Concert review

Tosca and Nabucco Chisinau National Opera at Dartford and Kensington (Orchard Theatre, Dartford 8 February and Royal Albert Hall 11 October 1999)

On 8 February the Chisinau National Opera brought Puccini's Tosca to Dartford, as part of a British tour under the auspices of Opera & Ballet International, who are based in Chatham. As so often with opera, off stage drama had nearly upstaged the show itself. The company's coach was stranded in an avalanche on its way from Moldova, its engine kept running overnight to keep the orchestra and chorus from freezing before they were dug out! Many company members were unwell upon arrival just in time to open in Southend.

They fielded a roster of soloists from major opera companies, three Cavaradossis, three Scarpias and three Toscas! Natalia Margarit, flown in from Rome Opera, was magnificent, glamorous and authoritative on stage, her voice rich and steady through its whole range from firm mezzo to dramatic soprano. A fine old fashioned production without frills and mercifully free from trendy direction. A full house emerged contentedly from The Orchard Theatre into our first winter snow, which had begun to fall during the performance!

My review of that event failed to reach the pages of the south eastern Guide Magazine, which suddenly axed its regular music column because of the more pressing claims upon its space of the Millennium soon ahead and the emerging Dome nearby! This was one spur which led towards the launching of Seen&Heard during the summer.

The opportunity to hear the Chisanau company again at a one night stand at the Royal Albert Hall was too intriguing to forego, despite a damning review from up north by a respected national newspaper critic. Regrettably, she proved to have been spot on, and my initially charitable mind-set soon evaporated, but the evening gave food for thought.

Firstly, the Albert Hall was all but full, scotching any still held belief that opera is an elitist entertainment. Nor did the punters appear in the least concerned that the touring sets and the lighting for Verdi's early epic Nabucco were simple and crude (though less unsuitable in the vast space of the Albert Hall than in smaller venues), the singing mostly loud and unsubtle, and acting non-existent. I liked the Zaccaaria, but generally found little to remember or commend from what was billed as "a 170-strong company with handpicked stars from Russia, Romania and Latvia, who appear in a powerful production". The multitude came on, emoted distress or vengeful defiance as required, then stood stock still and delivered Verdi's stirring choruses full front.

Underlying this sorry spectacle one could not help thinking about the economic conditions in the company's home countries which had forced them into undertaking such uncomfortable and unprestigious touring abroad.

It was all as if in a time warp yet with, if only at first, a certain nostalgic charm. I have dim childhood memories of some opera performances with staging nearly as perfunctory as this, before Callas amazed us in Tosca and Medea by showing that opera stars might also act, and now we expect this of the chorus too. Sur titles kept us on track with the proceedings. The programme (£3, and not provided for invited critics) was as uninformative and overpriced as so common; astonishingly it gave lists of singers and conductors who might appear, but did not disclose who we were watching and hearing on this particular night.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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