The Royal College Of Music International Opera School Cooks Up an Entertaining Rare Bizet Double Bill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet , Djamileh and Le docteur Miracle: Soloists and chorus of the Royal International Opera School and Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, Michael Rosewell(conductor), Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 28.11.11. (JPr)

Many congratulations to the Royal College of Music International Opera School for using their end-of-year showcase to present two relatively unknown works by Georges Bizet. This allows the audience freedom to enjoy these without the usual comparison that would be made with other singers previously seen in more familiar works. However, having heard the current crop of leading singers from the opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – and now the Royal College of Opera – if it was a boxing match then the GSMD is ahead on points. It may just be this year but they had a better range of singers and a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor that could have be outstanding for any professional opera company.

I am full of admiration for all the philanthropic funding organisations that support the studies of the young singers involved in all these courses but often wonder whether their money is well-spent. In the programme – that told the audience more about the RCM’s International School than the operas we were about to see – we read how ‘Each year, between five and six hundred hopeful singers audition … but only a handful earn a coveted place …’. Most of those performing in this interesting ‘Bizet Double Bill’ were either far-from-the-finished-article or destined not to make much of a mark (though I wish then all well) but three were already clearly worthy of taking their place on most of the world’s opera stages: I wonder how much opera singers are born and not made … but this is not the place for that debate.

Bizet’s Djamileh Photo (c) Chris Christoldoulu

Bizet’s early short opera Djamileh is not often heard and was first staged only three years before the composer’s premature death. I have been unable to find much about the advertised ‘new version in a dramatic setting by Pierre Forval’ but the basic story of this single act opéra comique allowed Bizet to compose a score with exotic Eastern sounds involving sensuous Arabian dances that gave his nineteenth-century Parisian audience an insight into an alien world. Prince Haroun selects women from his harem for one month before rejecting them and picking a new partner. His current mistress, Djamileh, is madly in love with him, but to complicate matters even further Haroun’s servant Splendiano has also fallen in love with her and wants the girl for himself. Djamileh persuades Splendiano to disguise her and to present her to his master as the new girl, on the understanding that if she is rejected then she will marry Splendiano. Given Haroun’s past history he thinks he is on to a good thing and agrees to this. In fact, Haroun is intrigued by the shy new girl and quickly penetrates Djamileh’s disguise to profess his love for her – and they are all supposed to live happily ever after.

I write ‘supposed to’ because during the dramatic final chords of this staging, young director Alessandro Talevi has Haroun strangle Djamileh! Elsewhere, the production is updated to – well, it is tricky to say what period. On the one hand there is pole-dancing and a mobile phone and otherwise the costumes seemed straight from disco fashion of the 1970s. Designer Madeleine Boyd’s basic arched setting (that served for both operas) here served dually as a royal palace with chaise longue and hookah pipe for Haroun and nightclub where a dancer (Kerry Stammers) does a sleazy striptease and is ogled by the prince and his friends. In both this and Le docteur Miracle, Talevi seemed obsessed with having his singers prop themselves up on stools that appeared awkward to sit on and nobody really looked at ease doing this.

After Bizet’s death the work was championed by both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss and the short overture exhibits the exotic orchestral colouring used throughout the short work and promises much that the rest of it often fails to deliver. Sung here in the original French, some of Djamileh’s music clearly pre-empts Carmen that Bizet was soon to compose. Splendiano’s arioso, where he contemplates his future life with Djamileh, is probably one of the best-known moments for true opera cognoscenti and Edward Grint sang it quite persuasively, though elsewhere was rather underpowered. Edward Hughes was Haroun who made a stab at his unsatiated weariness and discontent; whilst he sang reasonably well I wasn’t really convinced by him and his best moments were near the end as his true feelings – whatever they ultimately were – for Djamileh were awakened. Emilie Renard was an outstanding success in the title role and I am sure it will not be long before she sings Carmen: a committed and believable performer, she combines this with a secure, rich, mezzo-contralto voice.

Bizet’s  Doctor Miracle – Photo (c) Chris Christoldoulu

Much earlier in Bizet’s brief career there was Le docteur Miracle, a one-act operetta that as a precocious 18-year-old he had entered into a contest offered by Jacques Offenbach. Bizet shared the prize with Charles Lecoq, later famous for La fille de Madame Angot, that became a comic-opera staple. Despite its initial success Le docteur Miracle soon fell out of favour and has seldom been heard since. As performed here it is a sparkling and entertaining trifle. The slim (and that is being polite) plot concerns the frustrated love of Laurette for Captain Silvio. Her father, the Mayor, disapproves of him so he disguises himself as the clueless servant Pasquin, who comes to work for the family. Farcical happenings begin when he cooks a vile omelette for the family, and the Mayor takes his wife out for a walk to get some fresh air. At this point Silvio reveals himself to Laurette though when her father returns and sees through ‘Pasquin’s’ disguise he banishes Silvio from the household. Doctor Miracle does little but give his name to the work; he is mentioned as selling his quack cures in the first scene and then reappears – here as a New-Age guru – to ‘cure’ the supposedly poisoned Mayor on condition he can marry Laurette. In Talevi’s version it all ends happily for the lovers but not so for the Mayor who is indeed poisoned by his money-grabbing trophy wife. (Interestingly there is a Dr Miracle in Offenbach’s later The Tales of Hoffman – perhaps he remembered this early Bizet prize-winning work when composing this?)

Of course the opera owes much to the spirit and style of Offenbach’s work: Bizet’s orchestration is bright and lively and it all begins with a charming overture where we are shown the Mayor and his new wife remodelling the ‘palace’ we saw in the first opera that has now fallen into disrepair. There are some sweetly tuneful solo moments and some humorous ensembles. Performed in Rollo H Myers’ English translation there is some spoken dialogue and the young cast seemed to be reasonably skilled singers and actors. The standout performances were by Annabel Mountford – who though apologising for pharyngitis – sang excellently as a grumpy teenage daughter, a coloratura soprano part. Also there was a handsome light lyric tenor, Peter Kirk, whose portrayal of Pasquin comes straight from the 1970s ‘Confessions of …’ films and has the look of Robin Askwith. Alessandro Talevi and Madeleine Boyd are clearly too young to remember the latter quarter of the last century but had clearly done their research, right down to the President Mitterrand photo hung on the wall. There were pretty decent performances from David Hansford and Anastasia Prokofieva as the mayor and his wife.

Throughout there was very sound work from Michael Rosewell, director of opera at the RCM, his orchestra of young musicians and the small chorus for Djamileh. They seemed to revel in the vibrant colours of both the Bizet scores, and in Djamileh particularly, there was a particularly fine woodwind contribution in the dances. Le docteur Miracle perhaps lacked a certain Gallic lightness of touch, but to hear – and also see rare stagings of – these rare scores was very welcome and I congratulate the RCM International Opera School for their enterprise.

Jim Pritchard


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