Ingenious stagings of some unusual and interesting pieces.
When we think of Ottorino Respighi, opera is not the genre that automatically springs to mind. He did, however, write twelve, including a few unfinished efforts, and the pair that are currently being performed by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama are so different in tone that they make for the ultimate evening of contrasts. It would be a stretch to describe either as a masterpiece, but both are extremely worthwhile and many audience members may emerge wishing to experience more of the composer’s works for the stage.
Although Maria egiziaca and La bella dormente nel bosco are classed as operas, neither was originally planned to be performed in the ‘conventional’ way. The former was conceived as a ‘concert triptych’ to be presented in a liturgical setting, and the latter as a puppet opera whereby the singers voiced the characters from within the orchestra. The thought that has gone into the present productions of both, however, ensures that they work well as fully staged pieces.
In the case of Maria egiziaca, which has a libretto by Claudio Guastalla, the origins of the work may still feel apparent since the subject matter does not obviously lend itself to visual drama. However, Victoria Newlyn’s production is so beautifully rendered that it does ultimately carry the piece. First performed at Carnegie Hall in 1931, it tells of the decades long spiritual journey of the third century Christian, Saint Mary. With the opera divided into three episodes, the first sees Maria as a sex worker in Alexandria begging a Sailor to take her on his next voyage, and promising to pay her way with her body. The second sees her try to enter the Temple of Jerusalem, only to be rebuffed by an unseen power. This leads her to accept the need to undergo harsh penitence in order to avoid eternal death, and she is guided by an Angel to a place where she can be cleansed. Nearly half a century later she encounters a Pilgrim, with whom she has had confrontations in the past, who is now an Abbot. As she wonders if she is yet worthy, he feels shame at his previous youthful arrogance, and reassures her that she is, before she is led by the Angel to her divine rest.
“…audience members may emerge wishing to experience more of the composer’s works…”
Laura Jane Stanfield’s set is the same for both operas and proves to be ingenious. It stands on two levels with a triumphal arch like structure occupying the upper one, and a grand staircase sweeping down to the lower. This can suggest grand palaces, as are required in the second opera, but at the start of the first the set’s overall atmosphere also hints at a ship. At this point all of the chorus members occupy the stage, and, even though they do not say a word, one instantly feels how each has their own reason for wishing to embark on a voyage. After this, Newlyn is very clever at ensuring they are always present at those points where they can bring meaning or another dimension to the narrative.
La bella dormente nel bosco, which has a libretto by Gian Bistolfi, premiered in 1934, although an earlier version entitled La bella addormentata nel bosco had appeared in 1922. It is a telling of Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, and features several ‘fantastical’ elements such as a Nightingale and Cuckoo. One can easily picture how these would make for colourful puppetry, and this production brings just the right level of imagination to the occasion. For example, the chorus of frogs (who show a clear nod to Aristophanes) hold rosettes above their heads to create their eyes. The costumes are, in fact, excellent all round and once again the chorus, who throughout the evening produce a superb sound, bring appropriate movement and dynamism to the proceedings. For example, when the evil Green Fairy (with green suggesting envy rather than nature) starts to work her magic they mime being glued to the spot very well. The production also reveals how most of the action took place hundreds of years ago, but that Prince April, who rescues the enchanted Princess Bella, comes from a far more recent time. It does so by dressing him like Indiana Jones and giving him a motorbike.
The performances are of a very high standard, with Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko revealing a highly accomplished soprano as Maria, Alaric Green displaying an extremely strong and secure baritone as the Pilgrim and Steven van der Linden providing excellent support as the Sailor in the first opera. Yolisa Ngwexana reveals a soprano of great purity, but with just the right sense of edge, as the Angel, and the good Blue Fairy in the second opera. The latter, in fact, features a plethora of persuasive performances, not least from Ana-Carmen Balestra as Princess Bella, Jonah Halton as Prince April, Shana Moron-Caravel as the Queen, Joe Chalmers as the King, Holly Brown as the Green Fairy and Rachel Roper as the Duchess. When Respighi wrote both pieces he was limited in terms of the orchestral forces he could employ, but it is a tribute both to his skills as an orchestrator and to the strength of the present orchestra, under the baton of Dominic Wheeler, that the music sounds just as substantial as it feels engaging.
• Some principal parts will be played by different performers on 8 and 13 November.
• For details of all upcoming events at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama visit its website.