Opera review: Edinburgh Grand Opera

Frederico Ricci's tale of baby-snatching in the capital had lain gathering dust since its premiere in 1838 until a local company decided to stage a revival

Edinburgh Grand Opera ***

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

'LA PRIGIONE di Edimburgo, which holds a delicate balance between pathos and comedy, might well bear revival". So wrote the late Julian Budden in the recently published New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, in reference to a long-forgotten opera by the 19th century Italian composer Frederico Ricci that translates rather banally, but intriguingly for us in Scotland, as The Prisoner of Edinburgh.

What Budden has to say on these matters tends to be worth listening to. He was one of the foremost authorities on that flowery phase of virtuoso Italian showpiece opera we call bel canto - anything from Rossini to Bellini, Donizetti to Verdi. They, of course, were megastars in relation to the now-forgotten likes of the Neapolitan brothers, Frederico and Luigi Ricci, both of whom enjoyed success in their day, but never quite made it into the hall of eternal operatic fame.

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Why? Thanks to Edinburgh Grand Opera (EGO) and its part-reassembly last Sunday at the Queen's Hall of Ricci's Sir Walter Scott-inspired melodramma semiseria, we can make some judgement on that. For other than a 2003 recording of selected extracts by the excellent London-based archaeologists of forgotten works, Opera Rara, this was most likely the first ever live UK performance of La Prigione di Edimburgo since its Trieste premiere in 1838.

The plot is sourced from Scott's The Heart of Midlothian - as, incidentally, is that of the slightly better-known 19th century opera, Jeanie Deans, by the Greenock-born Hamish McCunn. It deals with a case of Edinburgh baby-snatching and the psychological consequences that has on the distraught mother, Ida (wrongly charged with infanticide), and the perpetrator, Giovanna, whose ultimate act of repentance is to scale the inferno of the burning prison tower where she has hidden the baby, retrieve it, confess all, return it to its mother, and promptly die of smoke inhalation.

In La Prigione di Edimburgo, you half-expect the arrival of a latter-day Inspector Rebus to unravel the madness and deceit. As it happens, the male characters - Tom (an unlikely smuggler-turned-prison governor), the Duke of Argyle, his adviser Patrizio, and token tenor Gorgio - turn out to be musical and theatrical small-fry to the maddened outpourings of the two sopranos.

There are good and bad reasons why EGO decided to mount what they believe is the UK premiere of this opera. On the negative side, the amateur company simply doesn't have the funds these days to present the number and scale of productions it once could.

The upside is that creative solutions have had to be found to counter that, which is exactly how the decision to semi-stage Ricci's opera came about. It all started with a chance visit to a junk shop, as the EGO's music director Neil Metcalfe explains.

"Our artistic director Christina Dunwoodie (also singing the role of Giovanna) found references to the Edinburgh connection in some old books, which led to further research via Covent Garden, which in turn led us to the music publisher Peters," he says. "They own the rights for performance, and said they would be happy to make a version we could perform."

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The result was well received on Sunday, in a version of the opera that was a semi-staged snapshot of its complete form. Not all the music exists in a performable state, leaving us with a string of salvageable scenes to piece together the convoluted story, the intricacies of which were explained in layman's terms by Donald Maxwell's witty and personable, if occasionally protracted, narrated links.

The staging was a skeletal one, making straightforward use of a multi-levelled Queen's Hall stage and its awful turquoise window curtains, behind which Giovanna hid the baby; while Metcalfe had to make do with a pared-down orchestra that made up for in bare-faced bravado what it lacked in physical size.

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But there was nothing makeshift about many of the performances. Susan McNaught's Ida was a vocal tour de force; Christina Dunwoodie's experienced portrayal shone in her maddest moments, even if her lower register was underpowered.

Among the men, Ivor Klayman's Tom was a consummately engaging comic foil, while Peter Cannell's Duke was a reflection of the stoical music he is given. David Hamilton's Giorgio never quite hit the spot, and seemed, at the key emotive moment with Giovanna, to cop out of the climactic high notes. But what a swarthy bunch of Edinburghers the EGO chorus were: lusty, reactive and fully involved.

And what of Ricci's music? It's probably fair to say, from the extant morsels we heard, that it is worthily crafted, generally inoffensive (the rather characterless overture is a bland opener), occasionally thrilling, but subject to featureless hiatuses. The emotive extremes, almost exclusively given to the two sopranos, bring out the best and most original in the composer, and there is a hair-raising surge of electricity in the climactic ensemble that ends Act 2.

We have it on record that Ricci's opera was an instant hit at its 1830s premiere, not least for the furore surrounding the mad scene sung by its original second soprano, Rita Gabussi. But did EGO's revival suggest that a fuller production - assuming all the music is there - might work with an audience today?

"It's not Bellini; it's not Verdi," an even-keeled Neil Metcalfe told me before Sunday's performance. I'm inclined to agree, and doubt whether the sum of its variable parts would add up to a whole that is worthy of a place among opera's immortals.Decide for yourselves when Edinburgh Grand Opera repeats Sunday's presentation in two Edinburgh Fringe performances in August.

• Edinburgh Grand Opera repeats its partial staging of La Prigione di Edimburgo in St Andrew's and St George's Church, Edinburgh on 19 and 21 August.