A tight budget seems to have prevented English Touring Opera in recent times from giving more than two fully staged operas per season and the company has found inventive ways to pad its repertoire out and explore new avenues of performance. Its Spring offerings are two parts of Puccini’s Il trittico and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro; providing a little more filling is a concert billed as Rossini: Fireworks!, in which four singers perform extracts from Rossini’s more serious operas that, despite the efforts of singers like Joyce DiDonato, have failed to capture the public’s affections to the same extent as his comedies. A potential treat then, to hear arias from such works as Maometto II, Otello and Ermione.

Catherine Carby © William Knight
Catherine Carby
© William Knight

Unfortunately the first performance at the Hackney Empire Theatre failed to match the ambitious title. For reasons not entirely clear, the evening lacked spark from the start, the atmosphere lethargic and inert. The ETO Orchestra under conductor John Andrews was not on top form: fluffs in the woodwind and brass detracted from a string section that played with clear enthusiasm, but suffered from intonation issues. An opening of the overture to Semiramide plodded and felt cautiously played. Of the four soloists, the two ladies stood out albeit in different ways. Mezzo Catherine Carby brought clear experience and technique to her arias with some fine displays of coloratura, though one or two moments were curiously lacking in colour. Her performance of the “Willow Song” was well articulated, but glacially cool. Far better was her performance in the title role from Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, full of fire and seething regal outrage. Carby has a fine lower register and her voice is luxuriously textured; one always got the impression that it was comfortable with the demands the music put on it.

Elena Xanthoudakis brought more immediate energy to her parts, delivering a memorable Ermione in the “Gran scena” of Rossini’s opera about the only daughter of Helen of Troy. The voice does not yet feel completely ripe and the technique is not fully formed – one or two runs were poorly navigated – but it’s a bright and open instrument that is a natural fit for the theatre, and there was certainly a reasonable stage presence with strong physical expression complementing her singing.

Elena Xanthoudakis © William Knight
Elena Xanthoudakis
© William Knight

The gentlemen were somewhat less successful. Tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey had control of his instrument and diction was clear, but the voice had a slight bray to it and colouring was dim. Luciano Botelho did not have a good evening; the middle voice is soft and limpid, but his ventures into the higher register was badly judged and did not make for pleasant listening. Given Botelho’s growing reputation in this repertoire, it must be presumed that this was a blip, but it made the duet of “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue” with Gyeantey from Otello uncomfortable.

One or two performances of this concert around the country will feature chorus scenes and it may be that this provides the cohesion that will dry the powder and set the fireworks alight. 

***11