Tag Archives: Royal College of Music

All about sex at the RCM

1 Jul

The Royal College of Music’s summer show is a double bill of two French opera’s Chabrier’s Ene Education Manquée and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias.  Lord knows when the Chabrier was last done here.  The Poulenc appeared at ENO and Opera North in the 1970s and ’80s but since then has been largely for students.  I saw it at the Guildhall in 2005 and can remember nothing about it.  I saw the first night of this show on 28 June.

It’s an imaginative pairing.  Both are very firmly about sex and making babies and, at first blush, at the lighter end of the French tradition.  It’s slightly surprising that they’re not paired more often – insofar as you’re likely to see either of them much.

I’m a Chabrier fan and Une Education Manquée on CD.   The impression I had was of a genial enough piece with nothing which really makes you sit up.

That was more or less confirmed by this performance.  It’s an amusing-ish jeux d’esprit.  Two young people have just got married but what you do when you’re left together afterwards and the husband’s pedantic tutor Pausanius is no help either.  Then a thunderstorm arrives and, as the lovers close, they learn what comes next naturally.  Chabrier’s music is jolly enough in his fairly typical vein – yearning romance and some lush harmonies, mixed with some Offenbach-ish speed.  The arias early on sound a bit generic but it livens up with some sparky duets towards the end.  The last three numbers are the best.

There’s a fair amount of dialogue which the RCM did in an alert translation by Stephen Unwin.  The arias were in French.  I longed for a Jeremy Sams-type translation of the whole thing which might have livened things up a bit and added some smut.  Unwin’s direction was reliable enough without doing much more than the obvious things.  The singers were decent.  I liked Juliet Lozano as Gontran – a rather lovely mezzo and a nice way of acting.  Rosanna Cooper as Helene didn’t convince me for a moment that she didn’t know about sex but, again, she displayed a nice mezzo.  Kieran Rayner is a bit young for Pausanius but he sang it well enough.  I can’t honestly say that this is more than a moderately enjoyable curiosity and I won’t be going out of my way to see it again.

I was rather enjoying the Poulenc until my partner pointed it out to me what an unpleasant piece it is: about the havoc created by women daring to want to have careers and not doing the good catholic thing of making babies.  The fact that it’s disguised in almost Monty Python-ish surrealism and some witty and very beguiling music actually makes the taste a bit nastier.

However, you can’t deny the wit and there are some rather funny situations and setting of language.  Unwin’s production was slick despite a few first night mishaps.  Men on roller skates are, by definition funny, as is a policeman on a bicycle.   I thought that he probably got the piece as right as you can. There were some good routines and you were never bored.

It was helped by a really splendid Therese/Tiresias from Harriet Eyley.  Here is a really lovely light voice in the Mady Mesplé mould, produced effortlessly and with a sense of style that was spot-on.  Buy shares now. Julien Van Mallaerts did a lovely job as the Husband – hilarious in his ghastly flowery frock and with a splendid command of the stage: a lovely warm personality and outstanding timing.  His voice went a bit awol at one point but otherwise, I thought this was a very promising performance.

Among the other roles, I enjoyed James Atkinson’s Gendarme, Benedict Hyman’s reporter and Stephen Mills’s scene stealing cameo as the Son. Kieron Rayner was back as the Theatre Director and delivered his opening scene with the right deadpan seriousness.  It felt as thought the hard-working cast was enjoying itself.

Michael Rosewell conducted.  He caught the romance and wit of the Chabrier and the lighter textures and contrasts of the Poulenc.  The orchestra was good.

It’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Student Gazzetta

26 Jun

Another opera off the “to do” list in my quest to see all of Rossini’s operas. As soon as I saw that the RCM were doing La Gazzetta, I booked even though the one performance that I was due in London for was the night before an excessively early train. It seemed worth it at the time and I went to the Britten Theatre on 24th June hugely looking forward to an becoming acquainted with the opera.

I don’t think that Rossini was really trying when he wrote this piece. The plot. based on Goldoni, starts with the premise of a self-made millionaire, Don Pomponio, advertising in a newspaper for a husband for his daughter, Lisetta. She is actually in love with Fillipo, the owner of the hotel in which they’re staying. There’s a second father trying to marry of his daughter Doralice to an elderly suiter, but she falls in love with the tenor, Alberto. The opera proceeds with a series of silly disguises and padding to the obvious ending. There are lots of tropes from other comedies here and this is emphasised by the fact that he borrows music from Il turco in Italia for the masked ball, from La pietra del paragone for a mock duel. Much of this is stuff that he did better in other operas and you have the slight sense of a composer dragging together in a hurry a few situations that he’d used before and which could readily be recycled.  He reused the overture in La Cenerentola.

The opera also emphasises, if only by its absence, that, while Rossini did write some of the greatest arias in the repertory, much of his greatest work is in the ensembles, the duets, trios and so forth where voices play against each other, contrast, unite and display the different emotions. These are in relatively short supply here and most of the arias struck me as enjoyable but no more. One of the gems is the duet for Lisetta and Filippo in the second Act as they quarrel and make up. Another is the trio for Lisetta, Don Pomponio and Madama Rosa in that act, as Lisetta tries all that she can do to prevent him taking her away. But otherwise there isn’t a lot of true emotion and this struck me as a rather heartless, inconsequential farce.

