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S & H Opera Review

Stravinsky ‘Oedipus Rex’/ Puccini ‘Gianni Schicchi’ Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, June 22nd 2002. (ME)

 

This was the third production I have attended at the Britten Theatre this season, and, like the others, it provided as inventive, entertaining and superbly sung an evening as anyone could possibly wish for, reminding London opera – goers yet again that there are other ways to programme opera besides lacklustre stagings by the inexplicably untalented in which the singing can only be said to be strolled through . No strolling amongst the principals here; when I first heard Jonathan Lemalu, Andrew Kennedy and Julianne de Villiers at the beginning of the season in ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ I said they were part of a group which comprised more up and coming talent than I had ever before seen on a single stage, and it is a real delight to see them all going from strength to strength; since then, Andrew has been a finalist in the Kathleen Ferrier competition and won first prize in the London Handel competition: Julianne won the Kathleen Ferrier Song Prize, and as for Jonathan, I said that every opera house would want him, and they do – he has the world at his feet, and rightly so.

These three were not the only future stars onstage last night, and I make no apology for beginning a review by commenting upon the singers; in a recent article, the eminent writer John Steane described how his researches had shown that in a majority of ‘print’ reviews of operas, the proportion of the review devoted to the actual singing (as opposed to the production / how many sequins were being worn in the audience etc) was something in the region of 30% - perhaps he should read ‘Seen and Heard’, since in my reviews it is the singing, and not the production or the frocks, which takes up some 70% of what is written. But I digress; not only did this hugely promising trio give performances which easily equalled much that I have heard this season on the professional stage, but there was also some superb singing from Jonas Durán, Siôn Goronwy, Serena Kay and Kim Savelsbergh.

The juxtaposition of these two operas provides, as the programme note suggests, the chance to tease out many complementary themes – of course, both works are concerned with Destiny, Greed, Power and so on, but the most vital element in both is that they provide showcases for two of the Opera School’s major talents, and in neither case did they disappoint. ‘Oedipus’ was given with the kind of searing intensity which one saw in their ‘Brockes’ Passion’ – everything, from the intimacy of the narrator (the superb Andrew Wickes) to the stance of Tiresias (a wonderful assumption of high seriousness by Siôn Goronwy) through to the evocation of ‘Thebes beside the Wall’ was of a piece, and the evocative design (Ruari Murchison) was wonderfully suited to Jean Claude Auvray’s austere production.

The choral singing was exceptional from the outset; ‘Caedit nos pestis,’ the opening plea to Oedipus by the Theban people, was superbly judged, as was the great lament which closes the work – this was a wonderful piece of theatre, with the solemn yet gentle commentary of the chorus enveloping the stricken protagonist. Julianne de Villiers, as Jocasta, sang ‘Mentita sunt Oracula’ with real fire, and Mathias Hausman contributed a finely sung Creon, but of course it was Andrew Kennedy’s Oedipus which stole the show. This is not an easy role for a 26 year old ; we are worlds away from Lysander here, in the kind of territory occupied by Orfeo, although the composers are four hundred years apart, and it was immensely to his credit, and to that of his teachers (Neil Mackie and Ryland Davies) that Andrew managed to suggest not only the anguished guilt and suffering of Oedipus, but also his descent from the pinnacle of power and self-righteousness, through arrogance to self pity and final understanding. Andrew’s voice has more heroic weight to it than that of most tenors in the English lyric tradition, and he filled out the ringing phrases and florid lines of ‘Liberi, vos liberabo’ most impressively. He also possesses unusual stage presence and confidence for one so young, and this was altogether a major performance.

After the interval., the evening’s other star had his chance to shine in the title role of ‘Gianni Schicchi.’ The designer had opted here for an entirely appropriate steel-engraving look, with a claustrophobic Florentine merchant’s house filling most of the stage, the glimpse of the sunlit city outside providing the only colour. The management of the characters was extremely skilful, with every comic ounce being wrung out of Serena Kay’s marvellously acid Zita and Siôn Goronwy’s ponderous Simone; both sang beautifully, too, and the standard of Italian diction was exceptionally high overall – it is, of course, a very intimate theatre, but that is no guarantee that you are going to hear every syllable as was the case here.

The young lovers were finely taken by Jonas Durán and Kim Savelsbergh; Jonas impressed with a treasurable Snout in MSND, but here he was really given a chance to show off his very fine tenor; he sang ‘Firenze è come un alberto fiorito’ with real Italianitá, and his is clearly another career to watch. Kim was new to me, and her assumption of Lauretta was delightful; ‘O mio babbino caro’ is such an old chestnut that it’s difficult to make it sound lovely at the same time as acknowledging its undoubted tongue-in-cheek character, but she managed it with grace and charm.

And so to Jonathan Lemalu, playing the wily Schicchi at the improbably youthful age of 26;such comic parts as this one and Verdi’s Falstaff are usually the preserve of the mature artist, but here is one whose acting and singing are already more than polished. He gave a masterly comic performance, switching with nonchalance between indulgence towards his daughter to sly lechery with the ‘three ladies,’ and singing his monologue with ease of line and precise diction. The ‘Will scene’ was superbly done, with the little reminders to the grasping relatives via snatches of the ‘Farewell to Florence’ sung with tremendous relish. I felt that he was sounding a little tired at times; perhaps the result of nerves more than anything else, and in later performances he may well be more his ‘usual’ self, but this was still a remarkable assumption. His genial address at the end was spoken with real panache, and revealed once more his exceptional rapport with an audience.

Michael Rosewell and the RCM Opera Orchestra again covered themselves in glory; this smallish band managed the angular writing of Stravinsky as finely as they did the fluent passages of Puccini, with the playing being especially strong in the woodwind and percussion sections, and Rosewell frequently giving object lessons in how to direct the playing of an orchestra for singers so as to maintain the musical line and character without merely providing ‘accompaniment.’

It might be said that this evening had been able to ‘fit audience find, though few’ and although the house was a respectable one for a ‘student’ performance, thanks partly to good publicity management as well as the growing reputation of some of the singers, the standard achieved deserves nothing less than full houses; if you can be anywhere near the Royal College of Music at 7.00 p.m. on Monday 24th, Wednesday 26th or Friday 28th of this week, I urge you to go and experience not only an unusually stimulating pairing of operas but also some of the most promising young singers around today.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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