Sunday 30 May 2021

Full of contrasts and dramatic cogency - Beginnings: New and Early Opera at the Guildhall School

Beginnings: New and Early Opera - Crankshaw & Best, Carissimi, O'Grady & Sullivan, Ebenshade & Lavender; Charpentier; Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Beginnings: New and Early Opera
- Crankshaw & Best, Carissimi, O'Grady & Sullivan, Esbenshade & Lavender; Charpentier; Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 May 2021
Three new operas, created by students, and two very early operatic scenes in a striking and varied evening at the Guildhall School

Each academic year, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's MA in Opera Making & Writing programme culminates in short new chamber operas, written by composers and librettists on the course and then staged in collaboration with the Guildhall School's Opera Course. Inevitably, the 2019/20 course was not quite the same, and the culmination was a partially filmed performance with everyone in isolation. The new operas from the Opera Makers finally reached the stage when the Guildhall School staged them as part of a quadruple bill.

On Friday night (28 May 2021) I was lucky enough to catch Beginnings: New and Early Opera at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Silk Street Theatre, with the stage premieres of The Apothecary (composer Amy Crankshaw, librettist Clare Best), Eintänzer (composer Aran O'Grady, librettist Kaitlin Sullivan) and I'm Cleaning, I'm Cleaning (composer Abel Esbenshade, librettist Aubrey Lavender), plus Carissimi's Judicium Salomonis and Charpentier's Orphée descendante aux enfers, directed by John Ramster, conducted by Chad Kelly, with designs by Louis Carver, lighting by Jake Wiltshire and movement from Victoria Newlyn.

The three new operas, perhaps written with a a rather smaller space within the Guildhall School in mind, used its largest theatre for these performances to allow for social distancing. Thus the productions had to some extent expand the operas to fill the space, which they did admirably but there were moments where I wished we had been in a more intimate space with the ability of the singers to get the words over more. But all the performances were superbly engaged and engaging, these were confident expositions of three very talented works and I certainly look forward to what the composers and librettists get up to next. Whilst not all three composers wrote tunes as such, all three operas had singable vocal lines, these seemed to be singer friendly and expressive (two things which don't always happen in new opera). Each composer took an imaginatively different approach to the craft of making an opera, ensuring it is performable whilst keeping the elements of their style.

We began with Amy Crankshaw and Clare Best's The Apothecary, an intriguing tale set in 18th century France where Madeleine (Olivia Boen) despairs of her lover Francois (Thando Mjandana) and his philandering with Elise (Laura Fleur) and Pauline (Laura Lolita Peresivana). Madeleine consults an Apothecary (Adam Maxey) who offers her remedies for the situation. But the apothecary's fascination for Madeleine, and her fascination for the art of the apothecary lead to a surprising conclusion.

Whilst Best's libretto had period features, Crankshaw's music did not and the opening sounds in the orchestra were firmly contemporary. Crankshaw used the orchestra in two ways, to support the singers melodically and harmonically, and to provide an intriguing counterpoint and comment.  Clearly Crankshaw relishes what voices can do, so that the scenes between the Apothecary and Madeleine discussing the apothecary's art had a real feeling of ecstasy to them. Yet, the sound world was modernist too, certainly and intriguing mix and a wonderful creditable and engaging work.

Ramster's staging combined period costumes with a more abstract setting, and almost without disturbing the music the scene changed (and the orchestra did, as the two period pieces were played by different players) and we were led into Carissimi's judgement of Solomon which was played almost as a tableau. Solomon (Chuma Sieqa), and the two women (Laura Lolita Peresivana and Olivia Boen) were in period costume whilst Historicus (Brenton Spiteri) and the chorus were in modern dress. It worked because the singers imbued the music with so much style and emotion. Spiteri was engaging as the narrator and Sieqa made a suitable gnomic Solomon, whilst Peresivana and Boen really brought the two women's contrasting positions expressively to the fore. It is a short piece, and I have to confess to never having seen it before, but here the performers really made it work.

