The Little Green Swallow

The Little Green Swallow [UK premiere]

Brighella – Oliver Kuusik
King Tartaglia – Javier Borda
Queen Mother – Joana Seara
Truffaldino – John Llewelyn Evans
Ninetta – Helen Evora
Swallow – Iestyn Morris
Renzo – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Barbarina – Elizabeth Bailey
Smeraldina – Anna Stéphany
Calmon – Jéréme Lesage
Pompea – Geneviève KingApples – Clara Hendrick, Suzanne Anderson & Isabelle Adams

Set – Dick Bird
Costumes – Joanna Poole
Lighting – Simon Corder
Director – Martin Lloyd-Evans
Conductor – Dominic Wheeler

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 June, 2005
Venue: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

First seen in 1994 at Musica Nel Chiostro, Batignano, Tuscany and here sung in an English translation by the commissioner Adam Pollock, Jonathan Dove’s “The Little Green Swallow” (L’augellino belverde) receives its UK première in an exhilarating staging by the ever-inventive Guildhall Opera. Directed with imaginative wit and infinite invention by the Guildhall’s resident producer Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler (who saw the original Richard Jones production in Batignano), the first (and third) night cast warmed to its task to add to the sheer magic of Dove’s take on Carlo Gozzi’s sequel to “The Love for Three Oranges” (so memorably set by Prokofiev).

In fact, you could call Dove’s opera ‘The Love for Three Apples’ (although it is the power of the three apples that ultimately aids love between the other characters). The action of “The Little Green Swallow” takes place 18 years after Ninetta has been eventually freed and won by King Tartaglia, celebrating their union with a set of twins Renzo and Barbarina. But Tartaglia’s mother is not happy and when he is away at other wars, she gets rid of her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. It so happens that Ninetta is trapped in a sewer and only survives fed by the titular bird, while the twins are brought up by Tartaglia’s erstwhile friend, Truffaldino and his wife Smeraldina.

The plot twists and turns so that the twins – reacting badly to finding out they are ‘adopted’ (and still not knowing who their real parents are) – leave home. Bumping into a singing statue, Calmon, they are told that untold wealth will be theirs, and suddenly a bejewelled palace appears in marked contrast to Tartaglia’s grey and dowdy edifice next door. Unfortunately the young self-styled philosophers lose their youthful ambition for logic; Barbarina becomes hopelessly vain and garners the attention of her (unknown) father, and Renzo falls for another, this time mute statue.

Meanwhile the Queen Mother is trying to cause more confusion. Some magic is called for and both the swallow and Calmon (not so much wearing platforms, but rather ‘plinthforms’) point the way; Renzo heads off to collect the apples that sing and the water that dances that ultimately allows his statue to talk and Barbarina to realise that she loves the swallow. A further adventure sees Renzo heading off to rescue the swallow from the land of giants and that escapade might fail if not for Barbarina’s sudden recognition that she has to make things happen!

Martin Lloyd-Evans sets the action in the unlikely setting of a factory loading-yard, surrounded by brick and corrugated metal sheeting. The aperture, centre-stage is full of shelves with boxes and mannequin bits, and only slowly do you realise that the head on the arm-less torso stage-right is actually alive. This is Brighella, the poet-seer who introduces the action and becomes conspirator of the Queen Mother. Although swamped in the luscious introductory orchestral passages, Oliver Kuusik as Brighella grew in stature and, given that he had only facial expressions and diction to make his mark, to his credit he became a linchpin. The twins also shone, Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson a bright and effortless tenor and Elizabeth Bailey winsome, if rather annoying (appropriately so) when vain.

Amidst the debris of the industrial garage, the palaces are made – in quasi-Heath Robinson designs – from large metal bins, tubing and traffic cones; the twins’ magical gold palace resplendent against the housing-estate grey of Tartaglia’s home. When Tartaglia and Brighella appear on their respective ramparts the same design ideas, again on wheels, shine through. The apples when they appear are hanging from TV aerials lowered from the flies and the mountains, on the way to the land of the giants, were simply three sheets raised to different levels and left to hang.

Iestyn Morris’s countertenor Swallow (with his tail suit and wheeled trainers, so he could suddenly scoot on and off the stage) was very effective, a sometimes brazen timbre displaying a very strong voice. At the other end of the range Geneviève King as Pompea revelled in her deep, velvet mezzo tones, accompanied by Dove’s most Mahlerian music (falling fourths as at the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony).

Elsewhere Dove’s scintillating score – for violin, cello, bass, single wind (no bassoon), two horns, trumpet (thrown into the pit by one of the brown-coated garage workers before the start), percussion, harp and, piano and celesta – was a masterclass in bell-like sonorities, rousing minimalist arpeggios and achingly beautiful vocal lines. This was one of the most infectious, beautiful and joyful scores I have heard in years, and it remains a mystery as to why it should have languished for 11 years. This work, certainly knocking spots of new operas at Covent Garden and elsewhere, deserves to heard again and again. I’m happy to put my head on the block and state that I think this is a better work than “Flight” (at Glyndebourne this year), especially in as brilliant a production as this.

Once again, the Guildhall has pulled an operatic marvel out of the hat and all the more appropriate in its 125th-anniversary year. For those that already know the Opera Department’s credentials there should be no hesitation and for those that don’t I’d recommend an immediate booking to see what all the fuss is about. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this effervescent and genuinely heart-warming work.

As usual there are two alternating casts in the main roles; the cast reviewed here return on 6 June, while the other cast take the performances on 4 & 8 June. Don’t miss!

  • This review is of the first night
  • Further performances at GSMD on 4, 6 & 8 June at 7 o’clock
  • Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 020 7638 8891
  • Barbican
  • GSMD

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