Royal College of Music – Bizet’s Djamileh & Le Docteur Miracle

Djamileh – Opéra comique in one act to a libretto by Louis Gallet [sung in French with English surtitles; new version in a dramatic setting by Pierre Forval]
Le Docteur Miracle – to a libretto by Leon Baatu & Ludovic Halévy after Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day [sung in Rollo H. Myers’s English translation]

Haroun – Edward Hughes
Splendiano – Edward Grint
Djamileh – Emilie Renard
Slave Merchant – Michael Butchard
Dancer – Kerry Stammers

Le Docteur Miracle
Laurette – Annabel Mountford
Véronique – Anastasia Prokofieva
Le Podestat – David Hansford
Silvio / Pasquin – Peter Kirk

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Alessandro Talevi – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Designer
Paul Need – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 November, 2011
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Celebrating twenty-five years of its Britten Theatre, the Royal College of Music International Opera School presents an engaging double-bill of lesser-known Bizet. Aside from Carmen and Les pêcheurs de perles, all of Bizet’s six other operas are lesser-known, although it’s not that long ago since Opera North included his penultimate Djamileh as one of its “Eight Little Greats”.

Beware preconceptions – I’d assumed before arriving that given Doctor Miracle was the first written (in 1856, when Bizet was just eighteen, entering a competition run by none-other-than Offenbach to discover opera-composers of the future), that we would see that first, before Djamileh, composed nearly a couple of decades later. However, given the tragic nature of his production of the later opera Alessandro Talevi decided to preface the frothy farcical earlier opera with the exotic tale of sexually wilful Haroun ready, as usual, to discard his love-slave after just a month, not realising that Djamileh, has fallen in love with him.

Tragic? You’ll ask this if you know Djamileh. Well, yes, in Talevi’s handling, as he comes up with spectacularly dark finales in both of these Bizet pieces. I can’t help further elucidation without revealing the plot (this is a spoiler warning, so if you don’t want to know, move on to the next paragraph). Djamileh’s triumph in turning Haroun to accept her back is short-lived because the final stabbing chords see him strangle her. Similarly at the end of Talevi’s take on Doctor Miracle the Mayor is poisoned by his wife just as he is ‘cured’ from eating a ‘poisoned’ omelette by the doctor, who is in fact the mayor’s-daughter’s lover, Silvio. Audacious, yes, but it works – and it should come as no surprise for those who also saw Talevi’s dark, kinky take on Rossini’s Le cambiale di matrimonio (coupled with Martinů’s The Marriage) at the Guildhall School.

Utilising the same basic set – with what looked like brutalist 1960s’ concrete curved apertures to bisect Haroun’s lair, turning into the 1970s’ redecorated home of the mayor and his wife in Doctor Miracle, with – in both operas – some impressive ‘flying in’ of pieces of set; the walkway for Kerry Stammers’s extraordinarily supple dancer in Djamileh that turned into Pasquin’s kitchen worktop, complete with working gas hob and (quite literally) kitchen sink, with running water, in Doctor Miracle.

The programme, although short on background, did preface the synopses with the statement that both operas were set on the Côte d’Azur, although Bizet set Djamileh in Cairo. The change of setting for Haroun’s month-long sexual dalliance and updating to vaguely modern times perhaps made it seedier with a modern sex-traffic vibe, and certainly tied into Talevi’s darker view of the work. Basically it’s a cast of three, with Edward Grint’s Splendiano plotting to have Djamileh for himself when Haroun discards her. To this end he helps Djamileh to sneak back into Haroun’s presence as the ‘new’ girl, but he doesn’t realise what either Bizet or Talevi planned to happen to Djamileh. Grint was the securest of the main three on opening night, with Edward Hughes eventually settling down vocally after a slightly strained start and Emile Renard relaxing, acting-wise, into the title role.

What stands out though is Bizet’s melodic invention. Just like Carmen the score is packed full of wonderful tunes, with a rumbustious Overture that should have much wider currency at concerts than it does.

Bizet was born with innate melodic capability. Doctor Miracle is similarly suffused with great tunes, here almost exclusively displayed in ensembles for the four singers (only Laurette and Pasquin get anything like solo arias). It’s a crazy piece like Barber on a shoestring melded with L’Elisir, with soldier Silvio trying to get his hands on the mayor’s daughter by disguising himself first as a servant and then the quack doctor of the title. It also features (surely unique in the whole of opera) an ‘omelette quartet’, with Pasquin making the egg dish for his new employers (and here poisoning it with what looked like washing-up liquid). The fact that Peter Kirk has to negotiate two wigs and costume changes and can make an omelette is impressive enough, even if his Pasquin is a touch over-louche in his bell-bottom jeans, French striped T-shirt and leather jacketed 70s’ outfit. Throat infection aside, Annabel Mountford sang Laurette as vivaciously as she acted it, with her big hair and believably petulant teenage attitude. As the stressed mayor David Hansford fulfilled his singing promise having originally majored in composition. Anastasia Prokofieva was as steely in her darker role as the mayor’s wife, Véronique. Her hair was platinum blond! The male chorus from Djamileh was partially utilised as the workmen who convert what we assume was Haroun’s place into the mayor’s home. A nice touch.

So another astute choice of operas by the RCM and with enjoyable productions to match – well worth catching.

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