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The first male-only chorus revealed some pretty dire tuning disparity between tenors and basses; both the guards' amateurish crowd-control and the cigarette-girls' antics grew silly with over-repetition. Contrast the serried ranks of children (here, some canny, disciplined Primary-age youngsters from Elliot Clarke School, Liverpool) who from the impish lead boy down acted gloriously : their exit march -- manoeuvring sideways up steps -- went like clockwork. The female choir sang better, and several of Bizet's full-lunged choruses (the end of Act II, the mysterious chromatics of the smuggling act, and again just before Escamillo appears) were nearly as terrific as those of Turandot.

A problem that must exercise Chisinau's conductor and singers alike, on a whistle-stop tour of (often) old-style venues, is the variable acoustics. At the Liverpool Empire, with (as it seemed) its surprising absorbency, this well-framed production had problems penetrating beyond the proscenium (some sort of apron would have helped the vocals communicate more). Nicolae Busuioc's José, after the duffish Act I and an initially halting Lillas Pastia scene -- he seemed a bit like the 'faded, dry, scented flower' of which he sings -- suddenly came to life in the last exchanges of Act II. Does Busuioc thrive on tensions? As the anger grew in the last two acts (the smugglers' and bullring scenes) he confirmed why Chisinau has previously rated him so highly; (he has regularly sung Canio, Cavaradossi and Rodolfo for them). He has a strong presence when he broods (though not as grim as Munteanu's Canio); his anger has a righteous ring; the fight (with Escamillo) was visually nothing; but the tensions behind it were considerable. At his best, despite the odd tricolour top note and some bleating, Busuioc clearly has (or had) a fine voice.

Samoila's slowish tempi -- although this was meant to be a measured, thinking performance -- brought mixed results. At worst, he stifled the excitement : he seemed determined to avoid cheap surges at even the bigger moments, notably Carmen's set pieces. 'It's not as Romantic as I thought', said a lady behind me, and she had a point. There was no explosion -- and hence no big rush of blood for an audience which needed it. We were, in a sense, sidelined. Yet there were pluses in this reading too. The Chisinau orchestra, to a man, played terrifically -- the best I have heard it yet -- for Samoila. The upper string tone (including a superb solo from the leader, Igor Ersac) was for once impressive. The overture was fresh, ringing, alive, yet also subtle, with the kind of brilliant playing from paired trumpets and flutes that continued throughout the whole evening. The fact that a lot of the audience clapped halfway through it serves to confirm how many non-regular opera goers Ellen Kent's Chisinau tours are delivering in the provinces -- arguably increasing, not diminishing, UK theatregoers' appetite for opera.

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Copyright © 11 October 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK





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