Fresh from its defeat of the VAT "brigands" (as Martin Graham described them) in the appeal courts, Longborough Festival Opera returns with vigour to its prime task, that of bringing quality opera to communities where the art-form is not easily encountered.
Next month LFO undertakes an outreach project, but for now is concentrating on presentations within its charming and comfortable little theatre in the grounds of Graham's Cotswold country house. Don Giovanni is already in repertoire as a revival, and Friday saw the premiere of Richard Studer's new production of Verdi's Rigoletto.
There are a few aspects of the evening which cause disquiet, but the ultimate effect is of something much greater than the sum of its parts, Studer's resourcefully sparse sets throwing emphasis entirely onto musical and dramatic values.
Mark Beasley's appropriately
gloomy lighting is perhaps too unremittingly dark, but brings a wonderful surprise in what is a brilliantly conceived final act.
Here dozens of light bulbs flicker brightly on the floor, suggesting reflections in the water by the riverside inn where the cruel climax will occur.
Jonathan Lyness' generous, full-phrasing orchestra (Tony Burke's efficient reduction) and the tiny but effective offstage male chorus ululating chromatically to chilling effect set the storm-tense scene. And the drama of the action here is powerful, with, at its heart, a wonderful delivery of the tremendous Quartet.
Yet we can feel no sympathy for Rigoletto as his world finally crashes around him. Craig Smith, for all his impressive vocal delivery, portrays this deformed professional jester as upright and austere, more like Don Carlos' Grand Inquisitor. The Duke of Mantua, too, macho and dashing, draws a disappointing characterisation from Jim Heath, his "La donna e mobile" needing much more point and swagger.
Lurelle Alefounder's Gilda is affectingly girlish, with some
well-placed altissimo notes, but she needs to work on her Italian. As Maddalena, Margaret Rapacioli is disturbingly seductive and sings warmly and invitingly.
From lurid melodrama to piety overladen with saccharine, and Gounod's Saint Cecilia Mass. Continuing its shrewd policy of exploring lesser-known works, Birmingham Choral Union gave an often powerful account of this uneven composition.
Colin Baines persuaded his sing-ers to impressive sonorities, but there were also moments of undeveloped, underprojected tone. The trio of soloists failed to achieve a satisfactory blend.
Soprano Celia Gibb had more success in the Byzantine invocations of Poulenc's Gloria, its glitter, jollity and tenderness approached with gusto by the BCU. And Poulenc's Organ Concerto found a sturdy solo-ist in Darren Hogg, and an orchestra which achieved marvels on a single rehearsal.
* Rigoletto in repertoire until July 1 (6.30pm, running time 3 hours 30 minutes). Details on 01451 830292.