Guildhall School of Music Drama – Respighi opera double bill – Maria egiziaca & La bella dormente nel bosco

Maria egiziaca – opera in one Act and three episodes to a libretto by Claudio Guastalla based on Domenico Cavalca’s Vitae Patrum [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

La bella dormente nel bosco – opera in three Acts to a libretto by Gian Bistolfi based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Sleeping Beauty [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Maria –ladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko
Il pellegrino / Abbate Zosimo – Alaric Green
Il marinaio – Steven van der Linden
Il lebbroso – Jonah Halton
Uno compagno – Ana Balestra
Voce d’un angelo – Yolisa Ngwexana
Secondo compagno / La cieca – Shana Moron-Caravel
Il povero – Rachel Roper
Voce del mare – Joe Chalmers

La bella dormente nel bosco
La Regina – Shana Moron-Caravel
La Principessa – Ana-Carmen Balestra
Il Principe Aprile – Jonah Halton
Il Re – Joe Chalmers
La Fata azzurra – Yolisa Ngwexana
La Fata verde – Holly Brown
Il Gatto – Julia Merino
Il Fuso – Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko
L’Ambasciatore / Un Boscaiuolo – Joe Chalmers
Il buffone / Mister Dollar – Steven van der Linden
Il Cuculo / La Duchessa / La vecchietta – Rachel Roper
L’usignuolo – Biqing Zhang

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler

Victoria Newlyn – Director
Laura Jane Stanfield – Designer
Jack Wiltshire – Lighting designer
Jonathan Strutt – Video designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 6 November, 2023
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

As the programme notes for Victoria Newlyn’s production of this double bill of Respighi stage works points out, neither of these works were originally created as conventional operas. His version of the sleeping beauty story La bella dormente nel bosco was first a puppet opera (premiered 1922 in that guise), and Maria egiziaca (1932) a ‘concert opera’ like a modern form of a mediaeval mystery play, but both are presented by the Guildhall now as standard staged operas (without puppets or any shadow actors in the case of the former). Both deal in a legendary or mythical manner with the transition to another, more transcendent form of life, and it makes some sense to draw connections between the two, for example in using a common set and design, as here (and as the Royal College of Music did earlier this year when presenting La bella dormente with Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges). 

That works better for La bella dormente however, as there is little that is linked up with or illuminates the Christian story of Maria egiziaca – essentially a hagiographical retelling of the life of St Mary of Egypt (also known as Mary the Harlot). In the heyday of artistic and cultural Modernism, and against the backdrop of ascendant fascism, the 1930s were not an auspicious time for such straightforward adaptations of Christian stories without irony or any other particular comment or slant on them. It seems to be a late tapping into the brief renewal of interest in the Christian religion of the fin de siècle Decadent movement around the turn of the 20th century, perhaps spawned by Wagner’s Parsifal, and also seen in Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play Le Martyre de saint Sébastien for which Debussy wrote incidental music. As well as Gregorian chant, Respighi’s score draws upon older traditions of operatic recitative and arioso going back to Monteverdi (a harpsichord is used among the ensemble) and to that extent the work is also redolent of such Baroque sacred dramas of the Counter-Reformation as Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio or the oratorios of Carissimi.

In telling the story of a 3rd century sex worker turned saint on repenting of her sins, Respighi and his librettist drew upon the hagiographical writings collected in the Vitae Patrum in late antiquity, as translated into Italian by the 14th century friar Domenico Cavalca. Among such an eclectic mix of literary and musical sources, the set (featuring two tiers of Tuscan arches in a gaudy, almost art nouveau vision of the Renaissance) and a chorus clad in 18th century undergarments add to the mishmash and don’t enrich the work’s Christian theme or repurpose it for our era. That chorus only appear as though from the 18th century (even more improbably for a Christian story, the age of Enlightenment) because they recur in the same form in La bella dormente, fitting in exactly with the essentially colourful Rococo character of this presentation, and that vividness is in better keeping with this courtly tale, first popularised in Europe in the 17th century.

In consequence, Maria egiziaca rather feels like it is tacked on to the beginning of this double bill instead of drawing deeper connections with the fairy tale that follows. The one link made is that, just as the chorus of angels at the conclusion of St Mary’s story are reading books – evidently the written narrative of her life – so the sleeping beauty of the following opera comes to life again also reading, and continues to do so to the end, to extend this little extra-theatrical conceit to both works. That is enhanced in the case of Maria egiziaca, at least, in that the extracts from the Vitae Patrum noted in Respighi’s score are projected on to the curtain during the two musical interludes between its three episodes, rather like the captions in a silent film – and sometimes the drama of the music is like a cinematic soundtrack.

Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko’s Maria is bold and vibrant in her singing, both before and after her conversion to a life of Christian virtue, representing the saint’s charisma. She contrasts well with both Steven van der Linden’s calmly focussed and deliberately passionless sailor, bewailing the sadness and pointlessness of his existence at the beginning of the work, and Alaric Green’s more rugged, initially judgmental Pilgrim and later as the Abbot Zosimus (a Palestinian saint) with whom Mary comes into contact.

Biqing Zhang’s sprightly coloratura as the Nightingale and Rachel Roper’s woodier Cuckoo kick off La bella dormente. Yolisa Ngwexana is more secure in the equally florid role of the Blue Fairy than in her earlier, weaker account of the Voice of an Angel in Maria egiziaca. Ana-Carmen Balestra is measured and charming as the eponymous sleeping beauty, whose finger is maliciously pricked by the spiked glove of the embodied spindle (played by Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko) rather than accidentally sustaining that wound from an inanimate object, perhaps to emphasise the romantic, even erotic nature of her prolonged sleep, brought about by active human agency, just as it will also be ended by the same means, all symbolic of her transition to the emotional and psychological maturity into which she is supposed to awake (though in line with modern sensibilities there is no physical, technically non-consensual, kiss or embrace to rouse her from slumber). 

Where Joe Chalmers is commanding as her father, the King, Jonah Halton uses too much head voice as Prince April who awakens her ‘several hundred’ years later, such that he sounds too strained and lacking heft for the rapturous passage in duet with her that forms the work’s musical climax. Steven van der Linden is splendidly vulgar as Mister Dollar, the alternative suitor for the Princess, and Holly Brown aptly snarls in the largely spoken role of the Green Fairy, who does battle with the Blue Fairy for the fate of the sleeping one. 

Dominic Wheeler leads a mellow, solemn account of Maria egiziaca, particularly in its more liturgically inspired passages, with plainsong-like melodies harmonised in block chords like a mediaeval fauxbourdon (and another link to some of Debussy’s scoring for Le Martyre de saint Sébastien) but elsewhere pointed up with more drama and passion. The performance of La bella dormente draws out an attractive array of instrumental colours – more so than I recall was the case with RCM’s performance back in March, and providing an appropriate counterpoint to the visual vibrancy of the production. The Guildhall chorus ring the changes between the more ethereal sequences of the first opera, and their more sensual approach as the creatures of the woods for the second, often sounding more like the Flower Maidens of Parsifal. The RCM’s production of La bella dormente dug deeper into the drama, but the Guildhall now have the edge for the sparkling musical performance, though the staging is more than perfunctory and reveals a work that perhaps should feature more often than it usually does on stage (notwithstanding the coincidence of two productions in London this year), especially as a fairy tale for Christmas time.

Further performances to 13 November with alternate casts

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