Guildhall School of Music & Drama – The King Goes Forth to France

The King Goes Forth to France – A chronicle for the music theatre of the coming ice age, to a libretto by Paavo Haavikko [sung in an English translation by Stephen Oliver and Erkki Arni]

Guide – Nicky Spence
Prime Minister / young Prime Minister – Jonathan Sells
Froissart – Barnaby Rea
Prince / King – Derek Welton
The nice Caroline – Rebecca van den Berg
The Caroline with the thick mane – Raquel Luís
The Anne who steals – Rhona McKail
The Anne who strips – Hanna Hipp
English Archer – Andrew Finden
The Queen of England – Máire Flavin
Burghers of Calais – Thomas Hereford, Leonel Pinheiro, Alexander Robin Baker, Gary Griffiths, Duncan Rock & Thomas Kennedy

Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Clive Timms

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Giuseppe di Lorio – Lighting
Neil Alexander – AV design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 4 March, 2009
Venue: Guildhall Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

The repertoire planners for the operatic presentations by students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama can never be accused of playing safe. Aulis Sallinen’s opera, “The King Goes Forth to France”, with its curious mix of operatic convention coupled with almost Monty Python-esque satire, and set to an engagingly lyrical and generous score, gives young singers opportunities to shine, and an orchestra something to really get its teeth into.

The work’s fantasy also provides fodder for an inventive production team. This staging is clever and varied and flows seamlessly, successfully merging the serious and the surreal, and transition passages such as the Prince/King marching across the ice-floes linking England to France are deftly handled. There were some entertaining touches and reminders of more-modern culture-icons that have become “part of England” (including a Patsy look-a-like from “Absolutely Fabulous”) coupled with settings managed to evoke a sense of time and place and yet to undermine such security. This is part of the point, surely, of what the piece is about, whether a chronicle of an event can ever be more than a reflection of what its author saw and or interpreted from what others have said or written, and therefore whether one can learn anything from it. A small stage handling a chorus can be very tricky and this was also managed very effectively. Lighting is good and atmospheric.

Sallinen’s opera has only had one previous UK staging, which was a memorable one by The Royal Opera in 1987 where the settings were more naturalistic but the satire more biting. Sallinen’s music is both tuneful and has moments of great sonic beauty; there are many extremely moving passages of string-writing, and some entertaining moments of dance pastiche. The passage with the Burghers of Calais is one such example and here was matched by some witty choreography delivered with some panache by the six singers.

Jonathan Sells sang both the Prime Minister and his young son who later takes over that office – the post being hereditary. He managed to differentiate the two extremely well both vocally and physically and also sang well in his attractive bass-baritone. Every word was audible. Also memorable was the singing of Caroline with the thick mane by mezzo Raquel Luís, who managed her extended scena well and subtly developed the idea that it is only gradually that everyone realises the lady is actually mad! Her voice has an attractive and rich tone and she has an endearing stage presence.

Derek Welton’s rich lyric baritone was heard to fine effect in the role of the Prince/King and he also characterised the character’s growing development as a person well. He has strong stage presence, too. Baritones are well served by Sallinen, not least in the English Archer who asks for a discharge and ends up having it written on the skin flayed from his own back, and losing his ears too! Andrew Finden took all the opportunities offered here.

The potential spouses for the king were well sung by the sympathetic soprano of Rebecca van den Berg as the nice Caroline, and the two Annes by Hanna Hipp and Rhona McKail who made as much of their lesser opportunities as they could.

Barnaby Rea’s Froissart was perhaps a little too gentle; a more incisive and sardonic delivery might have helped sharpen the satire. It probably did not help him that the AV displays of him during the opera did not effectively screen to the back of the auditorium owing to the tilt of the flat-screens.

Clive Timms conducted the orchestra in a full-blooded account of the score and Sallinen’s ingenious and individual orchestral blend emerged with immediacy, with all its effective use of dense strings and percussion effects. Pace and interest was maintained throughout.

It was a surprising pleasure to re-encounter the piece in the theatre once more, and the Guildhall and its cast(s) are to be thanked for providing this welcome opportunity.

  • Further performances of this double-cast production on 6, 9 & 11 March at 7 p.m.
  • Guildhall School

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