Chelsea Opera Group – La Jolie Fille de Perth

La jolie fille de Perth [Edited by David Lloyd-Jones; sung in French]

Catharine Glover – Judith Howarth
Mab – Harriet Williams
Henry Smith – Huw Rhys-Evans
Duke of Rothesay – Damian Thantrey
Simon Glover – Martin Robson
Ralph – Jonathan Gunthorpe
The Duke’s Major-Domo / A Worker – Howard Wong
A Gentleman – Neal Cooper

Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Dominic Wheeler

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 30 June, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

“La jolie fille de Perth” has the reputation of being an over-long, unmanageable opera with a preposterous libretto which butchers the original source by Sir Walter Scott. This Chelsea Opera Group concert performance gave an opportunity to assess this verdict. The fact that the audience at Cadogan Hall was relatively sparse by the standards of this much-valued and appreciated company suggested that some of its regular supporters had made up their minds that the accusations were justified. That feeling certainly did not spread to the performers or conductor, however; a persuasive case was made for the acceptance of this opera into the repertory alongside the two works of Bizet to which critical acceptance has so far been accorded.

How does it fit into Bizet’s oeuvre? This is not a novice work. It succeeds “Les pêcheurs de perles” by four years. Bizet having died at the age of only 37, we can perhaps see his career as a process of unfulfilled exploration of a range of operatic genres. He had by 1866 already written an operetta, an opera buffa, a historical opera and, in ‘Pêcheurs’, a grand opera (though not in the Meyerbeerian sense). ‘La jolie fille’ is another excursion on the diverse road of late nineteenth-century French opera. The composer’s last outing was to produce “Carmen”, a unique work but one which does not necessarily represent arrival at a final destination; how much further experimentation might Bizet have undertaken after it?

What of the standard criticisms of ‘Jolie fille’? It is difficult to argue against the conclusion that dramatic realism lost out to decorative bravura. Equally, it is frustrating that there is no specific Scottish tinta to the music in the way that “Carmen” has a Spanish one; instead, there seems to be an over-reliance on dance-inspired formats. The presence of a ‘drinking song’ and a ‘mad scene’ suggests a backward glance at already tired operatic formulae. Subsequent attempts to ‘improve’ the score, however, only made matters worse.

The curtailment of the score in the three versions published in France after Bizet’s death is understandable but each has severe disadvantages and robs the work of its most rewarding feature, the abundance and diversity of Bizet’s imagination (which produced the completed work in less than six months).

It is easy to agree with the accusations of derivativeness which have been made. So much of the plot has parallels in the work of this composer and others. To give one example, the caddish Duke of Rothesay is Don Giovanni in disguise, attempting to seduce Catharine-Zerlina from Smith-Masetto, his social inferior (alternatively you could make parallels with “Rigoletto”). Moving in the opposite direction, there are musical anticipations of later compositions. The entrance music of Ralph has a similar sinister quality to that which heralds each appearance of the villain’s different manifestations in Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann”. The duet between Catherine and Henry is very reminiscent of the Micaela-Don José encounter in Act One of “Carmen”; indeed the pianissimo upward sequences in the penultimate phrase ‘Oui cette fleur près de vos charmes, sera le gage du bonheur’ echo almost precisely ‘et ce baiser que je te donne de ma part tu lui rendras’ in the later opera.

Occasionally Bizet confuses us with misleading indications of the sort of opera he has written. The bombastic music introducing Catharine’s father Glover suggests a comic ambience and the chorus of watchmen at the beginning of Act Two promises much in the libretto: the fearlessness of these defenders of community is to be shown up as bogus – but the musical setting flops badly. Mab is an unconvincing character, invented by Bizet’s librettists. Heralded as a malign character by disquieting entrance music in Act One, accompanied by hints of her macabre prophetic skills, she then proceeds to sing the most frivolous of couplets. Her impersonation of Catharine is an expedient dramatic ruse to engineer a test for Henry’s trustfulness.

