Friday 2 November 2012

Triple Bill - GSMD - review

Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) assembled a varied trio of undervalued opera for presentation as their autumn opera offering on 1 November 2012 at their Silk Street Theatre. The GSMD has performed all three operas before, at various times, so someone is obviously keen. There were two by Massenet, both dating from roughly the same period in the mid 1890's, La Navarraise and Le portrait de Manon, one a dramatic piece of neo-verismo and the other a delicate whimsy based on his earlier success Manon. Finally a crazy comedy by Martinu, Comedy on the Bridge originally written as a radio play in 1937 and not performed on stage until 1951. It was a suitably varied mix, though perhaps not one as  contrasted and highly spiced as Puccini's Il Trittico. It did have the advantage of offering a bevy of variedly challenging roles to the GSMD singers.

Massenet's La Navarraise at times doesn't quite sound like Massenet, which only goes to show that we don't really know this composer very well, basing our knowledge on quite a narrow selection of his repertoire. It is a full blown melodrama, after its first performance at Covent Garden in 1894 it was often chosen as a companion to Cavalleria Rusticana, though in fact the two plots are a little too similar. It is set during a battle in the Basque region between Spanish loyalists and Basque separatists. The whole opera takes place in the Spanish loyalist camp and the hero, Araquil (Adam Smith), is a loyalist soldier.

Now, here we run into an element of director Stephen Barlow and designer Yannis Thavoris's presentation which made me, frankly, rather queasy. They chose to set the piece in the present day, in Spain, not choosing to change the raison d'etre of the opera which meant we had a modern day conflict between Basque separatists and Spanish loyalists. All this is a little too close to real life for comfort, especially as the opera is quite firm in describing the separatists as terrorists (no half measures here). GSMD has a wide international base for its students, I wonder what those from a Spanish and Basque background thought of the decision.

This setting apart, Barlow's production made intelligent sense of the piece and setting it in the present day lent immediacy. During the prelude, a bunch of women holding banners and keeping vigil, sat along the front of the stage (my Spanish wasn't good enough to read the slogans, but it was Spanish not Basque). There was the added extra of weapons noise, something which occurred repeatedly during the opera and which I rather disliked.

The story is quite simple. Araquil (Adam Smith) is in the Spanish army fighting the Basques. He is in love with Anita (Magdalena Molenowska), a poor woman from Navarre. As the opera opens she is waiting for him to come back from the latest campaign. His father, Remigio (Ben McAteer) appears, his is prosperous and dislikes his son marrying Anita so he insists she provide a huge dowry which she cannot afford.

She overhears Garrido (James Platt), Araquil's general, bemoaning that no-one seemed to be able to kill the rebel leader Zuccaraga (Hendrik Zwart). Anita volunteers to do so. So far, so melodramatic. But the next details push the plot over into the la-la land of opera plotting

Anita is seen by Araquil's colleagues as she approaches the enemy and this ignites Araquil's jealousy. He immediately assumes that she is going off to see another man in enemy lines. When she returns, he has gone searching for her. He returns wounded and when presented with the money she has earned, accuses her of prostituting herself. She cannot tell him the truth as she and Garrido have sworn never to tell a soul about Anita's act. So Araquil dies of his wounds and the opera ends with Anita delusional, hearing wedding bells.

To make this work, you need to believe in it and present the plot wholeheartedly, this Barlow and his cast did brilliantly. I have heard Anita sung by bigger dramatic voices, but Magdalena Molendowska's strong lyric voice was entirely up to the task. From her CV she has some operatic experience in her native Poland, but Massenet is not mentioned. Her voice seemed to suit Massenet's vocal writing down to the ground and her French was excellent. It was a great pleasure to listen to the way she moulded and shaped Massenet's lines. I do hope that we get to hear her in more Massenet.

