It’s a plot that could only really be suited to opera: a happy couple, whose fathers’ quarrel causes the boyfriend to kill his future father-in-law in a duel, resulting in all sorts of curses and requests for justice from the girlfriend. In a happy turn of events, an invading army gives the boyfriend an opportunity to go off and fight, be believed to be dead for a little while, and then return victorious to claim honour and his beloved’s heart once again. If Le Cid sounds like it could be a bit hit and miss in its original form as Corneille’s five act play, Massenet’s operatic incarnation lands plenty of punches.

Leonardo Capalbo (Rodrigue) and Dorset Opera Chorus © Fritz Curzon
Leonardo Capalbo (Rodrigue) and Dorset Opera Chorus
© Fritz Curzon

Le Cid has never managed to retain a position in the repertory and it is not the most obvious choice for English opera festivals; Dorset Opera Festival is to be commended for its bold decision in reviving this gem for its British stage première. Conductor Jeremy Carnall has taken a pair of shears and clipped large chunks of material from the score, trimming the opera into a comfortable length of just over two hours, resulting in a work that retains the musical force of Massenet’s original while gaining a certain tautness. Christopher Cowell’s production maintains the majority of the set from La bohème, but covers this with an appealing woodwork design. Costumes are a bright smörgåsbord of Spanish uniforms, aristocratic dresses and clerical garb, while Marc Rosette’s careful lighting offers nuance to a set that is, by necessity, somewhat empty.

It helps when putting on an rare operas to have a strong cast that can make the best case for the piece. ‘Le Cid’, the name by which the Moors reportedly called Rodrigue Díaz de Vivar, was sung by Leonardo Capalbo who performed the role with complete assurance. Capalbo has a bold, ringing tenor and bristles with energy; his Rodrigue is an earnest, honourable man and Capalbo brought to life the confusion and distress that his need to defend his father’s honour at the expense of his own happiness brought him. Clear at the top of the voice and text passionately enunciated, Capalbo brought the spark to the production that gave it its edge. Lee Bisset’s powerful soprano gave some thrilling scenes as Chimène, Rodrigue's betrothed. Although there were times when a softening to the forceful expression would have benefited the interpretation, her violent condemnation and curse at the end of Act 2, voice soaring with rage, was the highlight of the evening.

Leonardo Capalbo (Rodrigue) © Fritz Curzon
Leonardo Capalbo (Rodrigue)
© Fritz Curzon

One of the opera’s most interesting features is the writing for Don Diègue and Le comte de Gormas, with a wonderful duet between the two in the first act. Bass-baritone Paul Gay, no stranger to Diègue, gave a magnificent performance of gravitas and resonance. Diction was clear and the lines were clean; he brought real complexity to the role. Baritone Charles Johnston singing Le comte (his third role at this year’s festival) conveyed outrage in a tightly controlled performance as the blue-blooded noble passed over for high(er) office. Phillip Rhodes was an eloquently sung King Fernand and Simone Ricksman made the best of the largely irrelevant role of the Infanta. Ross Ramgobin was in bright voice, doubling up as St Jacques and the Moorish ambassador (winning the prize for heaviest dressed person at Dorset Opera in both performances).

The chorus, surely benefiting from Massenet’s extensive writing, gave an impressive performance, deftly sung and the text largely audible across the board. There were a couple of occasions when a little direction was needed to avoid a sense of standing around, but given the number of singers crammed on the stage, this is forgivable. Carnall drew a vivid performance from the Dorset Festival Orchestra; the brass more on the ropes than in Bohème but with a strong contribution from the woodwind.