Despite Excellent, Spirited Performances Martinů Opera Double Bill Fails to Resonate

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Martinů, Ariane and Alexandre bis: Soloists, Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Timothy Redmond (conductor). Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 31.5.2016. (MB)



Le Veilleur (M. Yvon Villeneuve) – John Findon
L’Homme aux cheveux blancs (M. Giuseppe di Bergamo) – Milan Siljanov
1er garçon (M. Gerard Fennial) – Robin Horgan
2ème garçon (M. Gauthier Cardin) – Bertie Watson
3ème garçon (M. Gregoire Lissard) – James Liu
4ème garçon (M. Olivier Moreau) – Laurence Williams
5ème garçon (M. Jean-Baptiste Daude) – Jack Lawrence-Jones
Thésée (M. Dmitri Romanov) – Josep-Ramon Olivé
Ariane (Mme Maria Callas) – Nicola Said
Bouroun (M. Pierre LeClerc) – Dominick Felix
Le Minotaure (M. Giuseppe di Bergamo) – Milan Siljanov

Alexandre bis


Philomène – Bianca Andrew
Le portrait – Milan Siljanov
Alexandre – Josep-Ramon Olivé
Armande – Elizabeth Karani
Oscar – John Findon
Dancing Devils – Robin Horgan, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Bernie Watson, Laurence Williams


Rodula Gaitanou (director)
Simon Carder (set designs, lighting)
Cordelia Chisholm (costumes)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

I keep trying with Martinů, but I am yet to ‘get’ his music. Perhaps there is too much of it; that seems to be a common claim amongst his apologists. I have maybe not heard the right pieces. As it stands, though, I have yet to detect an original voice; more concerningly, I have yet to hear anything that has had me want to listen to it again. This enterprising operatic double-bill at the Guildhall did not, alas, buck that trend, splendid stagings and performances notwithstanding.

First came the composer’s penultimate opera, Ariane, a vaguely neo-Baroque re-telling of the legend of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. Not everything can be Birtwistle, I suppose, but this seems a more or less arbitrary collection of passages in differing styles, culminating in an all-too-extended lament that had one longing for the real thing, be it Monteverdi, Cavalli, Purcell, anyone. Given the anonymity of the work, director Rodula Gaitanou’s solution seemed to me inventive, indeed more interesting than the original material. Drawing upon the composer’s attested love for the artistry of Maria Callas during his work on the score, she offers a metatheatrical treatment, the excellent designs (Simon Carder and Cordelia Chisholm) drawing upon photographs, particularly by Robert Doisneau and Sabine Weiss, of Callas recording Carmen at the Salle Wagrame in 1964, six years after Martinů completed composition. It looks wonderful and the young, spirited cast responded eagerly to Ariane as Callas, the additional action – amatory and other rivalry, the business of recording and rehearsal, etc. – doubtless drawing upon their own experience as well as setting them up well for future careers, in which metatheatrical concerns are likely to loom large. Nicola Said’s performance in the title role took a little while to warm up, but she soon made it her own; if only, alas, I could have responded better to Martinů’s writing, which, whilst not so bad as Donizetti, did not seem especially concerned to free itself from such association. Josep-Ramon Olivé was a dashing Thésée, both on stage and vocally. The five boys (named above) enjoyed their intrigues. Milan Siljanov brought a touch of welcome gravity to the role of the Minotaur, whilst Jon Findon busied himself nicely as the Watchman.

Alexandre bis, I am afraid to say, proved tedious. Again, that was no fault of the performers. Here, as in Ariane, the orchestra proved remarkably adept, under Timothy Redmond’s baton, at tracing and communicating the changing moods of the score, such as they were. Attempts at musical surrealism were rarely successful; this proves no exception. Essentially, it is a tale of would-be infidelity, which never happens, although we learn from a dream what might have happened. Von heute auf morgen it certainly is not, let alone Così fan tutte (for those very few, that is, who understand what that work is actually about). If you like the world of Feydeau farce, you might find something in this, I suppose, but it is slight even by those undemanding standards, and fails to attain the lightness of, say, Offenbach. The Magritte-like designs are once again splendid, and there could be no faulting the enthusiastic response of the cast (even if French dialogue was despatched rather too slowly). Siljanov offered a nice turn as a talking portrait. Olivé proved lively and as winning as the work would allow in his new role. If there were any true echo at all of Così, and this is stretching it, it would be in the servant’s role of Philomène; Bianca Andrew had one wonder what she might have made of Despina, in another excellent performance. Elizabeth Karani’s bored lady of leisure proved equally convincing, insofar as it could. Martinů eluded me once again.

Mark Berry


1 thought on “Despite Excellent, Spirited Performances Martinů Opera Double Bill Fails to Resonate”

  1. When will reviewers stop dragging whole productions down only because they don’t “get” the composer. Dearest Mark Berry, you should have stopped your review after the very first sentence and maybe added something like: “And therefore I won’t write anything about these productions because I already have a negative attitude towards it because I don’t get on with the music.”
    Oh, and I happen to like Martinů a lot. You need a bit of a sense of humour, I guess.


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