Full marks and four stars to Grange Park Opera for rounding off their 2013 season with a delightful French operetta of 1907 – the slight, elegant, cynical tale of an aristocratic French lady Jaqueline who sleeps not with her husband, the elderly notary Maitre Andre, but with first one lover, the dashing military officer Clavaroche, and with second the shy, overcome clerk Fortunio, who has fallen for Jaqueline from the moment he has first set eyes on her. Is there more to the story than that? No, not really, but in the hands of the two master librettists who turned out one stage success after another during the Belle Epoque, Robert de Flers and Gaston de Caillavet, the piece fizzes along with wit, delicacy and a succession of amusing moments. And the music is gorgeous – beautifully and delicately scored, abundant in melody, a joy to listen to throughout. It was Camille Saint Saens who attended the premiere of Fortunio at salle Favart on 5 July 1907 and who wrote to Messager the very next day: “Do you know, you are the only composer nowadays who can write my type of music”!
Twelve years ago (the claim has not been challenged, as far as I know), Grange Park gave the UK premiere of Fortunio with five performances in the 2001 Festival. I saw it at the time and found it charming, but with rough edges: the same director Daniel Slater and the same designer Francis O’Connor have now been given the opportunity to revisit the work, and the result was a much more polished and sophisticated production. The stage setting evokes the interior of the Grange Park mansion, but with period French touches (including excellent, atmospheric video projection) and an uncluttered stage that really works. Having said goodbye to the English Chamber Orchestra and to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the season, the powers that be recruited a scratch ensemble in the pit that called themselves the ‘Orchestra of Maitre André’ – fair enough, and under the baton of an excellent, vigorous Toby Purser, the orchestral contribution to the evening was terrific: a very acceptable sheen to the strings, some idiomatic woodwind playing and a full, bright sound at all the big moments. Indeed, orchestra and chorus played a big part in the success of this production: picking up on cues (in music that must have been largely unfamiliar to them) and providing the authentic Messager swagger at all the right moments. There are – as with most light French music of this period – one or two sentimentally clichéd moments, but Purser did not dwell on them and moved things on briskly. As a result, the four acts were over almost before the piece seemed to have got into its stride!
Three singing roles dominate Fortunio and a fourth gives us the buffo character part – in the role of the cuckolded husband, Maitre André, Timothy Dawkins, a Grange Park regular, provided warm tonal colour and an authoritative, more steely timbre when needed for his confrontation scene with his errant wife. He did not quite escape the trap of a younger, attractive baritone trying to assume the characteristics of an older man, but the verve and spirit of his performance made it easy to forgive him that. In the title role, Fortunio himself, Alex Vearey-Roberts had a terrific sing: his tenor is open, full-throated and (at times) extremely loud – the Grange Park acoustic, highly supportive as it is to singers, only emphasizing what a big voice he already has (and it will develop much more). He gave us an attractive incarnation of the role and seized with glee his ‘Albert Herring’ moment at the end of the opera, when Jacqueline is clearly about to initiate him into the arts of lovemaking! In terms of the idiom of the score, and indeed the role, Vearey-Roberts will achieve more when he varies the dynamic of his voice and observes the p and pp moments more attentively – but that is not to take away from a lively and enjoyable performance. And so to the object of his affections, the lovely Jacqueline. Ilona Domnich looked the part in spades from the moment she sauntered onstage: elegant, slightly aloof, beautifully costumed and moving like a panther. And her voice proved lovely for the part – more than a soubrette, with occasional moments of lyrical power that absolutely soared over the (admittedly light) orchestral texture that underpins her. First night nerves may have accounted for an element of coldness or impassivity in her first act performance, but as soon as Domnich entered her bedroom in Act Two, she came alive and became much more believable. There is more she can do with her facial expressions, but this was a performance with promise – and a lovely sing. Finally Clavaroche, her dashing soldier lover. Quirijn de Lang has impressed at Grange Park before, notably as the Count in an unforgettable Capriccio, and proved to be in imposing voice and fine form in a part that played to his strengths, with lots of bravado, open-voiced, virile singing and moments of real humour. There is a fine line between irony and caricature in the Clavaroche part, and de Lang was aware of the distinction, always just keeping on the right side of the characterization that the authors intended: so there was real menace for Fortunio in the ambush scene, and genuine realization as the plot progresses, that Jacqueline after all does not mean that much to him. This was a splendid central performance.
The supporting roles were well taken: the piece moved like clockwork, as it should, doors opened and closed on cue, and the music proved gaily infectious. There were only two performances at Grange Park, to close this year’s Festival, but this Fortunio moved on to Buxton for two further performances in the Opera House: those who caught it either at Grange Park or at Buxton enjoyed a rare treat.
Photos: Grange Park Opera