‘Unexpectedly sublime’: ALZIRA – Buxton Opera House ★★★★★

In Opera, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

Buxton Opera House – until 20 July 2018
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori

Verdi’s little-known opera about Peruvian Incas and Spanish conquistadors, Alzira has finally received its UK premiere at Buxton International Festival. It is 173 years since its whirlwind composition, completed in a scant month during Verdi’s “galley years”, when he was churning out operas at extraordinary speed, a period about which he would grumble endlessly.

Cammarano’s libretto is based on Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, an iconoclastic play which sought to poke holes in religion (and problematise European cultural pre-eminence) by showing harshness and nobility on both sides in Latin America, with both conquerors and conquered equally capable of mercy and vice, generosity and greed. Ideas of honour, faith and love become explosive in conflict as psychotic Spanish governor Gusmano (velvet-voiced baritone James Cleverton) fights with Inca warrior Zamoro (brooding, vocally dextrous tenor Yung Soo Jun) over who gets to marry the beautiful Inca princess Alzira (a frankly stupendous Kate Ladner).

Although Cammarano excised much of Voltaire’s revolutionary firepower in order to get past the censors, director Elijah Moshinsky reinvigorates those political dynamics by placing Alzira in a troubled Peru of the 1980s, where an imaginary Spanish government struggle to quell native guerrillas (and Verdi’s echoes of Italian Risorgimento stay clear).

Grainy CNN footage during the overture suggests a pattern of failed coup, renewed control, increased injustice, street violence and coup; a lurching, familiar cycle. Designer Russell Craig dresses the stage simply with grimy floor tiles and vast sliding panels to evoke the faded grandeur of Latin America, while stage flotsam – fuel cans, packing cases, an old red leather couch – suggests post-coup chaos.

Dynamic lighting and video projections give the stage a hallucinogenic edge. The Spanish are power-dressed in sober black suits or black military fatigues, their women all wearing nationalistic red; the Incas, with ponchos or scarves slung over their crumpled mufti, look desperate as they skulk in a digitally projected jungle (complete with flying parrots) plotting rebellion.

Alzira is clearly a treasured princess, with a lavishly embroidered belt around her peasant skirt and Frida Kahlo flowers in her hair, while her final wedding costume is a breathtaking vision of blue and gold, powerfully channelling the iconography of the Virgin Mary. As with Moshinsky’s previous two instalments of his trilogy of early Verdi for Buxton (Giovanna d’Arco, 2015 and Macbeth, 2017), we get imported sound effects of guns and bombs across the story, but not so as to disrupt the score.

And what a score it is. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, revel in it. The opera cracks along at whip-like pace, its moods and colours changing with lightning brevity. Alzira has often been dismissed as ‘just another love triangle’, but this triangle is skewed by two complex father-child relationships, another key Verdi hallmark: Alzira is being forced into marriage with the enemy by her harassed father Ataliba, while Gusmano’s gentler, urbane father Alvaro (Graeme Danby) is horrified that his son’s lust pushes him past the reach of compassion or Christian restraint. When Gusmano is fatally wounded by Zamoro, his climactic final repentance, and acceptance that Alzira and Zamoro should at last be together, is as sudden as it is unexpectedly sublime.

Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.