We don’t see enough of Massenet on the London stage. The Royal Opera has a new production of Manon coming up later in the season, and there was a Werther there a few years back, but this is only Chérubin’s second UK outing (the first at Covent Garden in 1994), so Guildhall’s timely revival is most welcome.
Massenet’s Comédie chantée is a charming but flawed work, more effective in its poignant moments than its overwrought comedy. As the title suggests, it’s a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, picking up were Mozart left off at the end of Act 1, with the lusty page Cherubino despatched into military apprenticeship.
He’s now received his first commission and is ready to launch into an adult world of thrusting swords and adoring women. Much of the original scenario is carried over – the Count and Countess are there but in heavily disguised form – with the addition of new characters but none of Beaumarchais’ incisiveness and insight. It’s all a bit lightweight and inconsequential, in fact, with a riotous second act that threatens tedium.
Martin Lloyd Evans’ production strains for comic effect too much of the time, the attempts to capture the madcap comedy resulting in some frightful mugging, but the sweetness of Massenet’s mature style works its magic in the more reflective scenes.
Chérubin’s bedroom is ever-present, casting back to childhood in its strewn playthings and forward in its suggestion of night-time activity. The rest of Bridget Kimak’s set, an undulating Daliesque blob that floats across the stage, effectively suggests the diverse settings of the three acts.
Voices are strong throughout, with exceptional beauty from Eva Ganizate’s Nina, whose music soars, defying a potentially dull romantic lead. Máire Flavin’s swaggering Chérubin benefits from a full, rosy mezzo and the school is fortunate in having an ideally cast L’Ensoleillad of vocal and physical gorgeousness in Elena Sancho-Pereg. Between them these principals share the best of what the evening has to offer.
Elsewhere, the performances are as sharp as the characterisations are weak. Matthew Wright is a Basil Fawltyesque innkeeper, while a further bunch of grotesques are brought energetically to life. Duncan Rock is affecting as Le Philosophe, who tries to mentor the young lad through the perils of early adulthood.
The Guildhall Orchestra, under Clive Timms, reflect the dash and verve of the onstage action. The ending is particularly effective, with a direct quote from Don Giovanni and an intriguing reference to Chérubin as a young rake rescued from a life of licentiousness by his Elvira.
The theme of youthful over-striving and inability to hold back was mirrored in the students’ performances at times but even this curmudgeon, wavering in sympathy during the frantic second act cavortings, was won over by the tenderness of Massenet’s finale, beautifully executed here.
There are three further performances, with alternate casts