Menotti’s The Telephone & Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune – Guildhall School of Music & Drama – directed by Martin Lloyds-Evans; conducted by Dominic Wheeler

Menotti
The Telephone – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer [sung in English]
Judith Weir
Miss Fortune – Opera in seven scenes to a libretto by the composer [sung in English]

The Telephone
Lucy England – Segomotso Shupinyaneng
Ben Upthegrove – Jonathan Eyres

Miss Fortune
Lord Fortune – Jacob Harrison
Lady Fortune – Amy Holyland
Tina – Erin Gwyn Rossington
Fate – Kieron-Connor Valentine
Hassan – Florian Panzieri
Donna – Laura Fleur
Simon – Jack Holton

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Anna Reid – Designer
Anthony Doran – Lighting Designer
Rachel Wise – Movement Director

 


4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 February, 2022
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

Just a few days after Barbara Hannigan’s remarkable, devastating presentation of Poulenc’s La voix humaine at the Barbican comes the Guildhall School’s double bill of operas just across Silk Street, the first part of which is Menotti’s The Telephone (1947, essentially an opera buffa). Whereas in Poulenc’s tragédie lyrique the telephone acts as the more or less effective and positive medium through which Elle makes her last, desperate contact with her lover before they part forever, in Menotti’s modern comedy of manners this technological innovation functions around the foibles of the two characters as a contemporary and tangible agent of near tragedy as it disrupts Ben from making his proposal of marriage to Lucy.

Like comedy and satire, technology can date very quickly, and in some respects the scenario of Menotti’s opera – largely dependent upon the existence of a fixed, handset telephone – surely strikes us as quaint in the age of portable smartphones, tablets and other such electronic devices. Martin Lloyds-Evans’s production plausibly updates the situation to show how much worse things have become since, in that social life is now beset everywhere by those constant, ubiquitous means of telephonic communication with the availability of WhatsApp, FaceTime and the like (it’s a wonder that Lucy doesn’t also log into Zoom on her office computer). 

Whatever benefits these media brought during the extreme, temporary circumstances of the Covid pandemic with its lockdowns (not referenced in this production) it remains to be seen whether the prevalence of this disembodied digital form of communication represents a generally permanent sundering of physical social relations and interaction in the long term. That said, however twee it also now seems to call up the speaking clock to find out the exact time, as well as Ben’s gentlemanly mores in wishing to propose to Lucy in person with a ring (where, doubtless, engagements have been made, and relationships broken countless times through text message) the opera’s essentially ambivalent message about technology’s advantages and drawbacks remains, in that twenty-first-century digital media does continue to bring people and ideas together, just as the telephone ultimately enables Ben to make his proposal before boarding his train, even if in a less romantic manner than originally intended. 

Segomotso Shupinyaneng gives a sassy, even belligerent account of Lucy England, hooked almost as physically as metaphorically to the telephone’s easy means of conversation, just as surely as Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, with almost the same cackling laughter on occasion. But her potent sense of musical line in the extended, florid melodic passages also demonstrates Menotti’s ironic re-imagining in modern music-theatre of the set piece of the aria to encapsulate Lucy’s monologues directed through the telephone, rather than to anybody on the stage or the audience as such. Jonathan Eyers is a suitably exasperated Ben Upthegrove, but also ultimately sympathetic in his warm duet with Lucy over the phone once he has successfully proposed. Dominic Wheeler leads the GSMD Orchestra in an engaging, ebullient performance, enabling the dialogue to bounce along with neo-Mozartean wit. 

The darker side of the “alienating effects of modern urban life” (as designer Anna Reid’s programme note summarises both operas) are explored in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune (2011) based on a Sicilian folk story and dramatising a serious reversal of fortune and circumstances as its punning title implies, through the personified figure of fate. Whilst there is nothing especially laudable or morally worthy about the fallen characters at the outset, neither is their downfall attributable to any particular flaws in their personality, so Weir’s libretto does not so much constitute a modern version of Classical tragedy as perhaps a Nietzschean parable of the insignificance of mankind’s ambitions and conceit of itself in the face of the capricious, intractable, and sometimes overwhelming facets of real life – even if there is no compensating elitist ethic of the need to cultivate a superhuman will to power to overcome those forces. 

