Guildhall School Triumphs in Arne and Stradella Operas

Arne, Stradella:  Soloists, Guildhall School Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Julian Perkins (conductor), Milton Court Theatre, London, 11.6.2014 (CC)

Arne (ed. Perkins/Russell)   The Cooper

Anna Gillingham        –        Fanny
Gerard Schneider      –        Colin
Piran Legg               –        Martin
Frazer B. Scott         –        Mr Twig
Joseph Padfield        –        Jarvis

Stradella (ed. Perkins)       San Giovanni Battista

Meili Li           –                  San Giovanni
Joseph Padfield        –        Erode
Alison Langer           –        Erodiade
Gerard Schneider      –        Consigliere
Lauren Zolezzi          –        Salomè
Dominick Felix          –        A disciple


 This evening represented exactly what student productions should be doing: taking little known pieces that one might not otherwise experience – ever – and using them to showcase just how much talent is around in the younger generation. The contrast between the Arne and the Stradella is inspired, from pure comedy to the gory horror of the story of St John the Baptist and Salome.

A performance of Artaxerxes at the Linbury in 2009 acted as a reminder of the excellence of Arne’s music, and how deserving it is of revival. And so does this. Based on Audinot and Quétant’s Le tonnelier, it tells the comedic but also delightfully touching story of the love of Fanny and Colin in the face of the overbearing presence of the old man Martin (of Martin’s Cooperage), who covets Fanny and is convinced he should marry her. Set in London in 1772, the escapades of the two lovers (with the addition of a couple of characters – and real characters they are, too, Mr Twig and Jarvis) provide unalloyed delight. The set (Simon Corder) was impeccably done, with a minimum of stage furniture. A painted cloth is used as backdrop (based on an original by Cornelius Bogerts).

The student orchestra coped well with the speed and vim of the Overture. As conductor Julian Perkins points out in his programme note, the score presents songs rather than arias, full of memorable tunes and a simple zest for life. Orchestral dances were splendidly done, as only the young involved in an adventure of discovery perhaps can.

Piran Legg, as old man Martin, was made up as a cross between Pinocchio and Steptoe Senior, his acting delightfully comedic, his baritone voice full.

Now, I speak as someone hopelessly biased, of course, but it does seem a shame that the rare name of Colin in opera should be associated here with someone who is likeable but somewhat simple (I used to blame associations of the hallowed name of Colin with the incurably gormless on a 1980s Zanussi TV advert, but now I see it has been going on for centuries). Nonetheless, tenor Gerard Schneider’s assumption of the hapless Colin was hilarious. Schneider studies with Yvonne Kenny on the Guildhall’s Opera Course, and seemed in his element. Soprano Anna Gillingham was delight personified (she shares the role in the run with Lauren Zolezzi; and when Zolezzi takes the part of Fanny, Gillingham takes over the part of Salomè). The smaller characters, Jarvis demanding his money (Joseph Padfield) and Frazer B. Scott as the wonderfully cartoony Mr Twig were both well taken. The publicity material describes Arne’s The Cooper as “charmingly eccentric”, and that is indeed the perfect description. Rodula Gaitanou directs the production with a light hand.

There could hardly be greater contrast than with Alessandro Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista, a piece first produced in Rome in 1675. The staging and lighting moved from the brightly lit froth of the first part to a dark, twilit world of perversion and gore. There is a lot to live up to in the experiences of contemporary listeners, given Richard Strauss’ almighty take on the story. There is plenty of power here, though. The excellence of the lighting really created the feel of a pagan, ancient World in which St John stoically sticks to his Christianist-God-with-a-capital-‘G’ guns with fatal, and remarkably bloody, results. Again, the casting was consistently intelligent and effective.

 If the bustling opening of the Sinfonia seems a long way from the issues soon to be at hand, it contains contrastive elements that at least hint at the expressive melèe that will ensue as one’s emotions are buffeted from pillar to post. The countertenor role of San Giovanni was taken on this occasion by Meili Li, eloquent right from his first aria in which he bids farewell to his disciples (“San Giovanni Deste Un Tiempo”). The purity of his voice seemed perfectly suited to St John’s character. As Erodiade (Herodias), soprano Alison Langer was gorgeously involved in her own polyamourous hedonism; musically she was possessed of far more integrity. The Erode (Herod), Joseph Padfield, gave us a conflicted character who, Pontius Pilate-like, was more the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time than out-and-out monster. This lent a nicely human edge to a story that in some renditions can seem all too clear-cut. But the true star was soprano Laruen Zolezzi, whose Salomè will live long in the memory. Dressed in a black ballerina’s tutu (a fallen angel perhaps), her every movement implied sadistic glee as well as malevolent curiosity. Her voice was the accurate reflection in sound of her clothing, movements and character. Splendidly mesmeric and gorgeously delivered, she shone with the magnificent meleficient dark radiance of a black sun.

 The staging of the death of St John was grizzly and effective. The end of the piece is abrupt, perhaps cruelly so, but that discomfort seems to fit the whole ethos of the piece itself.

 Musically and dramatically, the evening was a triumph. Julian Perkins conducted with energy and a continuous sense of rightness; not only this, he prepared the edition used of the Stradella after an edition by Duncan Fielding and co-prepared (with William Russell) the edition of the Arne, based on the original 1772 publication.

 This was my first experience of Milton Court Theatre. A pity that the rows where I was sitting were not labelled and the ushers had not a clue what was going on. People with tickets for the Circle were happily ensconced in the stalls, which hardly helped. Chaos, in a word. Occasionally one felt the dryness of the acoustic, but the distraction was rare. Musically, though, this was a very special evening of  discovery.

Colin Clarkè

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