Baroque Bill at the Guildhall

17 Jun

The Guildhall’s Milton Court theatre is a huge success. It’s a lovely, intimate horseshoe auditorium, slightly smaller, I think, than the Royal College’s Britten Theatre, but the same idea. It has clear, warm acoustics and an intimate feel. It’s a much more welcoming, professional-looking place than the Silk Street Theatre and the only irritation is that attendants don’t seem quite clear about the best entrances for the seats and that there seem to be quite a lot of stairs to get anywhere. My first experience of a performance in the theatre was for the Guildhall’s summer double bill of operas on 16th June. I hope it won’t be the last.

It was a strange double bill. The first item was Thomas Arne’s The Cooper. This piece lasts an hour and strikes me as the most pointless, witless pieces of theatre that I have seen in a long time. The plot is about an old Cooper, Martin, whose apprentice, Colin and ward, Fanny, succeed in marrying despite his best endeavours. The dialogue is unbelievably stilted and silly, the nadir being the entrance of a drunken neighbour. It’s one of those where most of the musical numbers are prefaced by “sing me that song…”. Most of them are forgettable as soon as you’ve heard them. The best is the point where Martin, hearing Colin in the workshop come down with a candle and thinks that he hears things moving. Sullivan did it a lot better in Pirates of Penzance, but, at least there’s some interesting stuff going on in the orchestra. For the remainder, it’s really hard to imagine any sort of society that would think that this was worth spending time or money on. I can only imagine that it was written for some particular popular comedian.

It was decently done. The singing was good, particularly from Piran Legg as Martin. Romula Gaitanou directed a production that probably didn’t look very different from what went on when it was first done but with virtually no life or wit. A backdrop after a contemporary Dutch performance on the same subject was attractive.  Julian Perkins conducted. I thought the orchestra played the overture quite horribly.  I cannot imagine ever wanting to see this piece again.

Things changed considerably for the second item, Alessandro Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista. This was written as oratorio but, rather like Handel’s ones it’s intensely dramatic. There are heartfelt arias and fascinating duets. Stradella had a dramatic life, apparently involving rather too many liaisons with other people’s wives leading to a number of contracts on his life. I’m now quite curious to see Flotow’s opera about him.

But I digress. This made a good, satisfying evening. It tells the Salome story: essentially St John starts by leaving his followers to tell Herod to pluck out evil from his court. He arrives and Salome demands his head successfully and it ends with a duet for her and Herod – quite extraordinarily fine. There are fine arias for St John, for Salome and Herod and some pretty good duets as well.

Hopkins’s orchestra had improved out of all recognition, Gaitanou’s production had fun suggesting the lasciviousness of Herod’s court by lots of cross-dressing courtiers but enabled you to concentrate on the emotions and the music. This was well delivered. I was particularly impressed by Meili Li’s warm, strongly produced counter tenor in the title role. He sang elegantly,. honestly and with real conviction. Joseph Padfield was a very strong, frustrated Herod, Lauren Zolezzi was a very glamorous Salome and Gerard Schneider (a nice Colin in the Arne) sang very elegantly as Herod’s Counsellor.

I’d like to see and hear some more Stradella after this – maybe one of his real operas.



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