Sunday 14 July 2013

Fortunio at Grange Park Opera

End of Act 1, Messager's Fortunio at Grange Park Opera, 2013, © Robert Workman
End of Act 1, Messager's Fortunio at
Grange Park Opera, 2013,
© Robert Workman
Sentimental French comedy is doing rather well at the opera this year. Following on from the Buxton Festival's double bill of Saint-Saens' La Princesse Jaune and Gounod's La Colombe comes Grange Park Opera's production of Messager's Fortunio. Messager was from the next generation, he was a pupil of Saint-Saens and of Faure, and conducted the premiere of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande in 1902. Messager's Fortunio premiered in 1907, it is a through composed opera rather than using spoken dialogue, but in subject matter it is far closer to the sentimental operas comiques of Saint-Saens and Gounod than Debussy. Having heard La Princesse Jaune last week, and admired both Saint-Saens melodic felicity and the way he pushed the opera comique genre including a long through-composed section, then his pupil's work in Fortunio seems a logical conclusion.  I caught the second of Grange Park Opera's performances of Fortunio on 13 July 2013 given by their Rising Stars with a cast including Alex Vearey-Roberts, Ilona Domnich, Timothy Dawkins, Quirijn de Lang, Tristan Stocks, Mark Cunningham, Bragi Jonsson, Joe Morgan, Johnny Herford, Sylvie Beouelle and Caia Moreso, directed by Daniel Slater, designed by Francis O'Connor and conducted by Toby Purser. 

Ilona Domnich and Quirijn de Lang in Messager's Fortunio at  Grange Park Opera 2013 © Robert Workman
Ilona Domnich and Quirijn de Lang
in Messager's Fortunio at
Grange Park Opera 2013
© Robert Workman
Despite the difference in styles, there are in fact a surprising number of links between Fortunio and Pelleas et Melisande. Messager had an affair with the first Melisande, Mary Garden, and would go on to write Monsieur Beaucaire for the second, Maggie Teyte. Two of the cast of Pelleas sang in Fortunio; Jean Perier, the Pelleas, sang Landry and Hector Dufranne, the Golaud, sang Clavaroche.

Anyone with long memories will remember that Grange Park Opera gave the UK premiere of Fortunio in 2001 in the old theatre and Daniel Slater and Francis O'Connor recreated this production for the 2013 outing, with O'Connor's sets mimicking the shell of the original theatre. At the time, I found the production's use of the small stage highly imaginative and the work's 2013 outing did not dispel that.

The opera takes place in a small French town where the young Jacqueline (Ilona Domnich) is married to the much older lawyer Maitre Andre (Timothy Dawkins). The new Captain of the regiment, Clavaroche, (Quirijn de Lang) sets his cap at Jacqueline. The opening scene is in the town square with the men playing boules, this is written into the score and the cast mimed it brilliantly, throwing balls into the audience.

Clavaroche is a comic character, but one with great charm. Also new to the town is Fortunio (Alex Vearey-Roberts) whose uncle, Maitre Subtil (Mark Cunningham) want so apprentice him to Maitre Andre. Fortunio is reluctant but Maitre Subtil's clerk, Landry (Tristan Stocks) takes him under his wing. Fortunio is a naif, he wants to stay at home and write poetry, he is looking for love. At the very end of the act, Fortunio sees Jacqueline and falls in love.

This first act is the only really big ensemble in the opera, with solos for everyone and concluding with the soldiers marching past, but all done with great economy. Messager gives everyone their moment, both Clavaroche's Lieutenants get a duet, nicely done by Johnny Herford and Joe Morgan. Mark Cunningham's performance as the elderly Maitre Subtil, however, was rather over caricatured. In this act Landry's role is quite substantial (though the character is hardly involved in the plot). Stocks sang his solos quite nicely but he seemed a little under powered. Stocks has recently made the transition from baritone to tenor. Though the role of Landry was written for Perier and is notoriously high for a baritone, I did wonder whether Landry sat well for Stocks.

Act two takes place in Jacqueline's bedroom, her husband appears accusing her of harbouring a man, his clerk Guillaume has spotted someone climbing. She denies it, and her husband is apologetic. When he leaves, Clavaroche appears falling out of the wardrobe! They need to put her husband off and Clavaroche suggests using a decoy (a chandelier). In fact, Le Chandelier was the title of the original play by Alfred de Musset on which the opera was based.

The clerks sing to Jacqueline as it is her anniversary and throw her a bunch of flowers, again Slater's use of the stage was imaginative with Jacqueline looking out of the window (towards us) and the clerks behind her, behind muslin curtains looking up. Much use was made of the muslin curtains, before and between the acts, there were atmospheric projections (videos by Dick Straker).

The decoy is chosen, Jacqueline gets her maid Madelon (Sylvie Bedouelle) to choose him and then Jacqueline explains to him what she requires. He says he would die for her.

In the park that evening people gather, Fortunio is asked to sing a love song to entertain Maitre Andre, Clavaroche and Jacqueline, but the result is extremely heartfelt and there is a tender scene between Jacqueline and Fortunio. Then later he overhears Clavaroche plotting with Jacqueline, as Maitre Andre suspects and that night Clavaroche will not go to Jacqueline they will send the decoy. Fortunio is heartbroken, but in the last act goes to Jacqueline anyway as he wants to die for her. Here again, Slater and O'Connor gave us both Jacqueline's bedroom and the outside with the men patrolling, in a highly effective scene. Jacqueline hides Fortunio and finally everyone leaves and they are left alone together.

The plot has plenty of holes, but Slater and his cast took it seriously and brought out the work's charm. It helps that Messager seems to have had great melodic felicity and slipped into a series of lovely numbers, none of which overstay their welcome. There is only around two hours of music in the piece.

Domnich made a ravishing Jacqueline, singing beautifully and being attractively touching whilst clearly scheming away. Her way with Messager's melodic lines was highly effective, and there was something in her voice which reminded me of Ileana Cotrubas. I enjoyed Domnich's Tatyana last year for Grange Park Opera's Rising Stars and her performance as Jacqueline shows that she is just as adept at the lighter repertoire.

As Fortunio, Verey-Roberts exactly caught the combination of intensity and naivety which is needed for the role, and combined this with a winsome charm which worked just right. You believed in the depth of his feelings for Jacqueline. Unfortunately his voice does not yet respond and blossom when pressure is put on it. He was clearly tiring by the end of the opera, though managed it extremely well, but throughout his voice lacked amplitude and bloom in the big romantic moments.

De Lang was a complete delight as Clavaroche, being very funny but also singing the role well and creating some very steamy scenes with Jacqueline. Timothy Dawkins did very well as Maitre Andre, playing far older than his real age and combining the character's comic nature with a touching element so that we laughed at him but felt sorry for him too. Sylvie Bedouelle provided strong support as Madelon and Bragi Jonsson's Guillaume got far more to do on stage than his small part would have suggested.

Toby Purser conducted the orchestra with love, clearly enjoying the music and, like everyone else, taking the piece seriously. This was a performance of great charm, which brought out the melodic delights of the work.

This was the last Grange Park Opera of the season at Northington Grange in Hampshire, our fourth visit this year and throughout we received charming and helpful service from everyone from the young men in the car park to the ushers and dinner tent ladies. And this year, the weather was kind too!

It was lovely to hear Messager's Fortunio again, especially in Slater's entrancing production. If not every one of the young cast was quite yet fully formed, all gave superb performances and with some nice lightnesses of touch.  They will be performing the opera next week at the Buxton Festival, on 17 and 19 July.

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