Domingo may be at Covent Garden this March, but for a real operatic adventure head for the backstreets of Bloomsburyby Martin Kettle / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
The British premiere of Lalo’s Fiesque, performed by University College Opera in 2008 What is London’s hottest opera ticket this March? The obvious answer has to be Plácido Domingo in Handel’s Tamerlano at Covent Garden, the great and ever-questing tenor’s first Handel role in this country. Or perhaps, across at the Coliseum, it is the revival by English National Opera of its stunning production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, the only opera in Sanskrit that most of us are likely to see this year—and certainly the best.
If you have a ticket for either, you won’t be disappointed. Even so, the London opera performance I often look forward to most in March doesn’t take place in the grandeur of the Royal Opera House or in the vastness of the ENO’s home. Instead, you will find it up a quiet street in Bloomsbury in a 1960s theatre. The often far-from-capacity audience seems mostly to consist of the friends and relations of those taking part, along with a motley bunch of operatic trainspotters like me.
March in London means University College Opera’s annual semi-professional opera production. It is an admirable tradition but not, you may feel, one that sets UCL apart from other enterprising university opera societies. Except that UCO is actually very special. Every year it mounts four or so performances of an opera which in all likelihood you will never have heard before in your life and which you may well wait most of a lifetime before ever hearing again.
Semi-professional opera performances tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they are well-intentioned tries in which one has to make an awful lot of allowances, or one is so unexpectedly absorbed in the boldness and interest of the evening that one simply overlooks any limitations. In my intermittent visits to UCO productions, the latter has been a far more common experience than the former.
The company has been going since 1951, the brainchild of UCL’s then director of music Anthony Addison. Though its first offering was a well-known piece, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, most of those that have followed have been works whose place in the repertoire has not been secure, and in many cases has been non-existent. In nearly 60 years, UCO has given three world premieres, including one by Beethoven (Leonora), as well as 18 British premieres, including operas by Wagner (Das Liebesverbot)…