Mixed Martinů

4 Jun

The Guildhall has unearthed two more rarities for its summer offering – two short pieces by Martinů, written in French at different stages of his career.  I thought they’d be worth a look and got to the first night on 31st May.

The first was Ariane, one of his last works, performed posthumously.  It’s a psychological interpretation of the Minotaur myth.  Theseus and Ariadne fall in love; he kills the Minotaur but recognises it as being another facet of his own personality and leaves.  Ariadne has a final aria lamenting her state.  It lasts about 45 minutes.

The title role was written with Maria Callas in mind, though there’s no evidence that there was the remotest chance of her singing it.  Rodula Gaetonou’s production set it in a Paris recording studio, imaging that Callas herself and a group of other “famous” singers (“Giuseppe di Bergamo” was about the level we’re looking at) were making a recording of the piece.

I’ve never quite got Martinů and I’ve tended to find the subject-matter of his operas more interesting than the music for them, which I usually find quite bland.

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t speak much about Ariane.  I was lulled to sleep after about 10 minutes of what struck me as rather bland, generic music and opaque direction.  I woke in time for the last 10 minutes and heard Nicola Said make what sounded like a strong job of a challenging but not terribly memorable final aria for Ariadne.  You’ll have to go yourself to find out if I missed a long-last masterpiece. Sorry.

I was wide awake for the second opera, Alexandre bis, a witty, absurdist piece from 1937 when the composer was living in Paris and, again, only performed posthumously.  It’s  about a man who shaves off his beard in order to pretend to be his American cousin and test his wife’s fidelity.  He’s observed by the maid and his own portrait. As a result, his wife decides to go off with  her admirer, Oscar.  It’s a cynical, absurdist take on Cosi fan tutte.  The music owes a lot to French operetta and jazz.  It’s jolly without being memorable or interesting, though the story itself is huge fun.  I very much enjoyed Gaetanou’s witty and inventive production, elegantly choreographed, catching the absurdity and very funny.

The opera doesn’t strike me as having major opportunities for singers but I thought that Bianca Andrew as the maid, Milan Siljanov as the portrait, Josep-Ramon Olive as Alexandre and Elizabeth Karani as his wife gave fluent, excellently prepared performances that were a joy to watch.

Timothy Redmond conducted fluently without convincing me that either piece was in the second, let alone first rank of operas, but I was very glad to have seen Alexandre bis.

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