More Guildhall Rarities

5 Mar

More respect to the Guildhall School for giving us the chance to see another two rarities. The only real connection between Donizetti’s I pazzi per progetto and Sir Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master is that they’re hardly ever performed, but they’re both comedies and both give great opportunities for students. As an avid collector, seeing them both in one evening was too good an opportunity to miss.

The Donizetti is relatively early – 1830. It’s set in a madhouse where a venal guardian tries to place his daughter (who seems to chase men, particularly colonels), a deserting trumpeter seeks refuge as a doctor and a colonel returning from the wars arrives to see his angry wife and his mistress. Both husband and wife pretend to be mad before making up. Even with surtitles it’s pretty difficult to work out what’s going on and, after a while, you rather cease to care. The piece is about twenty minutes too long and there are one or two duets which seriously outstay their welcome. Musically, it fizzes along buoyed by the influence of Rossini (at one point the wronged wife quotes from Semiramide) but without any particularly memorable numbers. It doesn’t have the sheer sureness and wit that distinguishes the glorious Francesca di Foix.

And the singing didn’t quite do justice to the writing, though there were some valiant performances. At the cast I saw, Laura Ruhi-Vidal sang Norina, the wronged wife and was tested to the limits and beyond by the more exposed coloratura and florid passages. At other times, it struck me that there was a really nice light soprano here. Ailsa Mainwaring also seemed a bit stretched as the mistress, Cristina. Szymon Wach as Brinval, the philandering Colonel, has a nice, Corbelli-ish voice and, I thought, sang well and looked suitably bewildered. Best was David Shipley as the mad-house owner, Darlemont whose accurate coloratura and patter made me wish the role was larger.

The Arnold is an interesting curiosity and a rather tantalising pointer to what might have been a strong operatic career. Written in 1952 it was rejected by the BBC because it’s a bit naughty – I struggled to see why – and has barely been done since. The plot is reminiscent of a Rossini one-acter (and there are echoes of Barber, for example, all over the place. The daughter of a man with a silly Spanish accent is about to married to a man with a silly French accent decides that she prefers a man with a normal English accent who climbs through her window and has to pretend to be a dancing master. It runs out of steam slightly towards the end and could probably do with losing ten minutes. There’s an arch knowingness about the plot that might well get tedious after a few performance.

Arnold’s music, is exuberant – brassy, witty, at times touching and announcing a major new talent that, you wish, could have had the opportunities to refine it. Britten is obviously an influence with echoes of Grimes and Herring and you can hear loads of Shostakovitch in there too. What struck me as even more interesting was the sense that this idiom isn’t a million miles away from Bernstein and Sondheim, while some of it wouldn’t be out of place in St Trinian’s. It’s massively energetic, very much of its time and not quite good enough (even allowing for the awkward length to allow for being more than a really interesting, enjoyable curiosity. It certainly gives Walton’s The Bear a good run for its money and leaves Lennox Berkeley’s Dinner Engagement standing gaping in admiration.

II was done very well. Shipley was back as the silly father with the Spanish accent and sang strongly. He’s starting on the ROH’s Jette Parker programme and it’s a long time since I’ve heard such a firm, well trained, confident voice in this auditorium. The voice has none of the slight hollowness that lots of student basses have and he has a real authority about him. I don’t think I’ve felt so confident about prophesying a really good career for ages. Alison Rose made a very sweet Miranda who sang her rather touching aria really well. Robin Bailey hammed up Monsieur, the silly lover with the silly French accent, and Lawrence Thackeray was charming as Gerard the false Dancing Master.

I had the sense that Dominic Wheeler had spent most of the rehearsal time on the Arnold. The Donizetti was decently played, no more, but the Arnold was outstanding with the orchestra having a high old time with whooping horns and brass, eclectic rhythms and generally jollity. One of the best orchestral performances I’ve heard here.

Martin Lloyd-Evans directed both. There were some nice touches in the Donizetti – the continuo was played by one of the madman who insists on them singing rather than speaking the dialogue – but I think there was a limit to what he could do with one of the composer’s less successful operas. In the Arnold he caught the rather arch, camp silliness of it nicely. As ever, it was crisp and looked good.

I won’t go into mourning if I never see either of these again, but it is enriching to see them once and, if you can get a ticket, I’d go.

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