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Massenet/Martinu at Guildhall

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Guildhall School of Music and Drama at Silk Street Theatre

Last year the Royal Opera demonstrated the cumulative strength of presenting Puccini’s Il Trittico as a whole and Guildhall’s latest production, two short operas by Massenet and another by Martinu, attempts to replicate the trilogy’s scheme.  It succeeds wonderfully well, in Stephen Barlow’s beautifully-judged staging, with a line-up of young singers as talented as any GSMD have fielded in recent years.  The serious (La Navarraise) gives way to the sentimental (Le portrait de Manon) and is rounded-off by tightly-knit comedy (Comedy on the Bridge), making for an evening of contrasting delights that follows the tone of Puccini’s triptych perfectly.

Verismo doesn't come readily to mind with Massenet but La Navarraise, which evokes the tragic intensity of Il tabarro, was often doubled with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in its early days.  At the second performance, despite battling with a chest infection, Roisin Walsh was a resplendent Anita, the heroine who braves enemy fire to bring about a truce by murdering the rebel leader.  Alas, it’s all too late, as her lover, the virile Araquil, played with commitment if a little strain at the top by Adam Smith, is fatally wounded before they can be reunited.  It’s a rattling good story, told with great economy (two taut acts in just 45 minutes) and skillfully woven in Barlow’s powerful updating.  Ben McAteer as the Germont-like father of the hero and James Platt the ineffectual general who leaves the dirty work to the girls, are strong in support.

Le portrait de Manon inevitably abounds in familiar tunes drawn from the full-length Manon, as Des Grieux reflects on the sadness of his past and attempts to steer his nephew clear of the perils of the heart.  Vicomtes come a lot scruffier than they used to, here a skate-boarding street urchin under Barlow’s direction, with the ageing Chevalier presiding over a run-down antique shop.  Anna Starushkevych and Lucy Hall are a touching pair of youngsters, and Benjamin Appl a hugely affecting Des Grieux, bowed down with heartache and regret.  Adam Smith, impressive in a vastly contrasting role (some great opportunities in this programme), is the dependable Tiberge and all are vocally superb.

Of Martinu’s 14 operas, only five are full-length and there’s a wealth of invention in the shorter works, nowhere more so than Comedy on the Bridge, in which a group of villagers find themselves trapped on a bridge between two warring factions; echoes of the first opera with a comic spin. Written in 1937, it was conceived as a radio opera, surprising given its striking visual theatricality, which director and designer (Yannis Thavoris, excellent throughout) exploit to the full. Samantha Crawford, James Platt and Samuel Smith stand out in an exquisite ensemble, with Martinu, at his most whimsical, providing plenty of laughs.

Guildhall have produced all three operas before (the Massenets in 2000 and the Martinu in 2003) and are to be applauded for championing these hidden gems, offering great opportunities for students to shine and something different for classics-weary audiences to enjoy.  

Singers in performance two not yet mentioned were Gerard Schneider, Hendrik Zwart, Hadleigh Adams and Timothy Connor, and Peter Robinson conducted the student orchestra with panache.

- Simon Thomas

There are further performances on 5 November (Cast 1) and 7 November (Cast 2).

Read our survey of Martinu’s operas here


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