Guildhall School – Spinalba

Spinalba – Opera in three acts to a libretto attributed to Alexandre de Gusmao [sung in Rodney Blumer’s English translation]

Spinalba – Anna Patalong
Dianora – Amy J. Payne
Arsenio – Koji Terada
Elisa – Sylvie Bedouelle
Vespina – Sophie Junker
Tongo – Matthew Wright
Ippolito – Paul Curievici
Leandro – Alberto Sousa

Robert Howarth

Stephen Medcalf – Director
Isabella Bywater – Design
Victoria Newlyn – Movement
Peter Mumford – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 November, 2010
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

Guildhall School Opera Course has made something of a point of producing second productions of late. Eighteen months ago we had “The King Goes Forth to France” (only the second time in this country after the Royal Opera’s premiere), then a year ago the Course returned to Donizetti’s “L’assedio di Calais”, which it had done thirteen years previously. And now we have only the second British production of an even rarer stage-work, Francisco António de Almeida’s 1793 comic opera “Spinalba” (or The Mad Old Man).

Almeida? Never heard of him? Well, perhaps that’s not surprising. There seems very little certain about him including his birth-date (perhaps 1702) and death (perhaps in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which is where most of his works were destroyed). He might have studied with Alessandro Scarlatti. He did visit Italy to study in Rome and Naples, so his most famous work – “Spinalba” – first at Lisbon’s Ribeira Palace in 1739 during carnival – was in Italian rather than Portuguese, although the Guildhall School performed the work in Rodney Blumer’s 1970s translation, with which the UK première was given by Phoenix Opera at the 1979 Camden Festival.

In some senses “Spinalba” proves a ‘missing link’ between Baroque da capo operas and the classical works of Haydn and Mozart. But perhaps even more intriguing is the rather Shakespearean plot, which – as director Stephen Medcalf highlighted in his programme note – seems to ape “Twelfth Night” and “King Lear”. Girl (here Spinalba) dresses as a boy (Florindo) and gets employed by the man (Ippolito) she loves, and is sent to proffer her master’s love to a lady (Spinalba’s cousin Elisa) who then falls for that very messenger. The “King Lear” reference comes with the opera’s subtitle, as Spinalba’s father Arsenio goes mad with worry about his daughter, and even dreams of railing in a storm (in Medcalf’s production with real water, as it is played out in a shower). Trying to hold everything together is Spinalba’s mother, Dianora. Throw in another suitor to Elisa, called Leandro, and servants to both of these characters, who are also destined to fall for each other, Vespina and Togno, and you can probably work out some of the plot’s twists and turns.

On reflection, I don’t see this plot as difficult to stage straight, or indeed in period costume, but Medcalf and his experienced design team, including Isabella Bywater (whose Jonathan Miller shows “Don Pasquale” and “La bohème” have recently been revived at The Royal Opera and English National Opera respectively and she will also do La traviata for Miller in Vancouver), set the action in a care-home for the elderly –Francesco Antonio Home – and provided a well-worked framework for the show, particularly in the real-life rivalry between the two old fellows that played the foes of Ippolito and Leandro. Much humour was derived from the difficulty they had fighting with (wooden) swords.

Perhaps Medcalf overplayed his inventive hand here – there were some non-singing roles in the first half who had nothing to do but sit and watch, and there was a little too much of interruptions from TV programmes, such as “Countdown” and “Antiques Roadshow” as recalcitrant inmates got hold of the remote control – but on the whole, by the second half, the interruptions had settled down and the plot moved forward much better for it.

The cast – four of whom alternated over the run, singing two performances each – had not only to put over a very rare opera, but also had to act old for three hours (apart from Togno, Vespina and Spinalba, who were youthful members of the care-home staff). Particularly successful in both facets was Amy J. Payne as Dianora, bedecked rather like the Queen in twin-set and handbag. Koji Terada had great fun with Arsenio, especially after discarding his dressing-gown in favour of a sou’wester, although his English diction was the hardest to catch throughout the evening. Paul Curievici and Alberto Sousa, common to all performances as the two rivals for Elisa’s love, Ippolito and Leandro, made much of their parts, as if they’d walked straight out of the cast of “Last of the Summer Wine” with Sylvie Bedouelle’s Elisa. The ‘youngsters’ in the cast perhaps had the easier part and, although I felt Anna Patalong’s Spinalba/Florindo combination wasn’t allowed to flourish as the centre of the plot, Sophie Junker’s Vespina and Matthew Wright’s Togno were delightful, and their set-pieces (her helping him out of a ‘magic circle’ and her seeing through his doctor’s disguise as he tries to woo her) worked very well indeed. The notion of a servant dressing as a doctor, and indeed servants hoodwinking their masters, intriguingly prefigures Mozart and Da Ponte.

The music is perhaps what you’d expect from a Baroque/Classical cross, for the most part handled well by the orchestra, and nudged nicely along by Robert Howarth. For the record, the alternative cast for Spinalba, Arsenio, Elisa and Togno were, respectively, Natalya Romaniw, Gary Griffiths, Cátia Moreso and Matthew Stiff.

Rarities still to come this season at the Silk Street Theatre are Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites” on 3, 5, 7 & 9 March and then a double-bill of Donizetti’s “Rita” and Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” (the latter for the second time at the Guildhall School) on 9, 11, 13 & 15 June.

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