Barber Opera at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham (April 15) *****

Though ventilation issues mean the Barber Institute auditorium is out of action, thus necessitating the use of the not quite so charming Crescent Theatre as performance venue, it was so heartening to welcome the return of the Barber Opera to its legendary values underlying its founding over 60 years ago by the great Anthony Lewis.

My beloved Prof’s mission then was to blow the dust off little-known examples of baroque opera, presenting them to the highest standards, and this production of Alessandro Stradella’s  La Forza dell’Amor Paterno could not have ticked more boxes. It was premiered to enormous acclaim in Genoa in 1678, but then vanished from view, resurfacing to researchers only in 1927, and here receiving its first airing in modern times.

The bare bones of the story are simply that the ageing king Seleuco has been betrothed to the young princess Stratonica. Unfortunately his son Antioco has already fallen in love with a portrait of the princess, and upon her arrival for the nuptials, she proceeds to fall in love with the young prince. We are privy to the gradual unravelling of this love-triangle, with Seleuco eventually securing his son’s happiness by renouncing his own claims upon the princess.

There is far more to it than that, though, as the opera is an amazingly up-to-date exploration of psychological motivation and manipulation, all delivered through an exhilaratingly free-flowing sequence of recitative, arioso, fully-fledged display arias and the occasional duo. The opera was composed too early to be hamstrung by the drearily predictable structure of entrance, da capo arias, and exits which shackled opera a generation later,; instead it burgeons with memorable melody, well-shaped sequences and remarkably natural word-rhythms, with director Christopher Cowell’s translation here sitting so easily upon the notes  and sung with impressive clarity of diction by all concerned

His direction is always engaging, hinting at a kind of glossy magazine interest in the comings and goings of the royal personages. Anna Reid’s costume designs satirise the fashion fads of today, casting the chic elegance of Stratonica into effective relief; Reid’s set is simple and versatile, suggesting an art-gallery setting in and out of which the action unfolds. Matthew Cater’s lighting designs create effective atmospheres.

The nine singers are well-chosen and mainly youthful, recently emerged from college. Lara Marie Muller is compelling in the gruelling role of Antioco, as much demanding physically as well as vocally. Her extended mad scene is a triumph of dramatic resource. Galina Averina’s Stratonica began somewhat small of voice, but soon flowered into well-projected delivery. Paul Hopwood was Seleuco, communicative and sympathetic.

Among the other parts, Joanna Harries brought much personality as Lucinda, and male soprano Andy Shen Liu sang with arresting brightness of tone as Eurindo. Helen Stanley’s man-eating Rubia revealed a range of timbre and a comic gift which promises much for the future.

Andrew Kirkman’s conducting kept things moving fluently, the tiny Music and Amicable Society Orchestra creating an arresting range of continuo colours to complement all the dramatic activity.

And one footnote in praise of the programme-book, a joy to handle, wittily informative, and with printing so easy on the eye – and plenty of white space upon which to scribble notes!

Christopher Morley

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