GSMD – Martinu & Berlioz double-bill (10 November)

Comedy on the Bridge (Sung in English)

Enemy Sentry – John Llewellyn Evans
Popelka – Elisabeth Poirel
Friendly Sentry – Eyvi Eyjólfsson
Bedron – Manolis Papadakis
Sykos – Giles Underwood
Eva – Julie Pasturaud
Schoolmaster – Benjamin Segal
Officer – David Stout

Béatrice et Bénédict (Sung in French)

Héro – Katie van Kooten
Léonato – Jérémie Lesage
Béatrice – Joana Thomé da Silva
Messenger – David-Alexandre Borloz
Don Pedro – Javier Borda
Claudio – Giles Underwood
Bénédict – Young-Hoon Heo
Somarone – Manolis Papadakis
Ursule – Julie Pasturaud
Notary – Nicky Spence

Guildhall School Chorus and Orchestra
Clive Timms

Stephen Metcalf – director
Libby Watson – designer
Sarah Gilmartin – lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 November, 2003
Venue: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama can be relied upon to mount opera productions of a high artistic standard. If not quite on the level of their finest showings in recent years (Fauré’s Pénélope and Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera resonate in the memory), the present double-bill shed thoughtful and unexpected light on an opera once often heard but seldom staged, and on another which, though frequently revived, tends to be overlooked in the context of its composer’s output.

Before Julietta and The Greek Passion established themselves, Comedy on the Bridge was the opera for which Martinu was remembered. Written for a Czech radio production in 1935, this 40-minute black – or rather darkly ironic – comedy fulfils its brief with some resource. The scenario – of people from a community engulfed in civil war, trapped on a bridge at the frontline by unthinking sentries, and pursuing a social intercourse based on desperation rather than intent – can be read both as a comedy of manners, and as a send-up of the situation resulting when wider dialogue and co-operation break down. In Václav Klicpera’s play, the predicament is enriched by the officer who emerges after a brutal exchange of fire – solving the problem of the border crossing as if on a whim. The fact that, in this production at least, all the protagonists depart attired with wings suggests that the deeper problem of human communication is unlikely to be solved on this side of the ’great divide’.

Scored for an almost classically-constituted chamber ensemble, the opera’s brittle textures evince some of Martinu’s most animated writing of the immediate pre-war period – a secular parallel to the Field Mass which followed soon after. Heard in Walter Schmolka’s idiomatic-sounding English translation, the cast is a strong one: Elisabeth Poirel’s ingratiating Popelka and Giles Underwood’s uncomprehending Sykos were particularly appealing, and Benjamin Segal’s Schoolmaster – urgently seeking the answer to an existential ’trick question’ – was a neat piece of character-acting. Instrumental playing is spot-on, while hinting at deeper emotional reserves that Martinu is only partially intent on concealing.

The all-round excellence of this timely (culturally and musically speaking!) revival was reinforced at the outset of Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict. The deceptively lightweight overture is probably no easier to play now than in 1862, but ensemble was surprisingly sloppy here. Stephen Metcalf’s use of Martinù’s ’bridge’ as the focal point for Berlioz’s effervescent adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, building the crowd scenes on and around the structure, worked well in the context of the Guildhall’s theatre; even though its static nature tended to play to the piecemeal nature of Berlioz’s opéra-comique, the separate numbers held together by spoken dialogue in a manner which must have seemed recherché even to audiences of the period.

Yet if the conception is that of a composer relaxing in middle age, the music has a wit and pathos to suggest no falling-off of inspiration. Another fine cast included Katie van Kooten, more than equal to the demands of Héro’s aria and combining effortlessly with Julie Pasturaud’s Ursule in the affecting duet which ends Act One, and Joana Thomé da Silva’s well-observed Béatrice – suitably coquettish in her initial duet with Bénédict, but convincingly succumbing to pangs of love in her Act 2 aria and ’love duet’. Young-Hoon Heo looked the part of the waspish Bénédict – truly a suitor malgré lui – and held the stage with his would-be tirades against love and marriage. Giles Underwood returned to make the most of Claudio’s small but mellifluous role, as did Manolis Papadakis with the musician Somarone – his ill-fated rehearsal sequence often cut in performance, but vital if the humour of the opera is not to become too narrow. The extensive choral part was vividly brought off, and – the overture notwithstanding – Clive Timms readily conveyed the music’s Mozartian character, maintaining the dramatic pace so that the absence of an interval over 105 minutes was scarcely noticed.

All in all, then, an entertaining and instructive double-bill to confirm the continuing strength of the Guildhall’s vocal department, and the virtues of a lively but resourceful staging. Do catch one of the remaining performances, this Thursday and Friday, if you can.

  • This review is of the first night, 10 November
  • Further performances at GSMD on 13 & 14 November at 7 o’clock
  • Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 0845 120 7500

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