La Navarraise – Episode lyrique in two acts to a libretto by Jules Claretie & Henri Cain [sung in French with English surtitles]
Le Portrait de Manon – Opéra-comique in one act to a libretto by Georges Boyer [sung in French with English surtitles]
Comedy on the Bridge – Radio opera in one act to a libretto by the composer based on the comedy by Václav Kliment Klicpera [sung in an English translation]
Anita (La Navarraise) – Magdalena Molendowska
Araquil – Adam Smith
Remigio – Ben McAteer
Garrido – James Platt
Ramon – Gérard Schneider
Bustamente – Benjamin Appl
Zuccaraga – Hendrik Zwart
Le Portrait de Manon
Des Grieux – Ben McAteer
Jean – Catherine Backhouse
Tiberge – Adam Smith
Aurore – Rapheala Papadakis
Comedy on the Bridge
Enemy sentry – Frazer Scott
Popelka – Samantha Crawford
Friendly sentry – Adam L. Sullivan
Bedroň – James Platt
Sykoš – Hadleigh Adams
Eva – Enna Starushkevych
The Schoolmaster – Samuel Smith
The Army Officer – Timothy Connor
Stephen Barlow – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Design
David Howe – Lighting
Victoria Newlyn – Movement
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 1 November, 2012
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
Guildhall School Opera Course continues to revisit operas – after The King Goes Forth to France (only the second time in this country after the Royal Opera’s premiere), Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (which it had done thirteen years previously) and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, for an operatic triple bill, the opening two Massenet works (originally joined with Debussy’s L’Enfant prodigue in 2000) now presented with Martinů’s Comedy on the Bridge (which was with Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict in 2003).
Whilst I would have dearly loved to see a revival of the original Comedy on the Bridge, these are all-new productions, directed by Stephen Barlow and with a largely common design by Yannis Thavoris – a diagonal wall stage-right, with a promontory of masonry and war-debris (for Navarraise and Comedy) in the centre, replaced by a jumble of antiques for Manon, which also sported a shop frontage (announcing the proprietor – Des Grieux – as a specialist in 18th-century antiques, and complete with a shrouded, framed likeness of Manon). There is an addition for the Martinů, a sloping bridge with two checkpoints at either side. A connecting image through all three operas was a red coat for the main female protagonist (Anita, Aurore and Popelka, respectively), while the outer works’ subject is War.
These conflict pieces are given in updated scenarios – computers aided the soldiers in Massenet’s evocation of the third Carlist War in Spain (1872-76), which Barlow updates to an imaginary Basque separatist war; while it seems as if – despite the Czech flag and warning signs (“Pozor” – beware) – Barlow has in mind a future division between England and Scotland given the soldiers’ Scottish accents. But the emotional impacts are completely different: La Navarraise is a compact tragedy which seems to mix the plots of Carmen, Tosca and La traviata – our heroine, Anita, determines to kill rebel leader Zuccaraga to allow her to marry her soldier lover, Araquil, whose father has dismissed their love and will only accept her as his daughter-in-law with a dowry of 2,000 ducats. When Araquil hears that Anita has been seen entering the enemy camp, and then finding her with lots of money, he jumps to a wrong conclusion, but in any case he is wounded.
Massenet produced a very taut, short two-act opera which was very successful in London and Paris in its 1894 first productions. It’s also good for the male chorus, with a decent drinking song; here the female chorus is left to be mute anti-war demonstrators. Red-coated Magdalena Molendowska as Anita, with a rich soprano, and her ardent lover, Adam Smith’s Araquil, were more at home in the music than acting as tactile young lovers, and Ben McAteer was similarly a little stiff in the role of Araquil’s father, the manipulative and cold-hearted Remigio, but the soldiers sang with force and passion, while negotiating the rubble-strewn set.
McAteer and Smith also appeared in Le Portrait de Manon, with the former ageing better as the older Des Grieux, even in his dotage moping over lost-love Manon. It’s a weird work – premièred just six weeks before La Navarraise – as a ‘sequel’ of sorts to the full-blown Manon. Des Grieux keeps a painting of Manon covered, while looking after his ward, Jean, the young Vicomte de Morcerf, here sporting baggy sportswear, baseball cap and skateboard, in Catherine Backhouse’s likeable trouser role. Jean has fallen for a girl, Aurore (Raphaela Papadakis), who Des Grieux won’t countenance until his old friend Tiberge (Smith) hatches a plan to dress Aurore as Manon and prick Des Grieux’s conscience. While nicely set (the stagehands are to be congratulated in the speedy assembly of antique furniture and bric-a-brac where masonry once was), and pleasantly sung, but enthusiasm for the work’s revival is debatable. The female chorus was not seen but relayed (in a rather nice affect) through Des Grieux’s radio, as he was in his nostalgic reverie.
The return to War marks a return to excellence. Martinů’s 1937 satire of five innocent folk stranded on a bridge between two battle zones, their passes sufficient to allow them onto the bridge, but not off, was excellently done, with a very impressive stage-wide (and the Silk Street Theatre stage is wide) bridge. The red coat was worn by golden-haired Samantha Crawford as vivacious Popelka. She has crossed to enemy lines in search of her supposed-dead brother, and is caught by her intended, Hadleigh Adams’s fisherman Sykoš, being kissed by James Platt’s portly and mutton-chopped brewer Bedroň, before Bedroň’s wife, Eva (Anna Starushkevych), finds her way onto the conduit, The final innocent is the schoolmaster, totally tied up with a riddle he’s been set about a deer escaping an enclosed field, complete with Peter Sellars-esque hand gestures. Samuel Smith’s chalk-marked suit was matched by his talcum’d hair to suggest the greying of age. Only Bedroň’s intelligence allows the release of our stranded quintet, and the army officer (Timothy Connor) also knows the answer to the riddle. It’s a quirky tale of domestic intimacies against a backdrop of conflict; as such it is more realistic than La Navarraise, and the switch to English (the translator not credited) allowed Martinů’s libretto to shine.
The evening was prefaced by a tribute to alumnus Robert Poulton who was tragically killed in a car-crash two nights earlier. These first-night performances were dedicated to his memory.