Thursday, 5 November 2020

Imaginative and engaging: Guildhall School's live streamed opera triple bill of Italian rarities

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna’s Secret - Olivia Boen - Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna’s Secret - Olivia Boen
Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)

Triple Bill
: Wolf-Ferrari, Mascagni, Donizetti; Stephen Medcalf, Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 November 2020
Three Italian on-act rarities in this live-streamed triple bill from the students of the Guildhall School

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama's opera production this term was an imaginative solution to the current restrictions. Performed live in a socially distanced manner and live-streamed from its Silk Street Theatre, the Guildhall School presented a triple bill of Italian operas, Wolf-Ferrari's Il segreto di Susanna, Mascagni's Zanetto and Donizetti's Rita in productions directed by Stephen Medcalf, conducted by Dominic Wheeler and designed by Cordelia Chisholm. We caught the second of four performances on 4 November 2020 with Olivia Boen, Adam Maxey, Brenton Spiteri, Ella de Jongh, Siân Griffiths, Laura Lolita Perešivana and Chuma Sijeqa.

It is perhaps a reflection of the rarity of the three operas that the only time I have seen Wolf-Ferrari's 1909 comedy and Mascagni's 1896 scena lirica was at Opera Holland Park, and that this was my first live encounter with Donizetti's 1841 comedy.

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna’s Secret - Brenton Spiteri, Adam Maxey - Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna’s Secret - Brenton Spiteri, Adam Maxey
Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)

Medcalf's productions took each work at face value, setting the pieces in the present day and utilising Chilsolm's striking single set with evocative videos setting the scene at the beginning of each work. This approach is not without problems. Wolf-Ferrari's comedy hinges on the ludicrous attempts of Susanna (Olivia Boen) to hide the fact that she smokes from her husband Gil (Adam Maxey), though with the modern disapproval of smoking perhaps the comedy is coming back into period. Donizetti's comedy is about spouse-beating, Rita (Laura Lolita Perešivana) beats her second husband, Beppe (Brenton Spiteri) whilst her first husband Gaspar (Chuma Sijeqa) has a delightful aria about the benefits and joys of wife beating! This is definitely a case of autre temps, autre moeurs.

The production involved even more of the production arts students as the technical crew handled the sound, video and broadcast as well as the usual production teams required in opera. And it was a live broadcast too with a real attempt to introduce some interestingly filmic camera work rather than simply pointing at the stage. The result was an evening of imaginative and engaging opera which came as close as possible to a live experience.

The social distance requirements meant that Medcalf's production kept the protagonists apart, but all concerned made it work and this was not something I really noticed. Perhaps more significantly, in order to have a live orchestra there just wasn't room for a full string complement in the theatre but the results were strong and vivid, the character of the playing in the Wolf-Ferrari more than made up for the lack of lushness in the string sound.

Both Olivia Boen and Adam Maxey played Wolf-Ferrari's comedy quite straight which gave the piece a slightly Faulty Towers sort of feel at times. However, the moments of passion between them were thrilling; Boen has quite a dramatic voice and Maxey matched her. In the lighter moments she made a delightfully sexy vamp, whilst he brought an intensity and obsessiveness to Gil which made you think that the marriage could not last! The third character is the servant Sante, an important yet non-singing role, and here Brenton Spiteri was a scene-stealing delight! Whilst there might have been good logistical reasons, having Olivia Boen strip down to her scanties to get into bed whilst Adam Maxey simply got in full clothed seemed somewhat sexist.

We don't see anything like enough Il segreto di Susanna and it was lovely to see present day students having fun with this intelligent piece of froth.

Mascagni: Zanetto - Ella de Jongh, Siân Griffiths - Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)
Mascagni: Zanetto - Ella de Jongh, Siân Griffiths
Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)

By contrast, Mascagni's one-act opera Zanetto never really catches fire, and for all Mascagni's ardent lyricism the piece feels a little under cooked. But Ella de Jongh brought a wonderfully rich, dramatic voice to the role, making the courtesan Silvia vividly ardent. She was ably supported by the charming Siân Griffiths in the title role. Griffiths brought out the musician's otherworldly naivety and made a lovely contrast to Ella de Jongh. The result, particularly when they parted, was touching without ever quite tugging the heart strings.

Donizetti's Rita was written in 1841 in French but rejected by the Opera Comique. He had it translated into Italian, but that version only reached performance well after Donizetti's death. Opera Rara has recorded a new edition of the original French version [see my review] which is, I think a lot less sentimental. If you regard the spouse-beating in the manner of commedia dell'arte then the work is completely delightful. A bit of fluff, but prime Donizetti and full of enjoyable moments. The only nagging problem is, of course, that his major comedy Don Pasquale can also leave a nasty taste with its treatment of the elderly gentleman, leaving us to wonder about Donizetti's taste in comedy.

Donizetti: Rita - Chuma Sijeqa, Laura Lolita Perešivana - Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)
Donizetti: Rita - Chuma Sijeqa, Laura Lolita Perešivana
Guildhall School (Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic)

But there was none of that here as
Laura Lolita Perešivana, Brenton Spiteri and Chuma Sijeqa brought a lovely sense of fun and musicality to the work. All three brought out the charm of Donizetti's music with lightness and dexterity. Perešivana had a sense of competence and character that made you think of some of Donizetti's other more go-getting heroines like Adina, whilst Spiteri made Beppe's put-upon-ness a thing of great charm. Sijeqa swaggered wonderfully, and simply made you long for his comeuppance.

This was an imaginative triple bill and a triumph from all concerned in that everything happened just as it should, and we were engaging entertained and more. As an artistic entity, the triple bill really needed something strong in the middle, but in the present climate I am not complaining and Guildhall School is to be complimented.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • L’Île du rêve: Reynaldo Hahn's first opera proves to be a charming lyrical interlude - CD review
  • Two very different ways of seeing into the soul: Tabea Zimmerman in music for unaccompanied viola by Bach and György Kurtág  - CD review
  • A young man's response to the world today: Alex Woolf's Requiem released on Delphian  - cd review
  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: Music, neuroscience and fear of death in OAE's Bach, the Universe and Everything - concert review
  • Late Beethoven from the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place - concert review
  • The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice: following his appearance with Blackheath Halls Opera, I chat to tenor Nicky Spence about his career and planning roles  - interview
  • A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC - CD review
  • Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller - CD review
  • More than a curiosity: Malcolm Arnold's forgotten opera The Dancing Master - CD review
  • An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon  - feature article
  • Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate - Cd review
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