Saturday 7 March 2015

Unusual double - operas by Donizetti and Arnold at the Guildhall School

The Dancing Master - Alison Rose as Miranda and Robin Bailey as Monsieur (c) Clive Barda
The Dancing Master
Alison Rose as Miranda and Robin Bailey as Monsieur
(c) Clive Barda
Donizetti I pazzi per progetto, Arnold The Dancing Master; dir: Lloyd-Evans, cond: Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 06 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative double-bill of two rarely performed comic operas, fine performances and a lively production

For its latest opera performances, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has chosen a pair of contrasting one-act operas, both neglected. Donizetti's 1830 farce I pazzi per progetto was paired with the UK stage premiere of Malcolm Arnold's 1952 comedy The Dancing Master, which the BBC had rejected as being 'too bawdy for a family audience'. We caught the third performance (6 March 2015); both works were conducted by Dominic Wheeler and directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, with designs by Yannis Thavoris, and lighting by Richard Howell. The cast, with some singers appearing on both operas, included David Shipley, David Ireland, Emma Kerr, Milan Siljanov, Martin Hassler, Alison Langer, Szymon Wach, Valeria Racco, Alison Rose, Ailsa Mainwaring, Robin Bailey and Lawrence Thackeray.

Donizetti's farce was written for a charity event in Naples in 1830 some months before his first major success with Anna Bolena. It is a suitably mad piece, set in a mad-house with most of the cast pretending to be mad at some point. It fizzed along with a degree of charm, leavened by the skill with which the young singers delivered Donizetti's tricky vocal lines (this might be a comedy, but the composer did not write down), with everyone getting a patter-song moment at some time. Sung in Italian, director Lloyd-Evans and conductor Wheeler had ensured that the whole thing bowled along at breakneck speed. Then in the final 15 minutes, Donizetti suddenly discovers his leading couple (Alison Langer as Norina and Szymon Wach as Blinval) and they get a long duet of reconciliation with two arias for Langer (the latter as part of a final Rossinian rondo) at the end. Frankly, lasting 80 minutes, the work was at least 10 minutes too long but the performers ensured the end was worth hearing.
I Pazzi per Progetto Szymon Wach and David Ireland (c) Clive Barda
I Pazzi per Progetto Szymon Wach and David Ireland (c) Clive Barda

Alison Langer (Norina) had a fine lyric soprano voice with a great way with the Donizetti vocal line and certainly relished the pre-Lucia cod mad-scene that her character gets. Szymon Wach as Blinval displayed a fine lyric baritone and a strong bent for comedy. In fact the opera call for three baritones and two basses but no tenor! David Shipley as Darlemont (Norina's uncle and the owner of the mad-house) displayed a lovely feel for Donizetti's comic writing and I certainly want to hear him in the future in Don Pasquale at the very least. Martin Hassler had to channel Groucho Marx as Don Eustachio as a deserter trumpeter pretending to be a doctor.

Emma Kerr was a poised Cristina (a young woman accused of being mad by her guardian), with a gift for comedy and she made you wish Donizetti had made more of the role. Milan Siljanov glowered suitably as Cristina's guardian Venanzio. David Ireland made a discreetly funny Frank, the orderly.

Set it the room of a mad-house, complete with inhabitants, the set included a piano which was played by an inhabitant at one point, the joke being that her 'ravings' turned into the continuo of the recitative. Her being the continuo player Valeria Racco. As each character made their entrance, trying to speak their first lines, Racco's pianistic insistence made them sing the recitative, a neat running gag.

The opera was set in the 1950's which meant that we got some very stylish new-look costumes for the two leading ladies.

The 1950's setting was preserved for Malcolm Arnold's opera, which was I think a mistake. The opera is based on a Wycherly comedy with a fop pretending to be a Frenchman and the heroine's father pretending to be Spanish. This was taken up by Arnold and is an indication of the general xenophobia of the 1950's. Unfortunately, in a 1950's setting this left Robin Bailey as Monsieur having to be a completely over-the top French idiot, which he did gamely but which would have worked better in the Restoration context where it would have been exaggeration rather than complete idiocy. Similarly David Shipley was frankly bizarre (and clearly having the time of his life) as an Englishman so Hispanophile that he is dressed as a caricature Spaniard. There is a worrying, 'all foreigners are mad' vein to the opera which disturbs more today than the bawdiness (which is in fact quite tame).

The plot involved Miranda (Alison Rose) and her maid Prue (Emma Kerr) being locked in their room for a year by their moralising Aunt (Ailsa Mainwaring) to preserve their morals prior to Miranda's marriage to Monsieur (Robin Bailey). The events take place on the day that Miranda's father Diego (David Shipley) returns, and the marriage can go ahead. Miranda is wooed by a bravo of the town, Gerard (Lawrence Thackeray dressed as a teddy boy), via a ladder. Madness ensues, with moments of romance too and a lovely moonlight interlude, before the happy conclusion.

The biggest problem for me was Arnold's orchestration, this was richly done with his usual significant use of his four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba with a whole sequence of wonderful melodic inventions. Unfortunately Arnold should have learned a thing or two from Donizetti and the dialogue moments were too heavily scored so that the performers had a problem getting the words over. This is quite a wordy opera, and though all were clearly working hard on the diction, this was a rare occasion when I would have wished for English surtitles. Perhaps a deeper pit, and older voices might make the piece work better in the theatre, but a comedy in English where the witty Restoration repartee is not easily discernible is in trouble.

Luckily Arnold's musical invention was fecund, and the cast gave strong musical performances, so there was lots to enjoy. Alison Rose made a charming heroine Miranda, with a nicely lively spark and she was well partnered by Emma Kerr as a very characterful maid Prue, with Ailsa Mainwaring getting the short straw and donning grey wig and saggy lisle stockings as their aunt Mrs Caution.

A curiosity of the opera's casting is that, unlike the Donizetti, Arnold uses no baritones. Both Monsieur and Gerard are tenors. Robin Bailey was clearly having the time of his life as the over the top Monsieur (a fine change from Don Ottavio and Fenton). Lawrence Thackeray made a charming and confident hero in Gerard. Displaying a little spinto ping in his voice, he was one of the cast who did best with the words, thus giving us an idea of the voices Arnold was writing for. David Shipley again displayed a gift for a very different type of comic opera as Don Diego.

Arnold's opera is not, quite, a lost masterpiece but it is a great delight and full of lovely music. It is a shame it was not taken up in the 1950's so that Arnold could see what did and did not work in the theatre and build on this. I do hope that the work is taken up by other companies, it deserves to be worked into the repertoire, but all credit to the Guildhall School for giving us these unusual works and to the hard working cast for giving us so much stylish and creditable singing.

Both operas, with their contrasting scores, were finely played by the orchestra under Dominic Wheeler's direction.

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