Guildhall of School of Music – Massenet’s Chérubin

Chérubin – Comédie chantée in three acts to a libretto by Francis de Croisset & Henri Cain

Chérubin – Máire Flavin
Le Philosophe – Duncan Rock
Mina – Eva Ganizate
Le Duc – Thomas Herford
L’Ensoleillad – Elena Sancho-Pereg
Le Comte – Barry Griffiths
La Comtesse – Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon
Le Baron – Matthew Sprange
La Baronne – Cátia Moreso
L’aubergiste – Matthew Wright
Le Capitaine Ricardo – Daniel Joy

Guildhall Orchestra
Clive Timms

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Bridget Kimak – Design
Video / Projection – Finn Ross / Chris Jackson
Mary Demetriou – Choreography
Mark Jonathan – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 March, 2010
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

Eschewing current repertoire choices by the other conservatoires (Trinity and Royal Academy of Music) which are both producing Britten’s “Albert Herring” this month, the Guildhall opera department mount only the second-ever British production of Massenet’s delightful ‘sung comedy’ “Chérubin”. It was first seen on 14 February 1905 in Monte Carlo and travelled quite widely for three years before disappearing from the repertoire completely.

Only some 80 years later, in 1989, was Chérubin revived, by the enterprising Santa Fe Opera – a production that came to Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1994 (also on 14 February). Its neglect seems rather mystifying. The music is tuneful and memorable, the vocal lines appealing and the working out of the admittedly slim plot expertly done (one of Massenet’s librettists was Francis de Croisset, author of the source play). The plot starts after the non-appearing Figaro and Susanna’s wedding as expounded by Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Countess and jealous Count are still there, and there’s obviously been something going on there. But 17-year-old Chérubin is in love with all girls, and the Baroness is also enamoured of the youth. Two other girls more are important to the plot – Nina, the Duke’s ward, and L’ Ensoleillad, entertainer and favourite of the (off-stage) King.

What we have here is an extraordinary amalgam of operas – obviously “Le nozze di Figaro”, but also “Carmen” in Nina’s love for Chérubin (like Micaela’s for Don José) supplanted by his shenanigans elsewhere, “La traviata” in Chérubin’s love for an older courtesan (though, admittedly, here without consumption), and “Roméo et Juliette”, as there is a pivotal balcony scene. At the very end, the Philosopher (Chérubin’s teacher) likens his pupil to Don Juan and Nina (for she eventually does get her man) to Elvira, adding Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s subsequent opera “Don Giovanni” to the list of references.

That is not to say that Massenet is not his own man, and he certainly has gentle fun with all the characters. So does director Martin Lloyd-Evans in a typically inventive and enjoyable Guildhall production at the Silk Street Theatre. Ever present, far stage left, is Chérubin’s bedroom, littered with toys from his youth, with his air-force jacket hanging up behind the door. The style is Second World War, or – perhaps because of the determinedly Spanish setting – Spanish Civil War. Hence, in the hotel scene where Act Two is set, his new comrades are in leather flight-jackets. Only the senior, noble characters are dressed in older garb – periwigged and uniformed (with only the Baron showing signs of a more modern uniform, all in red).

L’Ensoleillad first fires Chérubin’s ardour as she arrives in a plane, while at the hotel she arrives in a similarly small red car (as it happens both hand propelled by a couple of chorus). Elena Sancho-Pereg, like Aubrey Hepburn, exudes chic knowingness, while dropping her demeanour for one night of passion with Chérubin. Máire Flavin, in the title role, is one of the most successful in a trouser-role that I have ever seen. She looks a perfect ringer for a young man in uniform, and has a wonderful voice to match.

Lloyd-Evans makes an interesting observation in his programme note about how Massenet views all the other characters through Chérubin’s eyes, so the portrayal of them as caricatures works well. The chorus scenes are very well handled, allowing for the Overture and entr’actes to be choreographed. There’s good use of film, too, highlighting Chérubin’s bedroom to start and, to end, giving a Versailles-like formal garden for Chérubin and Nina to walk through. The set neatly creates the three balconies necessary for Act Two (Goya-esque paintings occluding the balconies in the first act). Clive Timms gets the orchestra to play with a fine French idiom and Massenet’s score really comes alive.

In a heady week of international visitors (Pollini, the Vienna Phil and Covent Garden’s “Tamerlano”, although sans Domingo), it is good to report that the Guildhall’s production of “Chérubin” can certainly hold its own, as perhaps the most purely pleasurable performance I have been to. Don’t miss.By the way, if you think the Guildhall School is missing out on the rash of “Albert Herring” productions, don’t worry; its take on youth, admittedly the complete antithesis of Chérubin, as Albert Herring really hasn’t tasted life at all, comes to the Silk Street Theatre in June.

  • Further Chérubin performances: 6, 8 & 10 March at 7 p.m.
  • On 6 and 10 March the roles of Chérubin, Le Philosophe, Le Duc, and Le Baron are respectively taken by Hanna Hipp, Alexander Robin Baker, Leonel Pinheiro and Koji Terada
  • Guildhall School

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