And then we slipped straight into a very different world, Eintänzer from Aran O'Grady and Kaitlin Sullivan. This opera, for me, was the highlight of the evening partly because the performance of Brenton Spiteri as Julius really lit up the piece, but also partly from the stylistic confidence the two creators showed. The setting is a middle European city in the 1930s where the partisans are almost defeated and the enemy is at the walls. In the ruins of the nightclub, the taxi dancer Julius (Brenton Spiteri) hustles for customers, dancing with the dowager Savoia (Laura Lolita Peresivana), but the customers are not interested they waiting for help to leave. This arrives wtih Quicklime (Amy Holyland) and after some trouble they leave. Julius says he goes tomorrow as Quicklime has given him an unused visa, but he seems wedded to his ruined life in the city. His wounded ex-boyfriend now partisan Charlie (Florian Panzieri) appears the two have one last dance, and finally Julius sends Charlie on his way with the visa, and sits and waits for the end.

O'Grady has a talent both for writing tunes and for re-creating the shape of 1930s dance numbers, but he also was able to take this sound world and create something edgier and more disturbing so that the opera felt all of a piece, the dance numbers did not stand out, yet the whole was never pastiche. And Brenton Spiteri as Julius managed to combine a startling Fred Astaire-like ability on the dance floor with a wonderful expressibility, his Julius was rather moving. The other cast were equally well cast so that this was an ensemble piece, Amy Holyland moved beautifully from Quicklime's brisk public persona to the moment when she tells Julius about the death of her boyfriend, whilst Laura Lolita Peresivana as the touchingly desperate Savoia was unrecognisable from her previous appearances in the evening. The end, when Florian Panzieri's Charlie joined Julius for a final duet and a dance could so easily have been maudlin but it was a testament to all concerned that it was not. Inevitably, we might think of Kurt Weill when we listen to this, though O'Grady's sound world is different, but also the drama of Menotti's The Consul comes to mind too. 

After the interval the set had been re-set as the office of a Russian general during the Soviet era. Abel Esbenshade and Aubrey Lavender's I'm Cleaning, I'm Cleaning was a dark farce. Involving a depressive General (Chuma Sijeqa), his irrepressible Attache (Eliran Kadussi), a cleaner (Laura Lolita Peresivana), a spy dressed as a cleaning lady (Olivia Boen) and the voice of a telemarketer (Laura Fleur), the piece led us to the nuclear bomb end of the world via some vividly imagined crazy action. It was full of delightful details, such as the way counter-tenor Eliran Kadussi would camply mince off stage singing revolutionary songs or the delightful concept of the telemarketer trying to sell tractors by phoning the red nuclear phone! 

Yet there were serious elements too, the General's suicide was given adequate background and whilst his cadaver became the centrepiece for comic action what led up to it was sympathetically done, and there were other similar more serious moments. But operatic farce is very tricky indeed, and I am not sure whether Esbenshade and Lavender quite got the pace right all the time, but that said I also wondered what it would be like to experience the opera in the smaller space for which it was conceived, more intimate, more immediate. And certainly the whole delightfully cock-eyed premise of this work made wonder what the two might do next.

Finally we had one of Charpentier's Orpheus operas. Orphée descendante aux enfers sees Orpheus (Kieron-Connor Valentine) descending to Hell and encountering Tantalus (Chuma Sijeqa) and Ixion (Thando Mjandana), and the scene ends with all expounding the power of love. Ramster made it work in context by having the characters in Hell be those from the earlier operas so that Tantalus was the General from the previous opera and so on. Kieron-Connor Valentine brought a light tenor and stylish elegance to the haut-contre role of Orpheus, and even manage to make his cumbersome space-suit work. All in all an engaging end to an intriguing evening.

Ramster's productions managed to create intriguing links between the works whilst giving each one its own particular look and feel, and much credit should go to Louis Carver's flexible yet imaginative designs.  We began the entire evening with Kieron-Connor Valentine's Orpheus wandering around the set, as if everything we saw was an evocation of these jours en enfers, and in the final new opera the duet by the two cleaning ladies vying with each other to be the genuine one had real echoes of the two women in the Carissimi, especially as the same singers were involved. 

All the singers impressed both with the way that they embraced the various styles of the operas and for the way individual singers popped up in such a wide variety of roles so that for instance Laura Lolita Peresivana was in four of the five operas whilst Olivia Boen and Chuma Sijeqa were in three each. *

The operas will be available as live-streams on 1, 3, and 7 June at 7 pm, see the Guildhall School's website for details.

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