She made Anita touching and credible, and the ending was rather poignant. So it was such shame that Anita was lumbered with a sad sap like Araquil. Adam Smith did his best, but the character seemed to have only three aspects to him, killing, loving Anita and being ridiculously jealous. If the librettists had created an interesting character in Anita, in Araquil they relied on simple stock tenorial ticks. Smith was suitably intense when loving and brilliantly jealous where necessary. His voice did not sound quite fully formed (he did his first degree at the RNCM and is currently in his 2nd year on the MMus course), but he has the makings of a personable and useful lyric tenor, displaying a nicely flexible voice with some fine open singing. At first his French sounded hesitant, but he settled down to be creditable. Altogether a performance which hinted at much promise.

James Platt was Garrido, the general, a small but important role. Platt brought dignity and gravitas to the role and managed to make the crazy vow to keep silent seem perfectly sensible. Ben McAteer was brilliant as Araquil's father, very severe and dominating, convincing us that Araquil would still obey him. Gerard Schneider impressed as Ramon, the Lieutenant and Benjamin Appl as Bustamente, the Sergeant got his moment. Massenet's interlude for the male chorus as the soldiers take some r&r was nicely done and gave the chorus a chance to get their teeth into something.

 The orchestra, under Peter Robinson, gave a nice dramatic impetus to Massenet's writing and nicely nocturnal during the orchestral interlude when we saw Anita tempting and then killing Zuccaraga (a silent role). Robinson kept Massenet's score going, but allowed the felicities in orchestra and singers time.

Yannis Thavoris rather cleverly used the same basic set, with a wall across the stage, for all three operas. The post-bombing detritus in La Navarraise turning into a pile of antiques and junk at Des Grieux's shop in Le portrait de Manon and then reverting to junk under the bridge in Comedy on the Bridge.

Le portrait de Manon was also updated to the present day, which worked brilliantly and took a lot of the preciousness out of the piece. 30 years after Manon, Des Grieux (Ben McAteer, who sang Remigio in La Navarraise) is running a rather down at heel antiques and junk shop specialising in the 18th century. He is still obsessed by Manon and keeps her portrait hidden. This turns out to be an Opera Comique publicity poster from the 1983/84 season with his love dressed as Manon, a neat solution.

Des Grieux's ward, Jean (Catherine Backhouse) is in love with a young girl, Aurore (Raphaele Papadakis) whom Des Grieux considers beneath him and forbids Jean to see her. Aurore is the ward of Tiberge (Adam Smith, who sang Araquil in La Navarraise), who has known Des Grieux since the seminary. The two quarrel and Tiberge decides to play a trick on Des Grieux to persuade him to let the young couple marry. He finds an old picture frame and 18th century style wig in the junk shop and dresses Aurore in these, so that she sings to Des Grieux as an animated portrait of Manon. He is won over, the likeness is startling and as the young couple celebrate, Tiberge reveals that Aurore is Manon's niece, daughter of Lescaut.

It is a piece of froth, but a delightful one. Once past the opening section where Des Grieux alone revisits Manon, Massenet does not stretch things out and it does not outstay its welcome. McAteer was impressive as Des Grieux, convincing dramatically and beautifully sung with a nice vein of melancholy. He reappears as the Count in GSMD's Le Nozze de Figaro next year, something I await with interest. Backhouse was remarkably convincing as Jean, reincarnated as a skater kid. She has great potential in this repertoire and at times revealed a lovely, mellow mezzo-soprano voice with nice flexibility. There were one or two rough patches, particularly at the beginning, probably due to nerves. She was well partnered by Papadakis who, like Backhouse, had the right physique du role, both looked like young kids.(Backhouse will be playing Cherubino in the GSMD Le Nozze de Figaro) Papdakis similarly impressed, with a nicely pert manner and what is going to develop into an interesting lyric voice with apparently a penchant for coloratura, though on this first night there was quite a bit of tightness at the top, particularly initially. I have to confess that I didn't recognise Adam Smith from the previous opera. He very successfully transformed himself into the older Tiberge, convincing without hamming it up, and seemed vocally far more relaxed.

