Liverpool opera one of the highlights of Capital Culture year
Venice or Verona may seem a more typical setting for an opera, but Lew Baxter meets the team preparing a musical showcase set in Liverpool
EVEN folk favoured with a vividly fanciful imagination wouldn’t be foolish enough to describe Liverpool as a kind of rustic ideal located in a glorious Alpine valley, and surrounded by treacherous mountains, particularly 180-odd years ago in the grime and growl of the Industrial Revolution.
Yet, in certain parts of Mediterranean Europe, there was a peculiar romantic notion wafting around then that some northern English cities were rather exotic. This, it is argued, was why the eminent Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti chose Liverpool as the setting for one of his operas – admittedly a little-known piece.
Originally scored in 1824, it was titled The Hermitage of Liverpool, but Donizetti changed the name to Emilia Di Liverpool, a confection of tragedy and humour that experts reckon has only been performed four or five times: in Naples, Vienna and maybe Paris, and twice in Liverpool itself.
Indeed, the first contemporary production was staged in Liverpool in 1957 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of King John granting the city a charter. It starred the divine soprano, Joan Sutherland, as Emilia, the daughter of Claudio of Liverpool, who has been seduced and abandoned by a faithless lover. She retires to a hospice atop a mountain outside Liverpool and dedicates her life to stranded travellers. Broadcast by the BBC, it was kindly received and regarded as “intriguing”.
Its second outing in 1963 was a more light-hearted affair presented by the somewhat anarchic Liverpool Music Groups founded by musician and writer Fritz Spiegl, and featured a hilarious narration by his comedy actor pal Willie Rushton.
Even Spiegl, whose love of his adopted city was never in doubt, was persuaded that Donizetti’s librettist chum Giuseppe Checcherini, who collaborated on the opera, was rather clueless about Liverpool. Fritz reckoned he was perhaps swayed by Walter Scott’s sweeping novels, although in truth Liverpool didn’t loom large in those tales either.
But the city was internation-ally renowned as a major maritime axis and many emigrants from mainland Europe to America and Australia would probably have travelled through Liverpool en route to the New World.
Whatever the reason, the world premiere, in July, 1824, of this intriguing bel canto work at the Teatro Nuovo, in Naples – where Donizetti was living – was apparently an instant success.
Spiegl’s concert production at the Philharmonic Hall featured Doreen Murray as Emilia and Philip Mitchell as her father Claudio. Fritz conducted the orchestra himself and explained that Rushton’s spoken English commentary was added as a link between the arias and ensembles to “bring out the absurdity of the plot”.
In fact, the opera was teamed that mid-May evening with a second half appearance by the popular Spinners folk combo and singing pal Stan Kelly, in what was loosely described as a selection of Scouse humour, street ballads and sea shanties. The mind boggles.
Now, to mark Liverpool’s status as European Capital of Culture, a new – and clearly serious and professional – version, commissioned from the acclaimed French musicologist Gilles Rico, has been assembled by the Liverpool-based European Opera Centre, with a company of singers and musicians cast from all over Europe.
It will be performed on New Year’s Eve – in the magnificently restored Concert Room of St George’s Hall – as the opening salvo in the city’s 2008 cultural jamboree. After a short season in Liverpool in January, it will then tour to Gdansk, Bremen and its birthplace of Naples.
A performance of the opera was included in Liverpool’s bid document for the European Capital of Culture title, which it was awarded in 2003. And according to the Opera Centre’s chief executive, Kenneth Baird, it was Sir Bob Scott, who chaired the working party drawing up the pitch, who first mooted the idea of reviving it.
Kenneth is delighted that the Opera Centre –which was set up in Manchester in 1997 and moved to Liverpool a few years later to work out of rehearsal studios in Hope at Everton – is involved in such a seminal production. It was his inspiration to seek assistance from Gilles Rico, who spent more than 18 months researching the old manuscripts all over Europe.
“He has done such a fantastic job and we are hoping to make a recording,” adds Kenneth, who explains that, apart from the singers, an orchestra of young musicians has been gathered from various cities in Europe with close links to Liverpool.
“It is a breathtaking collection of talent and they are all as excited as me at the prospect of performing this opera in Liverpool.”
Marseille-born Gilles, who studied at Oxford University, says the music is very rich and the libretto – sung in Italian – a wonderful mix of the dramatic and comedic.
“There are actually four main manuscripts and two versions of this opera. I used the final autographed one as the base and, together with Giovanni, I adapted the dramatic plot for a new audience,” he explains.
For nearly two months now, the 30-strong opera company has been hidden away at the famous International Eisteddfod site, in Llangollen, in North Wales, feverishly rehearsing their roles under the watchful gaze of Gilles, stage director Ignacio Garcia and conductor Giovanni Pacor.
For more than 60 years, Llangollen has been home to an annual globally-focused musical extravaganza that has drawn such operatic heroes as Jose Carreras, the late Luciano Pavarotti, Lesley Garrett, Placido Domingo and Katherine Jenkins, among others. It was the concept of former Daily Post journalist, Harold Tudor who, in the midst of world conflict in 1943, dreamed of a more peaceful world and of bringing nations together. The first Eisteddfod was held in 1947.
In what suddenly struck Gilles Rico as a lovely coincidence, he realised that they had been working in a town nestling in a scenic rural valley, flanked by sweeping mountains, surrounded by forests and fed by rushing rivers – the very scenario conjured up by Donizetti and Checcherini for Liverpool.
As the singers chat during a break in the intense rehearsal schedule, a couple wander in to inquire about the possibility of attending the full-scale dress rehearsal that is being staged in Llangollen 12 days before its Liverpool performance.
It transpires the pair – Veda and Frank Williams – are familiar with Emilia Di Liverpool; in fact, they were in the audience at Fritz Spiegl’s memorable staging.
An astonished Gilles Rico and the singers clamour around to get their opinions, overjoyed to read the original Liverpool Music Group programme for that event that the couple have brought along.
“We were only courting at the time and went to the Philharmonic regularly,” says Liverpool-born Veda, who has lived in Wales for 30 years. “This opera was part of Fritz Spiegl’s well-loved Nuts in May shows, which we loved.
“We went knowing that it would be great fun because Fritz was involved, although I think he treated it as something of a joke, as did Willie Rushton. But I would love to see a proper version and we will definitely be at the run-through.”
EMILIA Di Liverpool – Concert Room, St George’s Hall, Liverpool, on Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7.00pm. Tickets (including champagne) £55 and £75. Box Office and further shows: 0151 709 3789.