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L'Enfant prodigue/Francesca di Foix (GSMD)

Guildhall students shine in an imaginative pairing of one-acters, expertly directed by Stephen Barlow

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Double bills of short operas provide great opportunities for students to show what they can do, without the burden of having to carry a whole evening before they're ready, and Guildhall's opera department has a knack of doing them rather well. With brilliant direction and design by Stephen Barlow and Yannis Thavoris, their first production of this academic year is as good as anything this reviewer has seen the school offer in recent times.

L'Enfant prodigue (GSMD)
© Clive Barda
Lovers of Debussy have to content themselves with repeated viewings of Pelléas et Mélisande, in the absence of any other completed operatic works, but his short cantata L'Enfant prodigue converts to the stage as though written for it. It's a wonder we don't see it more often. Thavoris's beautiful set gives this simple tale a cinematic sweep and putting it into mid-late nineteenth century dress, instead of the familiar biblical setting, brings to mind the poignancy and economy of a Maupassant story (there's something of Pierre et Jean in the rivalry and jealousy of the two brothers).

The score is gorgeous and GSMD's students respond to Barlow's sensitive direction with superb performances, both silent and sung. Lauren Fagan is exceptional as the suffering mother, whose thoughts are all with her missing younger son, and Gérard Schneider and Joseph Padfield are both excellent as Azaël, the prodigal returner and his stern father Siméon.

In contrast to the heart-tugging simplicity of the Debussy piece, Donizetti's little-known one-acter Francesca di Foix is an extravagant light-hearted comedy with all the fizz and fun of Rossini's Le Comte Ory. It's made all the sillier by a brilliantly witty mix of the medieval and modern, a troupe of tennis-playing Spamalot knights and very fine characterisations by Anna Gillingham and Szymon Wach as the warring couple. She is flirtiness defined, once freed from the confines of a tyrannically jealous husband, and he a bundle of pent-up fear as half city gent, half knightly courtier, whose wife runs rings round him. There are notable performances also by Piran Legg (King), Joshua Owen Mills (Duke) and Elizabeth Desbruslais (Page).

Barlow excels himself with a wonderfully inventive realisation that sees an exclusive fashion emporium followed by a wacky tennis tournament; and in the pit Dominic Wheeler conducts a marvellously bouncy account of Donizetti's sparkling score. If the students haven't fully developed the agility for the demanding coloratura yet, they rise magnificently to the challenge and provide an evening to enjoy and cherish. The future of opera looks safe in the hands of these young singers - and it's high time the major companies woke up to Stephen Barlow's talent.

- Further performances on 6, 8 and 11 November. (N.B. As is customary at Guildhall, the shows are double cast so alternate artists may appear.)


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