That said, it got an enjoyable performance here. Donald Maxwell and Linda Ormiston, directing, have updated the piece to the 1990s with plenty of stylish, colourful costumes and a nicely swaying Paris Opera for the finale to Act I. Sensing the weakness of the piece, they’ve added a nice lot of silliness to help the piece along – in the best tradition of a student performance.  The men’s chorus is a male voice choir (Amici di Verdi di Cwmbran) and they appear in a variety of silly disguises including a camel and a group of vicars and tarts; the Palais Garnier (the opera is set in Paris) sways to the chaos of the Act I finale.  None of these gags had anything much to do with the situation or characters and, while entertaining enough, you sensed a slight desperation.  I couldn’t help wondering if a witty English translation by, say, Jeremy Sams, might not have helped the evening even more.

The music was excellent: there are some very classy young singers here.  At the performance I saw, Filipa van Eck was a really stylish, assured Lisetta who sang her arias with great aplomb.  As Filippo, Luke D Williams sang and acted with wit and intelligence.  I’m not sure that his gritty baritone is necessarily ideal for Rossini but he struck me as someone to watch.  Gyula Rab has an attractive tenor which sounds good in this music and, maybe, needs just an ounce or two more sparkle to be ideal.  He was well up to the acting side.  Hannah Sandison was a lovely Doralice.  As Don Pomponio, Timothy Nelson was pompous and sang nicely without being able to disguise the fact that, really, you need to be an older, experienced comedian to do the role (Donald Maxwell, himself, would have been great).  The chorus sang well but seemed quite self-conscious as actors, albeit enjoying themselves – again, rather like a student performance.

Michael Rosewell conducted splendidly.  It sounded great and the orchestra was well-rehearsed and confident.

I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to see the opera and I can’t imagine any company taking the trouble to perform it with the cast that it needs but I was nevertheless grateful to the RCM for putting it on and giving us the opportunity to judge.  The audience seemed to enjoy it hugely.

Imeneo – enjoyable light Handel

24 Mar

There’s a temptation to feel that there’s a sameness about Handel’s operas.  Generally they seem to involve at least two couples, generally with names that no-one was ever called, who love each other in varying permutations and who get sorted out one way or another by the end.  There’s often a strong element of comedy and, in the better ones, some politics or something about power.  Structurally, the main characters have at least aria per act and, at times you feel Handel trotted out some of those arias pretty much by rote.  I can imagine people saying that, if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen the lot.

Imeneo, which I saw on 14th March at the Britten Theatre as part of the London Handel Festival both confirms and disproves the prejudices.  The plot is pretty much a story of a woman, Rosmene, choosing between the man who loves her and whom she loves(Tirinto) and the man who has saved her life (Imeneo, otherwise the god, Hymen).  There is a second woman, Clomiri, in love with Imeneo and the obligatory bass father-figure, Argenio.  You see what I mean about the names.  What is interesting is that Rosmene chooses against love and there is a strange scene where she feigns madness or a breakdown in order to break the news to Tirinto.

It’s not a great libretto.  There’s none of the political shenanigans or the plot complexities that you get in other Handel operas and, to be honest, the relationships aren’t well developed and it’s hard to sympathise with the characters – they all look a bit stock.  What is most frustrating is that you can see no reason why Rosmene chooses Imeneo rather than Tirinto.  On the other hand, there’s some really attractive music.  That for Tirinto is the finest (a particularly gorgeous number early on) but his arias are all excellent. There are some jolly numbers for both women and for Imeneo.  There’s even a trio and some choruses.  For Handel, this is getting daring and there isn’t a bad number in the piece.  I spent the evening smiling at the man’s sheer joyous genius.  With a strong director, this could be a very enjoyable light evening.

Paul Curran’s direction had a lot going for it.  He set it in a luxury health spa on some Greek island.  The set was of pillars which moved easily to vary the scenes.  Imeneo sported a variety of swimwear and leisure gear throughout and Luke D Williams had the figure to carry this off with aplomb.  He directed his characters so that they conveyed the emotions well.  It was well-drilled, plenty of business to distract the eye without completly wrecking the plot.  He did not, however, solve the centrol problem of why Rosmene chooses Imeneo over Tirinto.  Without this, the evening is no more than beguiling, if slightly puzzling, entertainment.

The London Handel Festival’s performances often suffer from the fact that Handel was writing for singers who were hugely experienced stars – the Sutherlands, Domingos and Bartolis of their day. Here, we tend to have very promising students.  With that, quite important cavil in mind, however, there was a lot to enjoy in the performances.  I saw the second cast and thought that Tai Oney as Tirinto displayed a very fine counter tenor with a real sense of style even if he didn’t project the character as strongly as he might.  Hannah Sanderson made a strong Rosmene who was very effective in her mad scene.  Katherine Crompton as Clomiri was delightful, singing with ease and charm.  Luke D Williams sang Imeneo with the same confidence that he displayed in managing his costumes and displayed a very promising bass voice.

Laurence Cummings’s experience in this repertory paid off hugely.  He conducted an affectionate, stylish performance that knew what the piece was about.  The London Handel Orchestra seems to improve every year and provided considerable pleasure.

This may not be Handel’s finest opera, but it reminded me that even minor Handel operas can be huge fun and very rewarding and it was hard not to enjoy the evening.  There’s a concert performance of the piece at the Barbican in May with a very promising cast and I’ll aim to be there.