Guildhall School of Music & Drama – Opera Triple Bill – Massenet, Smyth & Rota

Le Portrait de Manon – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Georges Boyer [sung in French with English surtitles]
Fête Galante – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer and Edward Shanks [sung in English with English surtitles]
Rota I due timidi – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Suso Cecchi d’Amico [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Des Grieux – Michael Lafferty-Smith
Tiberge – Mark Bautista
Jean – Alexander Meier
Aurora – Louisa Stirland

The King – Patrick Dow
The Queen – Alexandra Achillea Pouta
Harlequin – Mark Bautista
Pierrot – Jonathan Eyres
Colombine – Inguna Morozova
The Lover – Jack Dolan
Puppet Quartet – Alexandra Meier, Nancy Holt, Mark Bautista & Joseph Chalmers

Mariuccia – Lorna McLean
Raimondo – Mark Bautista
Dr Sinisgalli – Jack Dolan
Lucia – Louisa Stirland
Maria – Inguna Morozova
Lisa – Nancy Holt
Signora Guidotti – Alexandra Achillea Pouta
La madre di Mariuccia – Alexandra Meier

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler

Rodula Gaitanou – Director
Simon Corder – Set & Lighting Designer
Laura Jane Stanfield – Costume & Props Designer
Victoria Newlyn – Movement Director
Ryan Davies – Video Designer

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 November, 2022
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

A 1920s cinema (amusingly called here La Scala Picturehouse) serves effectively as the common setting in Rodula Gaitanou clever amalgamation of these three rare one-Act operas, which are otherwise unrelated except for their shared theme of tormented love. That requires some reinterpretation of who exactly the characters are in each, but without damage to the overall thrust of the action. That era is plausible for Massenet’s Le portrait de Manon (1894), written as a sequel to his own Manon (1884), if the action of the latter is taken as playing out at the time of composition, as a now middle-aged Des Grieux remains aggrieved by his tragic love for Manon such that he is unable to accept the younger generation’s own dalliance in the realm of love. Set here in the cinema’s projection booth (with Des Grieux as the projectionist) a showing of Arthur Robison’s 1926 silent film Manon Lescaut literally replays the events of his youth that continue to trouble him.

After the warm, nostalgic glow of the Overture, Michael Lafferty-Smith wearily sings the character’s long monologue as he reflects on his past. Alexandra Meier, in the trouser role of Jean, his ward and protégé, and Louisa Stirland as Aurora bring a flood of youthful charm and vivacity as they sing of their love, to Des Grieux’s consternation as the embittered memory of his experience causes him angrily to refuse Jean to wed Aurora. Unperturbed, they sign a wittily ironic dialogue about the ways in which they might die together, sending up the emotional excess of the sort of overblown romance which Des Grieux’s story represents. It falls to Mark Bautista’s robustly sung Tiberge to broker Des Grieux’s acceptance, by revealing that Aurora is the niece of Manon.

This production puts Ethel Smyth’s commedia dell’arte-inspired Fête Galante (1923) in the cinema’s auditorium, as an entertainment to mark its acquisition by Signora Guidotti, who appears properly in the final opera of this triple bill. If the Overture for strings alone (sounding like the Holberg Suite in its well-upholstered Classicism) and the Gilbert & Sullivan style of the vocal setting doesn’t establish the opera as in the vanguard of musical progress, Smyth was certainly on trend in her choice of subject with the renewal of interest in the Harlequinade by such exponents of high modernism as Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire) and Stravinsky (Pulcinella). Well-characterised and contrasted musical episodes in the continuous score perhaps evoke a Tchaikovsky ballet, but the sardonic appellation ‘galant’ to the story of Pierrot’s jealous love of Columbine (prompted by Harlequin’s attention to her, outside of the drama they are all performing) and the Queen’s own treacherous encouragement to an unnamed Lover, calls to mind the vengeful passions of Leoncavallo’s play-within-a-play (also amongst clowns) of Pagliacci.

If the Overture could be played a touch more nimbly, the serious strains of the rest of the score are well served by the GSMD Orchestra’s determined playing. Where Bautista is a hearty Harlequin, Jonathan Eyres compels sympathy for Pierrot by firmly declaiming his self-pitying reflections, and swirling over the stage to depict his mercurial, ethereal character. Patrick Dow and Alexandra Achillea Pouta are an assertive King and Queen respectively, particularly in the mock Wagnerian gravity with which Smyth depicts the King’s stern response as he learns of his Queen’s betrayal and punishes Pierrot for not revealing what he has seen. Inguna Morozova exudes a vigorous charm as Columbine, and Jack Dolan sings fulsomely as the Lover.

Nino Rota is far better known and regarded for his film music, so it is not surprising if the melodic sweep of his I due timidi and its flashes of picturesque orchestration, redolent of that genre, make him sound like an Italian Korngold in the score for this opera. The production takes its cue from a reference near the end of the libretto to the romantic lead, Raimondo’s taking over Signora Guidotti’s establishment before finally closing, so the opera is set in the cinema some years later than the previous two. It is now supposedly in a more rundown state (although the production still conveys 1920s opulence) causing the accident to Raimondo when a part of its decor falls on him.

At many turns the work playfully satirises the conventions of Italian romantic opera and opera buffa, for instance as Raimondo swoons after being knocked unconscious and sings a love aria to Guidotti, believing her to be his beloved Mariuccia, with the clarinet in the accompaniment seemingly recalling ironically Cavaradossi’s moment of tragic desperation in ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca. Bautista is perhaps a touch dry for such a romantic part, but as this is essentially satire, it hardly matters. That facet of the work is well grounded in Joseph Chalmers’s solid but idiomatically wry take on the part of the Narrator, musically deadpan and arresting, and acting with a certain whimsicality, like a Leporello, as an attendant at the cinema. Lorna McLean sings elegantly as Mariuccia, leaving Pouta to develop the more imperious role of Guidotti, and equally colourful contributions from Dolan as Dr Sinisgalli, Stirland, Morozova and Nancy Holt as Lucia, Maria and Lisa respectively. Lafferty-Smith reappears briefly at the end as Il pensioniere, in the same guise as Des Grieux in the Massenet, drawing one thread together in this operatic triad.

Even if the operas do not break new ground, there are serious undercurrents in each which make this production a worthwhile and coherent revival of them.

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