The Saint of Bleeker Street – First Night (9 July)

The Saint of Bleeker Street

Annina – Helen Semple
Michele – James Scarlett
Desideria – Vanessa Heine
Don Marco – Ian Pope
Maria Corona – Lisajane Ellis
Carmela – Amy Loveday
Assunta – Polly May
Salvatore – Tim Hamilton
A young Man / First Guest – Rob Little
An Old Woman / Nun – Joanne Heald
Second Guest / Priest – Peter West

Chorus and Orchestra of Trinity College of Music Opera Group
Gregory Rose

Director – Richard Williams
Designer – David Collis
Lighting & Projection Designer – Arnim Freiss

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 9 July, 2003
Venue: Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, London, WC2

Gian Carlo Menotti’s 92nd birthday was on 7 July and, co-incidentally or otherwise, it’s heartening to find the Trinity College of Music presenting the opera that the composer “would hope to be remembered by as it represents my inner feelings most closely”.

Having enjoyed considerable success in the 1940s and 50s with a number of operas, I think it would be fair to say that since then Menotti’s work has become somewhat unfashionable, in spite of the perennial success of the 1951 Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was the first opera to be composed expressly for television.

Menotti’s neo-romantic style was perhaps considered outmoded even when his works were new, and critics have condescendingly described his style as ’sub-Puccini’ or offered other less pleasant and inappropriate epithets.

It’s interesting, therefore, to be reminded just how successful Menotti is as a composer for the theatre. Like Puccini, he has an unerring knack for knowing how to build tension, offer lyrical contrast and generally construct effective music-drama, unashamedly emotional in its impact.

The Saint of Bleeker Street was the fourth of the five Menotti operas that enjoyed Broadway productions, opening for a three-month run in December, 1954. Like many of his operas, the drama concerns the conflict between faith and disbelief, the real and the imaginary, with the characters suggesting archetypal figures.

Annina is perceived to have miraculous powers and is marked with the stigmata. The inhabitants of New York’s Little Italy consider her a saint. Her brother does not, thinking her merely to be sick. Thus there is the additional conflict between personal relationships and those of the individual and the community – a theme constantly explored by Benjamin Britten, whose operas Menotti admires.

The close-knit community is immediately suggested at the outset with chanted prayers, led by Assunta who is given a strong portrayal by Polly May. Annina’s approach is heralded by pathetic – and sympathetic – string chords that suggest she is a close relative of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Like Puccini’s heroine, Assunta has a touching and engaging vulnerability, yet with a firmness of resolve at her core. Helen Semple, looking strikingly young, gives a thoroughly convincing portrayal. Her voice is sympathetic and even throughout its range. If there were one or two moments when she was overwhelmed by the orchestra, and her top register is, as yet, a little ’white’ in tone, she nevertheless demonstrates considerable artistry in this demanding role and drew one into the emotions of the character.

As Michele, her brother, James Scarlett is histrionically convincing, unlike many a wooden tenor who tread the operatic stage, but he does not command the heroic, ample voice that the part ideally requires. His Act Two aria “I know that you all hate me” was not on this opening night quite one of the emotional high points it should have been. Nevertheless, he is able to convey the essentially neurotic character of Michele, not least in the scene where his girlfriend Desideria suggests that Michele loves his sister incestuously, and which culminates in his murdering Desideria.

Vanessa Heine presented Desideria’s jealousy and ultimate regret in credible terms, revealing a warm and attractive mezzo. As Annina’s friends, Amy Loveday and Lisajane Ellis are a congenial pair, the former touching in her scene where she tells Annina she is going to be married instead of taking the veil, and the latter appropriately amusing when seen at her newspaper kiosk in Act Three.

Ian Pope makes for a dignified, sonorous priest and avoided any hint of possible caricature. The final scene, with Annina receiving the news that she is to be permitted to become a nun and then dying, surrounded by her friends singing praises, could so easily descend into bathos but does not thanks to the sincerity of the cast and Menotti’s sure touch and apposite musical depiction.

The production is true to time and character, although indoor settings surrounded by projections of the New York skyline looked a bit odd if mercifully avoiding gimmicks which would detract from the drama.

Even though a larger body of strings is desirable, the orchestra play well and Gregory Rose conducts efficiently and keeps the overall pace animated. The choral singing is splendid.

This is a most creditable production and performance and serves as a worthy and timely reminder of Menotti’s gifts and achievements.

  • Further performances on 10, 11 & 12 July.
    Peacock Theatre Box Office: 020 7863 8222

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