Saturday 14 March 2020

An entirely delightful way to spend an evening, two hours away from the doom & gloom swirling around us - Massenet's 'Chérubin' at the Royal Academy of Music

Massenet: Chérubin - Niall Anderson, Clare Tunney - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet: Chérubin - Niall Anderson, Clare Tunney - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet Chérubin; Yuki Akimoto, Hazel Neighbour, Clare Tunney, Niall Anderson, dir: James Hurley, cond: Anthony Legge; Royal Academy Opera at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 March 2020
Massanet's late comedy makes a delightful coming of age romp at the Royal Academy of Music

Massenet: Chérubin - Hazel Neighbour, Yuki Akimoto - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet: Chérubin - Hazel Neighbour, Yuki Akimoto
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet wrote over 30 operas over a period from 1867 to 1914, and these embrace a wide variety of styles. Of these, only a selection are ever done though I have never quite understood why some are favoured above others. Chérubin is one which pops up occasionally, it was performed at the Royal Opera House in the 1990s (with Susan Graham and Angela Gheorgiu) and has been seen at the London colleges (it was performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2010).

Massenet's Chérubin was Royal Academy Opera's choice for its Spring opera at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. The opera was fully double cast, and we saw the second performance by the first night cast, on Friday 13 March 2020, with Yuki Akimoto as Chérubin, Hazel Neighbour as L'Ensoleillad, Clare Tunney as Nina and Niall Anderson as Le Philosophe. The production was by James Hurley with design by April Dalton, lighting by Ben Pickersgill and movement by Victoria Newlyn. Anthony Legge conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia.

The opera dates from 1905 and was one of a number which Massenet premiered at Monte Carlo's opera house, grand, glitzy, but quite small. Like many of Massenet's later pieces (he was 63 when it was premiered) it is quite lightly written, a long way from the large scale grand operas from his youth. The plot and the comedy are similarly light.

The libretto, by Francis de Croisset and Henri Cain, is based on de Croisset's play which details the later exploits of Cherubino! In the opera, it becomes a coming of age story as the 17-year old Chérubin explores the freedom of youth, gets his heart broken and, seemingly, settles for a young woman, Nina, who loves him. Though the last word goes to Le Philosophe, Chérubin's tutor who has supported him (and egged him on) during these exploits, and we are left in no doubt that Le Philosophe considers that Chérubin's philandering ways will continue.

It is slight, delightful, goes at quite a pace and is chock-full of smaller roles, the opera has under two hours of music and 12 named roles. Chérubin is a travesty role (there is very much an element of using the plot as an excuse to present an attractive woman in tights on stage). It was written for Massenet's then muse Mary Garden (she had premiered the role of Mélisande in Debussy's opera in 1902) and the character runs headlong, passionately through the opera. You either surrender to him or despair. Frankly in Chérubin (often thought have elements of a portrait of the young Massenet), the composer has created a character like his Manon, of whom you either fall in charmed love or sit stony faced and want to slap them.

This sort of conversational French in opera is a challenge for singers, and in deciding to perform the piece the language was clearly a factor.
After all, presenting operas at student level is intended to stretch and train. Not everyone managed it, there were frankly some rather strange vowels but Anthony Legge's speeds kept things moving and everyone chattered away brilliantly. For me, the best sung French came from Clare Tunney as Nina, a relatively small role but the girl with whom Yuki Akimoto's Chérubin ran away with at the end.

Massenet: Chérubin - Niall Anderson, Yuki Akimoto - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet: Chérubin - Niall Anderson, Yuki Akimoto - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
James Hurley's production used 18th century elements, but in a free way. April Dalton's set was deliberately abstract and seemed concerned to restrict the playing area so that there were openings in the walls which revealed spaces beyond, but then things closed up again. It provided all the elements that the libretto calls for, including a first floor balcony, and made a fine backdrop for Dalton's playful costumes (crazy 18th century wigs, over the top fabrics), though when the full chorus was on stage the sound was very loud. But this contributed to the riotous sense which Hurley seemed to be aiming for.

