Better a Jolly Romp Than a Depressing Dirge

29/07/2012

 Lord Berners, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement; Puccini, Suor Angelica: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Dorset Opera / Jeremy Carnall (conductor), Coade Theatre, Bryanston School, Blandford Forum, 25.7.2011.

Casts:

Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement

Viceroy of Peru: Graeme Danby
Martinez: Jeffrey Stewart
Balthasar: David Phipps-Davis
La Pericola: Josephine Thorpe
Town Clerk: Marcin Gesla
Bishop of Lima: John Brice

Suor Angelica
Sister Angelica: Julia Melinek
Abbess: Valerie Reid
Princess: Clare Shearer
Sister Osmina: Susanna Hogan
Sister Genovietta: Maria Miró
Sister Dolcina: Polly Hutchinson

Production:

Chorus Master: Nicolas Mansfield
Director: Paul Carr
Design Concept: Iain MacGregor
Design Realisation: Steve Howell
Costume Interpreter: Rebecca Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Bas Berenson

Lord Berners is sometimes dismissed as an English eccentric, who dyed his doves different colours and threw a dog out of an upper window to see if it would fly (it didn’t, but it survived!), but he is one of very few eccentrics to claim distinction as a painter, novelist and composer. His musical output includes a one-act opera, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, which was being given its first stage performance in English by Dorset Opera. (It was first performed in French back in 1924, alongside Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris.)

The crusty old Viceroy, who spends most of his time languishing in his wicker wheelchair suffering from gout, is nevertheless keen to go out in his newly arrived carriage to dazzle the natives wearing his new velvet suit and medallion. However, it is clear that his health renders such a foray impossible so he decides to attend to affairs of state with his private secretary Martinez. The most pressing of these concerns concern his sweetheart La Pericola whose parakeet makes offensive remarks to passers-by and who herself has parodied a member of polite society. The secretary notes that she has been carrying on very publicly with a matador named Ramón, so when the lady in question arrives the Viceroy he accuses her of her infidelity. The feisty lady complains that other ladies in town have been trying to outshine her, and eventually he gives in and allows her to use his brand-new vehicle.

This is a light-hearted romp performed with wit and humour. Graeme Danby gives a convincing portrayal of the suffering Viceroy, whom we never get to see in his full regalia. His servants are much better turned out including his chamber maids who look as if they have been recruited from the local Bunny club, his smartly dressed secretary (Jeffrey Stewart) who is aware of his employer’s many foibles, and his powdered valet Balthasar, played with attitude by David Phipps-Davis who, like any self-respecting servant, holds his superiors in utter contempt. Josephine Thorpe in the role of La Pericola is clearly a lady intent on getting her own way and proves completely unstoppable.

Disaster strikes when the new carriage is involved in an accident with one of La Pericola’s rivals. The Viceroy watches the incident from an upstairs window, but Balthasar and the servants act out the scene using the wicker wheelchair for our amusement with a witty musical accompaniment. The Town Clerk rushes in with the news that the lady has caused a scandal and her matador friend has broken someone’s jaw. Hot on his heels come the Bishop and La Pericola who, it appears, has just had a religious experience which has prompted her to donate the Viceroy’s carriage to the church for its mission to the sick and dying.

This is by no means a profound work, but when directed with a light touch, as Paul Carr has done here, it is an entertaining gem which deserves to be taken up by other companies. Of particular note is the orchestral contribution which mirrors the action deftly and is very tongue in the cheek; the orchestra under Jeremy Carnall’s alert direction certainly brought out all its merits. Although it is always handy to have surtitles, the diction of the singers was excellent and there was never any confusion as to what was happening. Dorset Opera has, not for the first time, shown enterprise in putting on a neglected work and deserves praise for this production supported by the Berners Trust.

By comparison with Le Carrosse Puccini’s Suor Angelica was somewhat depressing; uplifting maybe, but depressing definitely, but no blame can be attached to Dorset Opera for this. It is the third of the one act operas Puccini intended to be performed together as Il Trittico, (trptych) but more often than not it is left out, and having seen it at last I can understand why. It is set in a convent where the regime is strict and indiscretions not tolerated. The heroine has been put away here for having disgraced her noble family by giving birth to an illegitimate son, whom she hopes to see again one day.

As the curtain rose the audience were stunned by the appearance of a large chorus of nuns all immaculately turned out in nuns’ habits topped by expansive headdresses, fully deserving of the spontaneous applause. These were for the most part amateur singers who had come together for an opera summer school, and after experiencing their performance I can only conclude that their training was every bit as rigorous as that given to novice nuns in Sister Angelica’s time. Unreserved congratulations are due to the ladies and their chorus master Nicolas Mansfield for some first class singing and also for conveying so vividly the claustrophobic atmosphere of the community in which Angelica moved.

Julie Melinek gave her all to the demanding part of Sister Angelica. This is not easy to bring off, particular towards the end when she is alone on the stage for ten minutes or more experiencing anguish, despair and hallucinations (perhaps) and finally deciding to kill herself – only to realise, when it is too late, that she has committed mortal sin. I suppose at this stage I should have been experiencing deep pity and reaching for my handkerchief, but instead I was roused to anger at the predicament into which society and the Church had placed this young woman. Julie has a tremendous voice and acting talent, and I am sure there are better vehicles than this for her undoubted skills.

The nuns seem charming enough given the constraints they are under, except for the bossy and prissy abbess (Valerie Reid) who rules her girls with a rod of iron – no giggling in chapel or turning up late or you’ll be for it! But the real monster is Angelica’s aunt , a severe, pitiless harridan played with distinction by Clare Shearer, who comes to inform her of her decision regarding her inheritance. Angelica’s younger sister is getting married (much to Angelica’s delight) and the whole of the estate will now go to her. A form is produced requiring the nun’s signature, but she remonstrates on her son’s behalf. Then the blow falls with the announcement that her son is dead. Numb with grief, Angelica consents to sign the form and the aunt drops her a handkerchief to cry on.

The music was wonderful, the singing superb – proof that Dorset Opera with its conductor Jeremy Carnall, director Paul Carr, its excellent orchestra and band of singers (both professional and amateur) can put on powerful productions on the sunniest of evenings (like this one. However, given its unsatisfying plot, I’m not sure that I would rush to see another performance of Suor Angelica; Lord Berners’ jolly romp would be much more to my taste.

Roger Jones

For information on future productions see www.dorsetopera.com.

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