Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Summer Opera – Monteverdi and Weill

Madrigals [selection]
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda – Operatic scena to an anonymous libretto after an episode in Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Madrigals: Erin Gwyn Rossington, Faryl Smith, Jonathan Eyers, Jack Holton, Louisa Stirland, Inguna Morozova, Nancy Holt & Eliran Kadussi

Il combattimento:

Testo – Eliran Kadussi
Clorinda – Inguna Morozova
Tancredi – Jack Holtonipe Cerchiaro

Der Zar lässt sich photographieren – Opera buffa in one Act to a libretto by Georg Kaiser [reduced orchestration by Vahan Salorian; sung in German with English surtitles]

Der Zar – Jonathan Eyers
Angèle – Lorna McLean
Der Gehilfe – Mark Christian Bautista
Der Boy – Aina Miyagi Magnell
Die falsche Angèle – Erin Gwyn Rossington
Der falsche Gehilfe – Hamish James
Der falsche Boy – Alexandra Meier
Der Anführer – Jack Dolan
Der Begleiter des Zaren – Jacob Harrison
Erste Kriminalbeamter – Steven van der Linden
Zweite Kriminalbeamter – Ed Birchinall
Verschwörenen – Benoît Déchelotte & Carlos Felipe Cerchiaro

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Chris Hopkins

Victoria Newlyn – Director
Louie Whitemore – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 June, 2022
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

Despite being separated by three centuries, and their rather different compositional and theatrical aesthetics, Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) and Weill’s Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1927) share as themes a comical, even mordant, slant on the battle games of love, and would-be assassination. The unsettled, revolutionary era after World War One (in which Weill’s opera was written) loosely but coherently links the two music dramas in Victoria Newlyn’s production which intriguingly brings the works together.

Monteverdi’s piece – essentially a dramatic cantata – is prefaced by a selection of six of his Madrigals. They not only adumbrate the themes to come in both of the stageworks which follow, but also draw attention to how the composer (as one of the early pioneers of opera) was experimenting with the new phenomenon of music drama, not only in full-length, mimetic form, as in his three surviving operatic masterpieces, but also in miniature in those collections of Madrigals, or in diegetic form in the case of Il combattimento (some of whose music graphically evokes the episodes of strife and warfare described).

Newlyn presents the selected Madrigals here as the backstory to the mounting of a performance of that longer work. In the late 1920s (i.e. contemporary with Weill’s opera) a group of artists are at work in a studio, some remaining loyally devoted to their leader, others more dismissive and rebellious, hinting perhaps at political dissent and disorder, albeit on a small scale, rather than society-wide. Despite meticulous and dynamic choreography in the abstract – explained, by Newlyn, to be inspired by the theatrical methods of the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who exploited contrasts and the vigour of actors’ physical presence on stage – it would probably not be entirely clear that this is the narrative meant to be represented if one had not read the programme note in advance. Moreover the concept of an artistic community bringing new works into being, amidst their rivalries, does not seem to offer any insights into either the madrigals or Il combattimento in themselves (unless to invoke, very obliquely, the fact of Monteverdi’s innovations in his art) although it does forge a useful, superficial connection with the craftsmanship of photography in Weill’s opera to come – even if no other dramaturgical concepts reappear in the latter. Nevertheless, the Madrigals are strongly characterised musically by the pair of singers allotted to each, whether languorous and swooning for ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ (well-articulated by Erin Gwyn Rossington and Faryl Smith) or assertive and belligerent for ‘Armato il cor’ (Jonathan Eyres and Jack Holton).

Things come to a head in the famous ‘Zefiro torna’ as the leader (Eliran Kadussi) duets seductively with an actress (Nancy Holt) with whom he had previously been involved – evidently meant to be recalled in their fluidly intertwined melismas – before she emphatically rejects him. The artists now rally to the leader as they prepare Il combattimento, in which Kadussi takes the musically central part of Testo, the narrator, retelling the story (from Tasso’s classic Gerusalemme liberata) of the Christian knight Tancredi, and Clorinda, a female Muslim warrior. They have fallen in love despite representing opposing sides in the First Crusade, but compete in mortal combat without recognising each other, as an enacted allegory of the torments and pains of love (Oscar Wilde’s echo of Shakespeare, “each man kills the thing he loves”, perhaps comes to mind too). Kadussi gives an arresting performance: whilst Holton and Inguna Morozova play out the narrative with mock heroism and a few vocal interjections, he carries the drama forwards with an absolutely commanding musical and theatrical presence. Rather than the usual ethereal tone of a countertenor, he projects robustly and with agility across his range, creating compelling drama throughout the near-monologue of the score. With that capacity to breathe such vivid life into the countertenor repertoire, he is certainly a singer to watch. GSMD’s Baroque ensemble (almost a part of the action, dressed in overalls like most of the cast) is led by Chris Hopkins in nimble, colourful accompaniment, though the passages of lamentation could sound more genuinely sorrowful rather than merely grey or misty.

Composed just ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution and the assassination of Nicholas II, Weill’s opera dealing with the attempted murder of a Tsar in Paris as he seeks to have his photograph taken already bears the hallmarks of the radicalism and acerbic political satire of his later stage-works, albeit leavened here with the libretto’s wit and levity, and the music’s cabaret style. The older conventions of opera buffa are brought into apt interplay with the then relatively novel technology of photography – just as the latter raises the question of the interaction between reality, and representation and illusion, so the disguises and assumed identities of some of the characters upturn their and our expectations as to the unfolding story unfolding.

Within the confines of Angèle’s photography studio, the production neatly evokes the Paris of the 1920s. A group of revolutionaries get wind of the Tsar’s visit to the studio, intending to assassinate him, and swap places with Angèle, and her two assistants. When the Tsar arrives he is captivated by the ‘False Angèle’, and a sequence of amorous repartee follows, before the plot is discovered and traced to the studio, such that the revolutionaries flee and the Tsar is saved from murder. Those imposters are well matched visually and vocally with their real counterparts: in particular, both Lorna McLean’s Angèle and Erin Gwyn Rossington’s impersonation are vociferous, though if anything it is McLean who is the more defensively domineering, compared with Rossington’s more lyrical presentation. Mark Christian Bautista provides gentle assurance as the real assistant – it is a pity that more is not heard of him. Eyres’s Tsar is quietly charismatic, exuding the confidence expected of a monarch, but also his easy-going nature as he steps outside regal formality. In general the cast is effective and bring to life this compact comedy engagingly.

In the reduced orchestration by Vahan Salorian, the GSMD Orchestra bustles along almost hectically, commenting on the action with whimsical, ironic humour at times, but always maintaining a bubbling pace under Hopkins’s energetic conducting. The unseen chorus also add atmosphere as they provide offer further wry commentary to a somewhat chant-like musical setting. If the staging of the Monteverdi section is not fully successful, the conflation of the Madrigals and Il combattimento is ingenious, as is the pairing with Weill’s opera, and some telling connections are undoubtedly made between them. Moreover, this is a welcome chance to see two rare works.

Further performances on June 10 & 13 with alternate casts

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