Happy feline discovery

17 Oct

The joy of the Meet the Young Artists Week at the Royal Opera House is that they do short operas that are rarely seen and which, for lots of reasons, you won’t see in a traditional opera house.  This year, they surpassed themselves with both an opera and a composer that I’d not heard of before – El gato con botas by Xavier Montsalvatge.  I saw the performance on 16th October – I think it was the UK premiere.

Grove describes El gato con botas as a Magic Opera.  It struck me more as a Children’s opera – it’s based on Perrault’s Puss in Boots and there’s an endearing charm about it.  There are very few decent operas for children – the Little Sweep has, I suspect, dated, Hansel and Gretel always strikes me as a bit heavy.  There’s Jonathan Dove’s wonderful Pinocchio  and Amahl and the Night Visitors but few others.  I thought this added to the group.

I bet you haven’t heard of Montsalvatge either.  He was born in 1912, died in 2002 and, according to the programme spent most of his career in Barcelona.  He’s not in Viking and the Grove and Wikipedia entries don’t give you much of a flavour of his work.  I have an impression that he’s more of a critic than a composer.  El gato con botas was first performed in Barcelona in 1948.  The version we saw was of the 1996 Chamber version by Albert Guinovart.

It’s a sweet little piece, moving quickly and, at 50 minutes, never outstaying its welcome.  The music is engaging and professional, without being particularly challenging.  You can feel the influence of film music (in a good way) and there’s lots of nice, quirky orchestral writing. The vocal lines sound grateful – there aren’t any great tunes or glorious numbers – but you listen to it with pleasure.  It sounds as though the word setting is clear – you’re meant to hear the words.  There is a nice quartet at the end and a sense of here is a composer who is at ease with the form.  I’d like to hear some more of his music if only to see whether there’s more to him than a proficient, intelligent composer.

It was done very nicely.  Pedro Ribeiro’s production had nice designs by SImon Bejer and used some Portuguese puppeteers to provide the animals – the cat, the rabbits he catches and the animals that the Ogre, Fafner-like, changes into.  It was witty, didn’t flag and made for a really enjoyable half-evening.

It’s not really the sort of opera where there are opportunities for stars, but I was hugely impressed by Jihoon Kim’s splendidly black Ogre (a Fafner, here, I think).  Rachel Kelly was a very nice, clear cat, Luis Gomes displayed a rather nice tenor as the Miller (he’d be a good Nemorino) and Anna Hovhannisyan as the Princess and Michel de Souza as the King were both very good.

Paul Wingfield conducted with huge zest and enthusiasm and the Southbank Sinfonia played very capably.  It made for an excellent performance where no allowances were needed.

As an opener, we had Dusica Bijelic singing Berio’s Folk Songs.  They’re hugely enjoyable pieces and Ms Bijelic sang with gusto and enjoyment.  She doesn’t have the sort of ease that, I suspect, more experienced singers would bring to this and I felt that she was more comfortable in some languages than others – but it was a nice performance, enjoyed by the audience, and nicely conducted by Michele Gamba.

All praise to the ROH for putting on this evening.  What would be really lovely would be if the Glyndebourne Tour or Opera North could take up El gato con botas, translate it into English and do some matinee or early evening performances aimed at children.  It would be a great way of getting them introduced to the form.

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