The orchestra in this act seemed to be rather less on form, and the strings in particular were not as well nourished or as tidy as I would have liked in the more exposed passages. As with the previous opera, Robinson kept things flowing. The results entertained and charmed as they were intended to.

Finally, Martinu's Comedy on the Bridge; the stage now dominated by a huge bridge across it with a sentry at either end, each side held by a different faction during a war. During a ceasefire the village beauty, Popelka (Samantha Crawford) tries to cross the bridge, she gets on but is not allowed off the other side and ends up stranded. She has been on a secret mission to one side; similarly the brewer Bedron (James Platt, who sang Garrido in La Navarraise) is returning from a secret mission on the other side. He too gets stuck, and ends up trying to kiss Popelka. Inevitably Popelka's fiancee, Sykos (Hadleigh Adams) and Bedron's wife Eva (Anna Strushkevych) end up on the bridge too. The school master (Samuel Smith) comes along, he is looking for a friend who has set him a riddle, and he cannot solve it. He tells the riddle to the other four, they can't solve it either. They are all stuck on the bridge when fighting resumes. This causes confessions and forgiveness in the couples. Then the guns fall silent and shouts of victory are heard, victorious troops come through, we find out what Popelka and Bedron had been doing (she was looking for the body of her brother so she could bury it, he was supplying beer to the enemy and getting secrets for his own side). The schoolmaster finds out that there is no solution to the riddle.

There is something a bit caricature and comic book about the plot and Martinu very much sets the piece like this. He gives each character a sort of sound, which is picked up sometimes by the others. Bedron has a set of nonsense syllables, which gets repeated by everyone, and the schoolmaster's riddle becomes a routine which is taken up by all. The five principals, Crawford, Platt, Adams and Starushkevych and Smith were impressive in the way that they combined the music with the quick physical comedy required, making the piece inventively funny. It is not a masterpiece, but has charm and a rather endearing dramatic impetus. Crawford was effortlessly the village beauty, who clearly had something about her with Adams has her anxious and lovelorn fiancee. Platt, again unrecognisable with amazing sideburns, was the brewer who wasn't the idiot he seemed. Smith was the self-absorbed schoolmaster. Starushkevych had the smallest role, appearing quite late as the anxious wife.

Frazer Scott and Adam L Sullivan were highly amusing in the spoken roles of the sentries with Timothy Connor as the army officer in the victorious army.

The orchestra seemed to be refreshed by Martinu's rather different sound world, and seemed as if they were enjoying themselves. Peter Robinson kept the piece going at quite a lick and ensured that the comedy never palled.

All in all, a delightful evening. None of the operas is quite the overarching masterpiece, but they complemented each other nicely and provided some fine showcases for the up and coming singers.

Before the opera started we were entertained in the foyer by brass music from a fine brass ensemble.
Then before the opera started, Dominic Wheeler dedicated the performance to the memory of Robert Poulton, the singer and GSMD alumnus who died in a tragic car accident earlier this week.

Elsewhere on this blog

1 comment:

  1. As for the set of Navarraise:
    The slogans have not necesarily to be in Basque... In this country both of them are official languages: Basque and Spanish.

    And about the terrorists: it is true that is completely WRONG to call 'terrorists' to separatist people. However, in the opera they only call 'terrorists' to those separatists who are FIGHTING, and it is a fact that the Spanish government calls those people 'terrorists'. So it is "historicaly correct" to use this word and it has not been a decision of Steven and Yannis, as is was actually happens (even though it can hurt...)
    Nevertheless, I do not give it more importance than it has, and instead, I am happy to see an opera in which my country appears!
    And I also thank the team (specially Steven and Yannis) the interest and respect they have always shown for the Basque Country.
    Good job, team!


Popular Posts this month