United Kingdom Massenet and Martinů: Singers and orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Peter Robinson (conductor). Silk Street Theatre, London, 5.11.2012. (JPr)
Massenet – La Navarraise and Le portrait de Manon
Martinů – Comedy on the Bridge
Triple Bill (designed by Yannis Thavoris and directed by Stephen Barlow)
One of Royal Opera’s rare successes last season was their presentation of Puccini’s Il trittico and the Guildhall School’s latest productions attempt to provide an alternative, but similar, ‘triptych’ of operas; one verismo, a second with more empathy and the last with most of the comedy. All of these were quite successful in their own time but have not retained their popularity. Nevertheless they were well worth offering to modern audiences, especially because it provided a typical Guildhall School of Music and Drama showcase for its current crop of singers and musicians. They have staged all three operas before, the two Massenets in 2000 and the Martinů in 2003, but never all of them together.
The contrasting evening began with some untypical melodrama from Massenet. His 1894 La Navarraise evokes the impending tragedy of Il tabarro and in its early years was often paired with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana before Pagliacci supplanted it. Stephen Barlow sets it in Bilbao, seemingly updated to the civil strife of the 1930s and Yannis Thavoris provides the wall between the warring factions with a wonderful sense of perspective to make the rubble-strewn stage seem deeper than it actually is. Anita, the ‘Navarraise’ of the title, is forbidden from marrying Araquil by his father unless she can provide a matching fortune as a dowry. She earns the money by secretly assassinating the enemy leader but is unable to explain her actions to the now mortally wounded Araquil who denounces her – and she descends into that old operatic staple, madness.
Quite a lot happens, therefore, in two short acts shoe-horned into 45 minutes and Massenet never quite provides the music to match the dramatic circumstances in which his characters find themselves. James Platt was a forthright general, Ben McAteer as the Germont-like father sang well but acted without any gravitas, Adam Smith was a valiant Araquil without sounding at ease and Magdalena Molendowska’s Anita revealed a big, strong voice of some potential, though she looked embarrassed with the gypsy dance moves she was given to do.
Le portrait de Manon seems like an afterthought, written some ten years on from his biggest operatic success, Manon. There is more than just a hint of some of its melodies and it could form a concluding sixth act to that full-length work. Des Grieux, here the owner of a neglected and cluttered antique shop, is haunted by his past love for the tragic Manon – over whose portrait he obsesses – and wants to avoid his young nephew from making the same mistakes. Here ‘Jean, Vicomte de Morcerf’ is a scruffy skate-boarder. Catherine Backhouse in this trouser role together with Raphaela Papadakis’s Aurore, who is in love with Jean, are an engaging pair of teenagers in love. Ben McAteer returned to find some more appropriate emotional depth as Des Grieux but Adam Smith struggled vocally again but was a vividly characterised Tiberge, Des Grieux’s old friend who orchestrates a happy ending for all concerned.
The opera I most enjoyed was Martinů’s 1937 Comedy on the Bridge that was written originally for Czech radio with its stage première coming as late as 1951. We see a bridge over a river that separates the two halves of a war-divided city. The sentries guarding the border on either side (here possibly Serbia and Croatia) stick to their brief so much that if people have the correct permit they can get onto the bridge but are not allowed to get off it even if they just want to go back where they came from. As the short opera continues, five characters – two ‘warring couples’ and a schoolmaster – get stuck on the bridge and much fun ensues. I found Martinů’s eclectic score endlessly theatrically inventive and something of a revelation for someone, like me, unfamiliar with his music.
Martinů’s opera provides a showcase for an ensemble of comedy singing-actors. Indeed the spoken roles of the border guards (Frazer Scott and Adam L Sullivan) with their regional accents (the opera was sung in English) telling all concerned to ‘Go back!’ were just as entertaining as anything being sung. There were fine performances throughout; with Samantha Crawford looking the part in the central role as Popelka ‘the village beauty’ though her voice was a little on the thin side and James Platt the blustering general from La Navarraise was much happier as Bedroň, the brewer. Hadleigh Adams (Sykoš) and Anna Starushkevych (Eva) were equally good as their respective partners, as was Samuel Smith’s neurotic Schoolmaster.
The very experienced Peter Robinson marshalled what were essentially three different orchestras through the varying musical styles with considerable aplomb and virtuosity from his young players and they never swamped the voices from the stage.
Money never appears an issue at the Guildhall; the singers of the Opera Course often have a vast number of scholarships to support their training and the production value of the operas they put on often seem higher than at English National Opera or Covent Garden. I doubt anything will better their wonderful Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor last year (review), the dramatic and musical values of which I have seldom seen surpassed. Indeed, as interesting as this Massenet and Martinů triple bill was, there was unevenness about the performances that indicated that some of the highly talented students will need to work hard before they can hope to have substantial careers. I am often of the opinion that singers are born and not made – if you don’t ‘have it’, you never will – but I certainly wish all those I heard well in the future. However the weakest area was some of the acting that was sometimes rather perfunctory.
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