Melodic, comic, colonial: Franz von Suppé’s A Trip to Africa

A sense of real excitement surrounded the revival (and UK premiere) of Franz von Suppé’s A Trip to Africa at the Maddermarket Theatre, the culmination of several years of work by conductor Dario Salvi, who found and meticulously researched and restored the score and libretto with his wife Hannah after a 94-year performance hiatus. There is always a worry that “lost” operas may have fallen into obscurity for good reason, but A Trip to Africa proved to be pleasantly tuneful, comic, and busy with action, although it has one or two troubling moments, and is absolutely enormous. Even a three-hour performance (with two intervals) could not relay the score in its entirety, so the singing was increasingly interspersed with spoken narration from the charmingly deadpan Simon Ireson, moving the complicated plot forward for us with merciful vigour. The Imperial Vienna Orchestra did magnificent justice to von Suppé’s playful, yet sophisticated score and to their conductor’s commitment to this project, exploring the work with passionate expression and superb accuracy, relishing the interesting oriental touches which embellish it at regular intervals. Unfortunately, the singers could not, in general, match the quality of the orchestra, and a musically awkward first act saw several audience members leave at the first interval. Nevertheless, the production steadily gained in confidence all night, and proved this operetta is certainly worth a whirl, particularly for a more skilful cast with a more brutal editor, in future.

Apart from the glowing colours from the orchestra, Selina Hawker’s polished contribution as a sprightly, melodious Titania was the highlight of our evening. Hawker’s engaging characterisation and sweet-toned soprano proclaim her a confident, and compelling, performer. Dhilan Gnanadurai, as the hotel owner Pericles, shows promise in his warm, high baritone, but his patchy acting never allowed Pericles to reach his full dramatic potential. As Tessa, Rebecca Hunt’s pleasing tone indicates a naturally gifted singer, but her voice needs the support of better vocal technique to deliver her lines with accuracy, which was often missed, not to mention phrasing and emotional expression (currently missing entirely). Tessa, instead of von Suppe’s comic ‘maiden with attitude’ (clearly modelled on Isabella in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, an opera this work regularly channels) seemed so resolutely sulky that it was hard to imagine anyone would want to brave the dangers of darkest Africa to marry her. Her lover Miradillo was similarly unburned by passion, though sung with scrupulous accuracy by Andrew Inglis. With his pleasantly smooth, bright tenor, Inglis just needs to be more animated to be a believable hero, but this emotionally flat portrayal gave Miradillo no spark of life. I have never seen a pair of lovers on stage ignore each other, their dramatic connection, and the audience, so completely. Even more lugubrious was Djinh Kamei’s melancholic Prince Antarsid, sung in such a universally soft, delicate tone that even his flirting scenes with Titania felt positively funereal. Kamei’s tenor is elegant and fluid, but needs more conviction to sound appropriate on an opera stage; at the moment he sounds rather too ecclesiastical for light Viennese operetta. Vocal quality deteriorated significantly across the older singers, who ranged from disappointing to downright uncomfortable to hear (Bob Arnett, recovering from illness, as Fanfani; Samantha Hawkins as a simply disastrous Sebil; Felicity Devonshire swallowing her consonants as Tessa’s mother Buccametta; Feargus Cooper scarcely, yet painfully, audible as the Muezzin and Nakid).

Some problems were endemic for all the singers. Regular costume changes only highlighted the general lack of dramatic commitment; simpler clothing would have suited such plain performance better, particularly as hats and veils (used throughout) can even present difficulties for much stronger singers. Not having music stands, all singers had to hold their scores on stage, leaving them unable to convey the simplest of gestures with hand or arm, and further constraining their ability to act their part: some, indeed, seemed to cling to their score for dear life with both hands and eyes, constricting their engagement with both audience and conductor. Diction was universally disappointing, and many of the principals could not reliably get over the orchestra, which for any classically trained singer in such a small theatre as the Maddermarket should not have presented a challenge of any significance. So, although it was sung in English, words were often difficult to understand, and we began to rely increasingly on Ireson’s spoken narration to help us interpret each passing scenario. The woeful contributions of the Octagon Singers, rarely together, scarcely on the line and seemingly impervious to their conductor, added a lurid, nightmarish quality to the whole, often simply spoiling the orchestra’s achievements without adding atmosphere or meaning.

Most upsetting of all was the very unwise inclusion of a profoundly offensive aria from Fanfani discussing the “delicate, chocolate” girls he was able to procure “in the Pasha’s preferred dusky hue.” I had anticipated there might be some troublingly colonial aspects to the work, given its period and theme, but this aria has no place on a modern stage, and was simply revolting to witness. Given that the libretto had been fully translated, all the arias hand-picked for performance, and several others left out, the inclusion of this howler was eye-poppingly inappropriate; the company had spent a year in discussion about whether to include it, and I can’t understand why anyone ever thought it was reasonable or relevant to do so. The aria itself has no importance in terms of character or plot, didn’t strike the ear with exceptional musical significance, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history without delay (or, at least, entirely reworded). It was a pity, amidst so much poor diction, that these words managed to strike the ear with awful, inerasable clarity; a truly gruesome moment. Another aria of Fanfani’s talking about “the English way” of behaving (including beating his slaves) also rang a few alarm bells, but thankfully made no actual sense, as little of it came across coherently. With so much music to choose from, a few sensible editorial decisions here might give the operetta a brighter future formulation: otherwise, it becomes impossible to enjoy, to any practical extent.

After so much effort by so many people for so many years to bring this back to the stage, at least the wonderful account from the Imperial Vienna Orchestra vibrantly demonstrated the musical worth of this project on the night. It was sad the singing couldn’t match the excellence of the orchestra, but the cast’s many pitfalls just prove that this music is genuinely challenging to sing well, and (like Gilbert & Sullivan) requires serious skill in order to seem effortlessly funny. For a stronger, braver company, with a robustly edited version, A Trip to Africa might well strike gold one day.

Reviewed at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, Saturday 3 December 2016

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