Meyerbeer Margherita d' Anjou
Margaret of Anjou, the widow of Henry VI, is more familiar to us as the embittered old crone (‘I had a Harry till a Richard killed him’) in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the opera she is relatively young and beautiful, sufficiently so, at any rate, to be loved by the tenor…and he a married man.
The action takes place in Scotland where Margaret’s forces are being pursued by Richard’s, so that the historical outcome is one concern; the other is the tenor’s dilemma – shall he follow his strong inclination to remain the Queen’s lover or return to his loving wife? She, unknown to him, has followed him to Scotland in disguise (which must be an exceptionally good one as he fails to recognise her, or her voice, even in the course of a long and emotional duet). Richard, or ‘Glocester’ as he is called, does not appear in the recorded version till the last scenes, but earlier, in some lost pages of the score, has ordered his men to incinerate an entire forest. The opera is nevertheless called a melodramma semiseria, which is appropriate partly because from the very first bars of the Overture it is clear that we can not be expected to take it seriously, and partly because another principal role is that of the comical army surgeon, Michele. He it is who in the nick of time summons a doughty troop of Highlanders to thwart ‘Glocester’, who at that point has the rest of the cast at his mercy.
Those first notes – ‘diddly-diddly um-pom-pom’ – may well deter the musical listener (as opposed to the curio-seeker) from going further, especially as the fatuous motif is heard six times more plus twice in the minor and several times referentially in crescendo. But that would be a pity. The singing, the orchestration and the fun are all good, and there is more to it (though intermittently so) than that. The semiseria element itself stimulates invention and interest: Isaura’s plaintive aria and hopeful cabaletta are combined with a buffo subtext for Michele, and in the cottage scene of Act 2 (previously recorded by Opera Rara, 8/95, as an excerpt) the tension of Richard’s unsocial visit is partly diffused, partly increased, by Michele’s prevarications, a surreal situation along the lines of Richard III-meets-Benny Hill. Margherita has a gentle and rather beautiful solo written for the creator in collaboration with the Milanese virtuoso violinist Rolla. Particularly charming are the choruses which come just before, slightly suggestive of the villagers in Cavalleria rusticana, just as other choruses momentarily call to mind Pagliacci and even Carmen.
Apart from one important change, the cast is the same as the one assembled for a concert performance at the Festival Hall in London last year. Patricia Bardon was then highly praised for her singing of the wife-in-disguise, Isaura, the part now taken by Daniela Barcellona. Her rich contralto takes flight in the final solo, surprisingly snatched from the eponymous soprano. She, Annick Massis, is a great find, pure and warm in tone (though possibly not formidably majestic enough here), and highly accomplished in technique.
Bruce Ford gives special pleasure in his cantabile aria, ‘Tu, che le vie segrete’. Fabio Previati plays Michele effectively, singing well and keeping the patter on its toes without too much clowning. Alastair Miles’s Carlo, potentially the most interesting character (but not well developed in the opera), is admirably fluent in passage-work but rather lacking in colour and bite. Chorus and orchestra are in good form, David Parry helping to bring out the best in them, as in Meyerbeer, too. As ever in this series, the booklet is an example to all.