The Royal Opera – Jette Parker Young Artists perform Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne & Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri

Bastien und Bastienne – Singspiel in one act [sung in German with English surtitles]
Mozart and Salieri – Opera in one act to verse by Alexander Pushkin [sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Bastienne – Dušica Bijelic
Bastien – David Butt Philip
Colas – Jihoon Kim

Mozart – Pablo Bemsch
Salieri – Ashley Riches

Southbank Sinfonia
Michele Gamba [Bastien]
Paul Wingfield

Pedro Ribeiro – Director & Co-Designer
Sophie Mosberger – Co-Designer
Warren Letton – Lighting
Mandy Demetriou – Movement

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 October, 2012
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, London

David Butt Philip as Bastien & Dušica Bijelic as Bastienne (Bastien und Bastienne, The Royal Opera, October 2012). Photograph: Richard Hubert SmithUpon entering the Linbury one notices some rails; a clue perhaps to the production of the Mozart being on the right track. The first sounds heard belong to the farmyard. Fair enough, Bastien und Bastienne is a pastoral opera and the named characters are here sheep farmers; their stock (woolly until sheared) pushed around on carts on those very rails.

This Singspiel was written when Mozart was a 12-year-old. Of course we know how he developed; but, for a little lad, Bastien is a terrifically talented achievement. It may not have too much musical distinction (save the brief Overture, which prefigures the opening of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’), and is certainly too long – the last twenty minutes or so of the required hour do cause some impatience – but the work does more than ‘show promise’.

In a nutshell, Bastien and Bastienne have fallen out of love, until handyman and soothsayer Colas shows up to mend a light and work his magic. Whether he’s a con in the ‘elixir of love’ stakes, B & B are reunited. Quite what Justina Gringyte was doing here as an added unsung role – billed as the Factory Owner’s Wife – was unclear; dressed as a floosie, she made the occasional appearance (I’ll say no more).

Those that were meant to sing did well, each meriting their place on the prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists scheme. A few doubts about the staging include it not being fast-paced enough, with sometimes too-long gaps between numbers, held up for some stage business; and Michele Gamba was a bit leisurely with tempos. Paul Wingfield’s fortepiano continuo was excellent, but although the wind-players of Southbank Sinfonia were decent enough, there were some doubts as to the strings’ tuning, intonation and tone.

Ashley Riches as Salieri & Pablo Bemsch as Mozart (Mozart and Salieri, The Royal Opera, October 2012). Photograph: Richard Hubert SmithSuch qualms continued into the Rimsky-Korsakov (who adds a few more winds to the sound palette) and which gratefully sets Pushkin’s mellifluous verse, which brings its own wonder in the original language even if the words potentially mean nothing! There are though very helpful surtitles.

Set on a very darkly-lit stage, Mozart and Salieri is beautifully produced here, and magnificently sung. To music that is rococo, and leaning more to Tchaikovsky (who adored Mozart’s music), and with quotations from Mozart, not least and significantly the unfinished Requiem, Ashley Riches commanded the stage with his resonant voice and presented a very credibly forlorn Salieri, reflecting on life and his place in it. The equally charismatic and vocally gifted Pablo Bemsch arrives as a gregarious, man-about-town Mozart. Puppetry comes into play in this sometimes candlelit production as the two men seem to find common ground, but this not prevent Salieri slipping some poison into Mozart’s wine glass (very Agatha Christie!).

It’s a good story, however not true (we now know), and if the music is not typically Rimskyian, it serves Pushkin admirably, and is equally well served in this imaginative production and by two superb singers. Paul Wingfield conducted (also tolerant of the sometimes unmatched strings) and Michele Gamba contributed on what sounded like an early piano.

This is a double-bill worth catching, then, neither work having reached the Royal Opera House previously. The Mozart is a curiosity given who wrote it – but it has charm and the production is light-hearted with three excellent singers. The Rimsky – if without the opulence of his full-length operas and his orchestral works – holds the attention and seeps into the consciousness, and this ‘black’ production is a winner; and I would go a very long way to hear Bemsch and Riches.

One bit of housekeeping, and if time is of the essence, is that the Royal Opera’s advice of the whole performance lasting 1 hour-25 minutes should be 2 hours-15. However, the Rimsky is worth missing the train for!

  • Two further performances – both on Friday 19 October, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
  • Royal Opera

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