Such was the display of vocal dexterity from Nelly Miricioiu as Maria and Marianne Cornetti as Ines in the Chelsea Opera Group’s performance of Maria Padilla that by the end, it almost felt like the Olympics had come early.
This extraordinary but almost unknown opera from Donizetti’s maturity was a sort of sequel to La favorite (1840) from the year before, and though it was a backward step for the composer to return to write another piece for the relatively parochial city of Milan after having conquered Paris, he managed to accomplish something quite new under the circumstances.
Milan still expected composition by numbers, with the traditional components of cabaletta, cavatina, full duets and concertati distributed across the opera to showcase the talents – and egos – of the resident singers. Yet Donizetti turned the conventions to his benefit by intensifying the regal Spanish tinta of the orchestral writing, heightening the dramatic possibilities of the scenas and, perhaps more than anything, developing the expressivity of the vocal line for the prima donna, whose fireworks don’t just show off the voice but also reinforce the character’s psychological journey. Sofia Löwe, who sang the role originally, must have been an incredible artist to conquer the lyric, coloratura and dramatic demands of this towering role convincingly.
Just as well, then, that the evergreen Miricioiu was on hand for the COG’s performance. Though she was celebrating her sixtieth birthday year with this performance, the soprano has never sung so excitingly or expressively. As wonderful as the opera is, it’s easy to see why it’s rarely revived: who else on the international opera scene would have the guts to take it on? Yet I was riveted by Miricioiu’s accomplished and intelligent handling of the opera right from the word go. The cabaletta to her opening aria is especially taxing, with extended ornamental writing in the upper octave of the voice, but Miricioiu despatched it all with care and attention. She thrilled with her high Ds, had enormous impact in the big ensembles and shaded the quieter passages with beauty and finesse. And, as always, she inhabited the character – one of Donizetti’s oppressed women surrounded by domineering and psychotic men, though she gets the better of them all in the end – totally compellingly. In short, this was an excellent role assumption that deserves to be repeated.
But although the evening was Miricioiu’s, by her side was another artist of equal stature and vocal assurance who made the night electric and memorable. Marianne Cornetti is the Eboli and Amneris of choice for many of the world’s greatest opera houses, so to have her on hand to sing the role of Ines, Maria’s sister, was luxury casting indeed. It was touching to witness the warm collegiality of these two excellent singers onstage together, most especially in their duet “A figlia incauta di reo trascorso” where the vocal lines intersect. Cornetti’s dazzling performance of the first aria of the opera set the tone for an exciting performance to come, and her dramatic gravitas, combined with her vocal warmth and keen musicianship, was a pleasure to witness.
With two titantic presences at the centre of the performance it was inevitably difficult for the rest of the cast to make their mark, but Marco Panuccio made a valiant stab at the role of Don Ruiz (a rare tenor role for a father figure in Italian opera), Emma Carrington was a lively and committed Francisca, Daniel Grice made a firm impact as Don Ramiro, and Paul Curievici offered warm support as Don Luigi.
The other cornerstone of the evening was conductor Brad Cohen, who hasn’t been seen for a while at COG but without question has the ability to produce some of their best performances. That the orchestra’s reputation has grown is highlighted by their recent participation in the BBC’s Maestro programme, and this concert served to show the sort of levels they can achieve with the right guidance. The Spanish colours and dramatic sense of the opera were vividly communicated throughout – matching the outstanding performances of Miricioiu and Cornetti.