Saturday, 30 July 2016

Sylvan delights: Gounod's La Colombe at West Green House

West Green House  - photo Michelle Chapman
West Green House - photo Michelle Chapman
Gounod La Colombe; Emily Vine, Katie Coventry, Adam Temple-Smith, Simon Butteriss, Orpheus Sinfonia, Alistair Digges; Opera Danube at West Green House Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Gounod's charming opera comique in a simple but effective production in the gardens of West Green House

The 2016 opera season at West Green House encompasses productions of Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte along with Gounod's La Colombe. We caught an afternoon performance of La Colombe on Saturday 30 July 2016, which enabled us to wander round the lovely gardens before and after the opera. The production was co-production between West Green House Opera and Opera Danube. Directed by Simon Butteriss, the opera featured Katie Coventry as Mazet, Simon Butteriss as Maitre Jean, Adam Temple-Smith as Horace and Emily Vine as Countess Sylvie. Alistair Digges conducted members of the Orpheus Sinfonia.

The opera was performed in the lake-side pavilion which meant that the pastoral setting of the work was echoed in the views of the lake through the windows to the rear of the stage. The simple but effective setting was just a garden seat and a few props, whilst the 10 members of the Orpheus Sinfonia (single strings and woodwind) were placed stage right. The pavilion's acoustics were a little dry, but the delightful situation more than compensated and the relative compactness of the venue ensured that the audience was close enough to have a strong connection to the cast.

This was made the most of by the performers, using Simon Butteriss's lively translation. The original libretto, by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, is perhaps more amusing than funny. But Butteriss's discreet updating brought in a vein of charming comedy, and it helped that all four performers were highly communicative. We were close enough to see facial expressions clearly, and much was made of this to delightful effect.

Costumes were loosely 16th century, though the programme note described the setting as 'the countryside near Florence during an anachronistic 16th century'. Butteriss had made some slight adjustments to the plot, which helped minimise the vein of misogyny in the work and resolve the loose ends. This was particularly true of the character of Mazet (Katie Coventry) where the characters's doubts about Mazet's gender were revealed at the end when the dove was transformed into a female Mazet who proceeded to go off in a threesome with the Countess (Emily Vine) and Horace (Adam Temple-Smith).

The plot is very much a one-joke thing; Horace's need to provide a meal for the Countess (his former lover) means that he has his dove (La Colombe of the title) cooked, though in fact the Countess has come to visit because she desires the dove above all things. Simon Butteriss's programme note brought out some rather interesting spiritual overtones in the work, which made you see the slight plot in new light.

What makes the opera such a delight is that Gounod brings such a deft hand to the music, which means it needs singers of real stature. Emily Vine was a complete charmer as Countess Sylvie, demonstrating a nicely subtle sense of comedy whilst also coping with the vocal pyrotechnics including a spectacular trill. The acoustics were not, perhaps, entirely kind to her very upper register but overall she brought a nice deftness and lightness of touch. Katie Coventry was equally impressive as the young 'man' Mazet, combining a comic touch with a flexibly warm mezzo-soprano voice. She brought off brilliantly the diatribe which concludes part one.

Adam Temple-Smith made a dim Horace, completely defined by his being love-struck, with an appealing stage persona which made you feel rather sorry for him. He has an attractive lyric voice which he used deftly and fluently in the music, though his tone lacked ideal suaveness which this music needs, and sometimes his upper register lacked an ideal ease. Simon Butteriss is the complete master of this type of role and his Maitre Jean compensated for his bad temper with a wonderful sense of character, aided by Butteriss's superb comic timing.

The opera is notable for its ensembles, and the four singers worked finely as a group creating a lovely sequence of duets, trios and quartets. They were ably supported by the instrumental ensemble. With only one player per part, all got their moment in the sun and we were treated to some lovely solo playing, though the cello solo in the overture has to be my favourite. In such an intimate setting the orchestral numbers worked well, with music played with a nice sense of style you never felt short changed.

This was a charmingly intimate delight, with a production which made the most of the sylvan setting. The production is highly portable, and I do hope that Opera Danube will perform it again. But a performance amidst the delights of West Green House's garden takes some beating.

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  1. Nice photo - it should be credited to Michelle Chapman


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