The piece was quite headlong, with moments for reflection for Chérubin and Le Philosophe. As Chérubin, Yuki Akimoto really caught the character's emotional turmoil, she threw herself into the role and this Chérubin rarely stopped. The torrent of emotion was matched by a fine vocal line, and bags of charm, but I have to admit that the singing did not sound French. Clearly Akimoto will go places, but I am not sure it will be in French opera. Niall Anderson brought a nicely bemused sense of gravity to Le Philosophe, allowing himself to be both charmed and puzzled by his pupil. Anderson lacks the age to make this an ideal role for him (at Covent Garden in the 1990s it was Robert Lloyd who was in his 50s at the time), but Anderson compensated by giving the character a strong centre of gravity, and I look forward to seeing him again in a younger role!

Around Chérubin swirl a number of characters. Clare Tunney brought depth of tone, real characterisation and pathos to the role of Nina, the girl who really does love him, but she is off-stage for the long second act. Tunney impressed when we saw her in the title role of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta [see my review]. Hazel Neighbour was L'Ensolleidad, the dancer with whom Chérubin spend a reputedly glorious night but who rejects him next morning (she is also the King's mistress). Neighbour sparkled suitably and also convinced as a dancer, she has to spend a lot of time mooning seductively and Neighbour did this brilliantly.

Massenet: Chérubin - Yuki Akimoto, Hazel Neighbour - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Massenet: Chérubin - Yuki Akimoto, Hazel Neighbour - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Chérubin is also chasing after La Comtesse (Aimée Fisk) and La Baronne (Annie Reilly), including a delightful scene with the three women (L'Ensolleidad, La Comtess, La Baronne) on balconies all thinking that Chérubin was serenading them. Fisk and Reilly managed to characterise and differentiate between the two beautifully and convinced as more love objects. Their husbands, of course, are jealous and James Geidt (alas there does not seem to be a picture of Geidt's delightfully mad wig and gloriously red beard) and Dan D'Souza had great fun with Le Comte and Le Baron. Rounding off the aristocracy was the uptight Le Duc, and Ryan Williams brought out well the way the character took himself seriously.

The way to play comedy is with complete seriousness, and this was indeed funny but I felt that sometimes it could have done with certain lightness and wit, or perhaps it was simply that the performance as a whole was a little too big for the theatre.

The smaller roles were also brilliantly taken, Robert Forrest gave a fine cameo as the touchy Capitaine Ricardo who wanted to challenge Chérubin to a duel because he flirted with Ricardo's girl! Andrew Johnston was a delightfully put-upon inn keeper, with Connor Baiano as an officer.

The chorus entered into the piece with a will and it was clear that a lot of work had gone in to the creating of individual narratives so that around the principals swirled a myriad of other stories to create an engaging melange of music and drama.

Under Anthony Legge's capable hands, the Royal Academy Sinfonia spun a delightful web of sound, late Massenet might sound fun but it is entirely tricky to play and in some ways the orchestra's sense of correct style was more spot-on than that on stage. But this was an entirely delightful way to spend an evening, two hours away from the doom and gloom swirling around us.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Composing gives him a way of looking at his faith through something less hard-edged than words: composer Paul Mealor chats about his latest disc  - interview
  • Before opera what? Matthew Locke's Cupid and Death and John Blow's Venus and Adonis from Early Opera Company (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Mozart & more: in Arias for Josepha, Sarah Traubel explores the arias written for Mozart's Queen of the Night, Josepha Hofer (★★★★) - CD review
  • La Roxolana: Giovanni Antonini reaches volume eight of his complete Haydn symphonies series  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Poulenc at the piano: a chance to hear an alternative version of the Concert champêtre on this new disc of concertos and chamber music (★★★) - CD review
  • A different focus: Victoria's Requiem performed by children's voices and instrumental ensemble from Toulouse (★★★) - cd review
  • Giulio Cesare returns: a new cast brings a different focus to English Touring Opera's production of Handel's masterpiece (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Musical peaks: Beethoven's Fidelio at Covent Garden with Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kauffmann (★★★½) - opera review
  • Bringing the House Down: bass Brindley Sherratt on the gala at Glyndebourne for The Meath  Epilepsy Charity - interview
  • Communal experience & the re-telling of familiar stories: Bach's St John Passion from English Touring Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Strong individual performances in the revival of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival  - Interview
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