A student production relishes the subversive energy of Bizet’s Doctor Miracle with considerable vigour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, Doctor Miracle: Soloists of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / Michael Pollock (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Cardiff. 2.7.2024. (GP)

Georges Bizet

Silvio / Pasquin / Dr Miracle – Laurie Standish-Hayes
Lauretta – Chloe Hare-Jones
Veronique – Imogen Rowe
Le podestat de Padaoue – Jonathan Jolly

Director – Isabelle Carlean Jones
Musical director – Tom Blunt
Assistant Musical director – Dora Seaton
Designer – Yuejie (Freya) Li
Lighting designer – Zak Clark

Although Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle has been produced a few times in recent years, it will still be unfamiliar to many lovers of opera. I shall, therefore, begin with some background information. It was composed in 1856, when Bizet was 18 and studying at the Paris Conservatoire, in response to a competition organised by Jacques Offenbach. 78 people initially entered the competition. From these 78, the jury (whose members included Eugène Scribe and Charles Gounod) selected 12, who were then invited to submit a setting of a new libretto, prepared by Ludovic Halévy and Leon Battu and based on a farce of 1775 by Richard Brinley Sheridan – St Patrick’s Day, or The Scheming Lieutenant. The prize was awarded jointly to Bizet and the now largely forgotten Charles Lecocq. Each received a monetary award, and their two settings of Le Docteur Miracle each received 11 performances (with the same cast) on alternate nights at the Théatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, which Offenbach had established. Bizet’s version seems to have been preferred by most who heard both. Bizet’s score clearly shows how well he had studied the comic idioms of both Rossini and Donizetti and the quality of his melodic invention.

Both Sheridan’s farce and the libretto of Doctor Miracle are versions of one of the major archetypes of comedy, in which the young outwit and subvert the authority of their elders. This ‘plot’ can be found in the work of the Roman dramatist Plautus (c.250-184 BC), which influenced later dramatists such as Shakespeare and Molière. It later underlies more than a few of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. This kind of comedy is on the side of youth and wit, rather than age and ‘prudence’. It values the renewal of life through love, marriage and sex. It wants love to set its own laws not merely to be subservient to the structures (and strictures) of paternal and/or civic authority; it is no accident that in St Patrick’s Day and Doctor Miracle the father who opposes and obstructs his daughter’s love should be, respectively, a Justice and a magistrate.

In Sheridan’s farce a clever Irish Lieutenant outwits Justice Credulous (the unsubtle clue is in the name!) and succeeds in his wooing of the Justice’s daughter Lauretta. The libretto prepared by Halévy and Battu dispenses with some of Sheridan’s characters, but retains the four main ones, these now become Captain Silvio/Silvain, the podesta (i.e.) magistrate of Padua, his wife Veronique and their daughter Laurette. In the Dublin-born Sheridan’s farce, it is significant that the clever young soldier is Irish, while his victim is English. This is well-discussed in David Clare’s essay ‘‘I Feel Bould at All Times’: Irishness in Richard Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day and Pizzaro’ (Irish Quarterly Review, 109, No. 4436, 2020/1, pp. 386-399). There is no such overt ‘political’ motif in the libretto, though one might readily be ‘discovered’ if a production of the opera were set, for example, in the Paris of May 1968 against the background of student riots and general unrest.

This student production of Bizet’s one-act opera – sung in an English language version (prepared by who?) – captured the work’s spirit of youthful confidence and rebellion very well. It managed moments of sentiment and the more numerous moments of conflict equally well. There was plenty of physical comedy and some adroit use of disguise (no more plausible here than it is, or needs to be, in most farces).

Although I cannot claim that I left the theatre believing I had heard a future operatic superstar, the evening was very largely satisfactory in musical terms.

Bizet’s score is for four voices and an offstage ensemble of clarinet, trombone, bass drum and cymbals. Here the instrumental support for the singers consisted of just a piano, visible on stage. Before the performance began, director Isabelle Carlean-Jones came onstage to announce that ‘unfortunately our pianist has damaged her hand’ and to tell us that the injured pianist would be replaced by Michael Pollock (credited in the programme as the production’s répétiteur). Pollock, who teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, has served more than once as an accompanist at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition; he has often worked with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sir Bryn Terfel and has made recordings with Rebecca Evans, Nuccia Focile and Anthony Michaels-Moore, amongst others. Given all this, it came as no surprise that he was excellent throughout Dr Miracle, always supportive of the young singers and never rushing Bizet’s music even when it was at its most hectic. The brief programme provided no information as to who had made the piano reduction of Bizet’s score. I remember reading a review of the 2019 Wexford production of Doctor Miracle in which a piano reduction was also used. Perhaps the same one was used in this production?

The four soloists all acquitted themselves well. As Lauretta, Chloe Hare-Jones was convincing both as a strong-willed and petulant teenager and, later, in her character’s more romantic moments. She has an attractive soprano voice which is still on the light side. I feel sure that we shall hear more of her, and of her three colleagues. As her mother, Veronique Imogen Rowe had, appropriately in view of the supposed age difference, a weightier voice with something of the mezzo about it. She was a persuasive stage presence, whether in her frustration with her husband’s failure to meet her sexual needs or in her consequent flirtation with Silvio when he was disguised as the servant Pasquin (the name Pasquin was perhaps chosen because of the statue in Rome known as Pasquin’s Pillar, which is used for posting disrespectful and mocking verses about various figures of authority. The last time I was in Rome, several years ago, it carried some splendidly libelous lines about then-President Berlusconi).

Laurie Standish-Hayes made skilled and resourceful use of what sounded like a very decent tenor voice and showed himself a vigorous comic actor, who understood how to make his audience laugh. Jonathan Jolly obviously has a promising baritone voice, though the role of the podestat is not one in which it could be displayed to its best effect. Perhaps because Bizet found the character unsympathetic, he gives him few opportunities to shine vocally. Not only is the magistrate a thoroughly negative character, a poor husband (it seems) as well as a poor and domineering father, but in an all-student production such as this the singer taking the role has the additional problem that he has to try to sound older than Silvio and Lauretta as well as his surely younger wife, when in fact all four singers must have been roughly the same age. The four worked well together in the rhythmically complex ‘omelette quartet’.

The staging was fluid and fast moving. Almost all the stage was occupied by the interior of the magistrate’s apartment. I found the programme note’s statement that ‘In this production, Isabelle Carlean-Jones take us back to Paris in 1961, where the Mayor of the 18th arrondissement, Louis Pradel, is radically opposed to his daughter Laurette’s love affair with the young soldier Silvain’ somewhat puzzling. What is the particular significance of 1961 and the 18th arrondissement? Was Louis Pradel a real mayor of that arrondissement in 1961? The costumes and furnishings we saw on stage might well have belonged to 1961. However, I remain unclear as to the significance of the year and precise location to an understanding of this production. I would be happy to hear from anyone who can enlighten me on this matter.

Though I have expressed a few reservations, none of them were significant enough to get in the way of my pleasure in the opera’s innate energy and wit, in music and text alike. As such, the whole was a delightfully entertaining confection obviously much enjoyed by its audience. This 77-year-old reviewer was delighted to see and hear youth triumph, in the best traditions of comedy.

Glyn Pursglove

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