence: after a bad night, the sun shines and my storm-tossed boat returns to shore. I’d have loved her to sing it all over again.
Star ratings (out of five)
Don Giovanni Tenorio ★★★★