for the Les Azuriales Opera 2015 France Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
‘After a summer in which every production seems to have been set in either the Nazi era or the 1990’s Balkans War, by would-be ‘daring’ directors who succeed only in being clichéd and irrelevant, it was refreshing to find two productions that were entirely at the service of the composer and the original drama. Diva Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Le Nozze di Figaro (director Cameron Menzies) are scaled-down productions, in the round ingeniously designed for small stages in intimate setting which involve the audience closely in the dramas and which have been touring the UK and France from June until October. Diva Opera’s history is intertwined with that of Les Azuriales, the Anglo-French charity whose mission is to assist young singers and other artists in the launching of thier opera careers. Les Azuriales Opera Festival, in the beautiful setting of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur featured these two operas, Lucia, (August 27) and Figaro (August 30) together with their annual intenational singing competition (August 29).
In both operas the spare but effective sets, excellent lighting and beautiful period costumes (Figaro by Nicola Jackson and Lucia by Maïte Chémin) helped Menzies’ sensitive direction to concentrate the audience’s attentions on every detail and nuance in a way rarely achieved in much larger houses. The piano accompaniment, by Diva’s indefatigable musical director Bryan Evans, brilliantly evoked a full orchestra. The versatile lyric coloratura soprano Ana James was singing her first Lucia, and with great success. She not only provided clear, controlled and accurate bel canto singing, but also gave an intensely moving portrayal.
James, from New Zealand, was a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden from 2005-2007 – she is a highly promising Lucia and a name to watch. Ashley Catling combined an impassioned performance as Edgardo with elegant and attractive singing. David Stephenson was effective as the scheming Enrico and Matthew Hargreaves was an impressive Raimondo, thunderous in promising God’s reward for Lucia’s abandonment of her vows to Edgardo.
Hargreaves was also in Figaro (Count Almaviva), as a rather more diginified than lecherous figure, and again, as in Lucia, stylishly sung. At the centre of Menzies’s highly enjoyable and witty production was the dignified Elizabeth Donovan who, the Countess sang gloriously with appropriately aristocratic poise. Donovan, the 2002 Welsh Singer of the year and 2003 contestant in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, she was very good in ‘Porgi amor’, and even better in ‘Dove sono’. ‘Che soave zeffiretto’, the great duet between the Countess and Susanna (Lucy Hall) was, as it should be, meltingly beautiful. Matthew Sprange was a rather bland Figaro.
A striking feature of the production was the movement, choreographer (Jenny Weston), especially in the ensembles. There were comic cameos from Louise Mott as Marcellina and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Don Basilio, and the young Welsh mezzo Caryl Hughes made her debut in the role of Cherubino, to which she seems perfectly suited. She was the very embodiment of an awkward and amorous adolescent boy: impish, hyperactive and loveable, with constantly mobile facial expressions – a sheer delight.
Hughes was a finalist in the Les Azuriales International Singing Competition in 2010, and in this year’s competition, the 14th, all ten finalists, chosen from over 100 who auditioned, were of a very high standard. The winner was the Armenian bass-baritone Arshak Kuzikyan; others who especially stood out were the South Korean tenor Ji Hyun Kim and the Welsh tenor Elgan Lyr Thomas, the Australian mezzo Kate Howden, and the British mezzo Bethan Langford. More names to look out for.’
Opera Magazine – December 2015
(NB: the printed article had a few important names incorrectly credited so they have been corrected here for the purposes of due credit)