The Chelsea Opera Group often permits re-evaluation of operas of lowly reputation or faded popularity. This performance was in the former category. The version used was that prepared by David Lloyd-Jones for the BBC in 1975. It is super-complete, even including Mab’s Act One couplets cut by Bizet during rehearsals. It was delivered with total conviction and the conductor Dominic Wheeler must take much of the credit for that.

This young conductor has made a highly favourable impression in a wide range of repertoire, including with the COG. Here he treated the disparate strands of the work with an unbroken feeling of coherence. His command of the orchestral forces was repeatedly shown in particular episodes such as the Preludes to Acts One, Two and Four and the little minuet for offstage wind band which accompanies the duet between Mab and the Duke, dance music in this interpretation of truly Mozartean distinction. The soloists were supported, the chorus inspired and the ensembles such as the quartet of confusion before the Act One finale managed with discipline and verve.

Re-acquaintance with this opera revealed some originality of harmony and orchestration that caused me to question the conventional admiration for Berlioz in these areas, compared with the limited respect given to Bizet. The intertwining winds in the Prelude, the harmonies in Mab’s Act Two couplets and the skittering flutes which accompany her song can be added to the other creative details I mention elsewhere in this review.

The music for Henry produces a few surprises. Firstly, the celebrated Serenade: most of us know it from the record by Heddle Nash, which uses a spurious version of the song with two complete verses. The original is vocally short-lived, with the orchestra completing the familiar passage and the bulk of the passion invested in the powerful F major section ‘Viens ma belle’. His third act aria is even more impressive, with the character’s desolation conveyed in recurrent four-note phrases of gnawing intensity.

And so to the performance itself. Neither the cast as a whole nor the central pair of protagonists were evenly assigned. One expects a title role so challengingly written to be strongly filled, of course, but here Judith Howarth towered lop-sidedly above her colleagues. The voice is firmly based in the mezzo register, which here articulated the strength of the character. The composer has given Catherine a spectacular solo as early as the first act and Howarth brought coloratura brilliance to its scales, staccatos and trills, topping it off with an E natural in alt; maybe the latter shared with her other top notes a lack of sweetness but the singer possesses that rare instrument, a dramatic coloratura.

Her weight of tone sometimes overwhelmed Huw Rhys-Evans as Henry. He has all the notes and successfully drew a highly-strung character but in the first duet emerged with too much resemblance to a wimp. His solo scenes in Acts Two and Three found him in greater control of characterisation and the ability to sing both lyrically and dramatically was exploited. This seems a rewarding role.

Damian Thantrey presented a winsome figure in the high baritone role of the Duke. He was ebullient in the drinking-song, where the chorus took its cue from him, and suavely seductive in wooing the disguised Mab. Thantrey imbued their Act Three duet with a hint of effeteness but sang the long phrases of his aria with an admirably steady line. There were also flashes of his aristocratic contempt to round out the character. This seems like a ‘Kavalierbariton’ in the making.

Harriet Williams as Mab did not make a strong impression, despite some rewarding music. She was lightweight in tone and only showed intermittent flashes of character in the limited context of the concert platform. Few of the French words came across.

The two bass parts were contrastingly taken. Martin Robson portrayed Glover too blandly, where Bizet has created a buffoon. Jonathan Gunthorpe, however, made the most of his opportunities as Ralph in his maudlin aria Quand la flame de l’amour. Coming onto the platform in a suitably dishevelled state with bow-tie undone, he caught the artisan’s inebriation in the raucous fortissimo ‘tra la las’ that punctuate the lyrical phrases.

The male chorus seemed under-powered in the opening forging-song but soon warmed up and the singing of the more high-spirited passages in the carnival scenes was thrilling. I left the hall in the company of two friends, both of whom favoured the much-cut version once presented by Sir Thomas Beecham. My feeling was different – one of gratitude to Chelsea Opera Group for letting me hear a complete and decently-executed performance of Bizet’s second-best opera!

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