In this case, that contrary force is the capitalist marketplace, which causes the sudden financial ruination of Lord and Lady Fortune, leaving their daughter Tina to pass through an underworld of exploited or insecure workers in the precarious, low-paid service economy. The way in which the Liberal bourgeois outlook of the Fortunes (with their morality of hard work as the active means to success) is suddenly rendered null and void by catastrophe surely evokes Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian duality, the latter represented in the opera by the chaotic influence of Fate, who continues to linger menacingly around Tina, trying to keep her within his clutches. The fact that she voluntarily explores the world of the precariat, however, suggests that she retains some agency over her destiny – a rather different sort of control from the delusional, outdated worldview of her parents, and their party guests who also find themselves out on the streets, bereft of everything – and recalls other fables of the Enlightenment which reverse the situations of high and low, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, such as Salieri and Pierre Beaumarchais’s Tarare (1787) which explores how society may be differently ordered if its various strata had had a more equal chance to begin with.

In any case, the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy runs as a more consistent, if latent, theme through Miss Fortune, bringing to mind its deployment in a more immediate literary and operatic model in Death in Venice. Instead of the guiding light of Apollo in Britten’s opera, it is Fate (here attired in grey) who lurks as a constant presence – malign but also scored for countertenor, and rendered tonally with a compelling, fulsome eeriness by Kieron-Connor Valentine, if perhaps depicted with something of a merely impish charisma. There is much localised colour in the timbres of Weir’s score and motivic activity that often conjures up a person (especially Fate) or a mood, rather as in Britten’s work, even if (also like Britten) larger sections of the music fail to lodge in the memory, despite a general atmosphere of foreboding (near the beginning there also seems to be the briefest, veiled reference to ‘O Fortuna’ from Orff’s Carmina Burana). The reassuring, contrasting presence of Apollonian light is only alluded to quite briefly in Florian Panzieri’s lustrously sung paean to the sun (like an Italian folksong) as the kebab van-owner Hassan (cue seconds, fourths, and fifths in the horns like Nielsen’s Helios Overture) before his business is soon destroyed by unspecified forces. 

The somewhat sustained vocal lines (more grandiloquent than in the Menotti in terms of the lengthened notes for each syllable rather than melismatic melody so much) call forth from the soloists some strongly declaimed performances, particularly from Erin Gwyn Rossington in the central role of Tina.  Laura Fleur also presents an unflagging determination as Donna, the launderette proprietor. Unfortunately there are no surtitles as the denser orchestration of Weir’s score, as compared with Menotti’s, and the vibrato in the singing – which gives necessary gravitas to the generally banal quality of the words – make it difficult to follow the dialogue. It is testament to the fine musical discipline and enunciation of the GSMD Chorus members that, despite their numbers, their sung words often can be heard clearly. Jack Holton’s bold singing cuts through rather better as Simon, just as the character does to Tina’s sympathies, as she elopes with him after dispelling Fate’s grip, through her generous act of renouncing her fortuitous lottery win.  The orchestra sustains well the ominous nature of the music without making exaggerated gestures, but integrating the passing timbral and motivic events into a convincing whole. 

Lloyd-Evans’s direction and Reid’s designs cleverly draw The Telephone and Miss Fortune together in their shared manifestation of dehumanising capitalist forces. The high-end property development company in whose office Lucy works in the first opera, then forms the backdrop for the second. The silent extras who sign a contract for one of Esquire Estates’ ‘bay view’ properties before Lucy, are revealed to be Lord and Lady Fortune, who revel in their wealth in their newly acquired property at the opening of Miss Fortune before disaster strikes. Reid’s sets convey much more effectively the gritty social realism of the sorts of environments Tina passes through (the clothes factory may call to mind the similar workplace in ITV’s Coronation Street for example) and Lloyd-Evans’s direction makes more apparent the plight of the exploited in those situations than the empty philosophising of the opera’s libretto or the cod metaphysics of its embodiment of Fate. The committed performances in this conservatoire context of a student cast – a generation whose formative years have already been blighted by one economic recession, a global pandemic, the grave threat of the climate crisis, and now war in Europe and its fallout – make more urgent and believable the work’s scenario than it seemed in the more rarefied world of the Royal Opera House where the piece was first seen in this country ten years ago.

Further performances to March 7 with alternating casts. Recordings available to watch online between March 25 and April 1.

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