Guildhall School of Music – The Marriage & La cambiale di matrimonio

The Marriage
La cambiale di matrimonio

Podkolyosin – Duncan Rock
Stepan – Adam Torrance
Fyokla – Emily Stevenson
Kochkaryov – Nicky Spence
Agafya – Rhona McKail
Arina – Hanna Hipp
Dunyashka – Emily Blanch
Ivan – Jonathan Sells
Anuchkin – Leonel Pinheiro
Zhevaking – Daniel Joy

Norton – Alexander Robin Baker
Clarina – Raquel Luis
Mill – Derek Welton
Edoardo – Carlos Nogueira
Fanny – Rebecca van den Berg
Slook – Andrew Finden

Guildhall Orchestra
Clive Timms

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Movement – Victoria Newlyn
Lighting – Matthew Haskins

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 June, 2009
Venue: Guildhall Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

In its typically enterprising way, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama celebrates the genius of nomadic Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, in the 50th-anniversary year of his death, with a UK première. “The Marriage” was composed to a commission from NBC, Guido Cantelli conducting the first broadcast in February 1953. The music is immediately recognisable as being by Martinů, with his trademark melodic and rhythmic nuggets set against a wonderful translucent and shifting musical surface.

He provided his own libretto in this adaptation of Gogol’s story of the inept Podkolyosin who wonders whether at his age he should be getting married. Recourse to matchmaker Fyokla has resulted in nothing, so his friend Kochkaryov takes him in hand and presents him to Agafya along with her other suitors, Ivan, Anuchkin and Zhevakin. Kochkaryov manoeuvres the other three out of the way and, as summer turns to autumn, it looks as if the marriage will go ahead. Until, that is, Podkolyosin has cold feet. But, at the end, there is a glimmer of hope: there has been the worry that his dress-suit would not be ready … as the curtain closes Stepan the servant brings in the finished tails…

With its irregularly painted set and adaptable stage area (starting with the tabs enclosing a cramped room, as if we’re viewing through a television set), director Alessandro Talevi keeps a tight rein on the action, with expert masking of the stage as the action moves into the street and over to Agafya’s house and back and Kochkaryov’s love interests are wittily indicated.

Nicky Spence, as Kochkaryov, continues to add depth to his operatic credentials (so not just a pretty recording artist…), while Duncan Rock is the epitome of characterisation as the hapless Podkolyosin and Rhona McKail was the wary but innocent Agafya. Also worth noting was ‘stunt double’ David Leigh-Pemberton in a great free-fall when Podkolyosin jumps out the window.

The coupling is even more inspired. Rossini’s second opera is loosely translated as ‘The Marriage by Promissory Note’, but is sung in the original Italian, with some very witty surtitles. The Overture is notable for brilliant choreography, even when all we could see were feet! In this ‘dance of liaison’ through the ages we moved from the whitened faces and sunken eye sockets of Martinů’s 19th-century Gogol to a seedy lap-dancing club.

Here Rossini’s English merchant Mill is the club’s proprietor, trading in girls. His calculation to find out how far Britain is from Canada is done with the aid of a laptop, and much complaint about the difficulties of using Google Earth! His servants, Norton and Clarina, are bouncer and barmaid respectively – the set is as realistic as that for “The Marriage” was impressionistic. Toilet cubicles and the emergency exit are at the back, with poles for dancing above and a circular platform (disguising a safe) and bar down-stage – no doubting designer Madeleine Boyd’s success in transporting us to the seedy present.

It is quickly established that Mill’s daughter Fanny (Rebecca van den Berg looking good in basque, black stockings and suspenders) and Joseph Fiennes or Ben Stiller look-a-like Carlos Nogueira’s Edoardo are the young lovers of the piece. However, Mill has decided that Fanny will be married to the Canadian Slook who, miraculously, has just arrived: cue Andrew Finden as a Mountie! Amidst Rossini’s comic invention and delicious, frivolous melodies it is culture-shocked Slook who can see what Mill can’t – that Fanny and Edoardo are in love (well, he understands it after they threaten him), and it is his signing about his rights on her to Edoardo (hence the promissory note of the title) that resolves the issues before the joyous finale.

With lots of Richard Jones-esque disco-dancing to classical music (working incredibly well here) and some extremely fine singing – particularly from Rebecca van der Berg, but also in the various duets – this production is about as good as it gets. With references including gun-toting Hollywood (Derek Welton’s seeks redress from Slook’s rejection of his daughter, armed to the teeth like Charles Bronson or Mad Max!), Talevi, his production team, and the cast bring Rossini’s farce (his first such) vividly to life, matched by Clive Timms’s unfailingly responsive and idiomatic conducting of the score.

With Donizetti’s “L’assedio di Calais” (November 2009), Massenet “Chérubin” (March 2010) and Britten’s “Albert Herring” (June 2010), the Guildhall School can hold its head up high with the continuing quality not only of its productions, but also its astute choices of repertoire.

  • This review is of the third of four performances; the final one is on Wednesday 10 June at 7 p.m.
  • GSMD

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