A few years ago the Guildhall School presented a programme of Martinů’s cheery Comedy on the Bridge with Berlioz’ Shakespeare-inspired Béatrice et Bénédict. While nicely done, together the two operas made for a long evening.
They’ve now got a much better balance with the Czech composer’s later comedy The Marriage, based on the knockabout play by Gogol, and Rossini’s compact little masterpiece La cambiale di matrimonio. Martinu’s witty and eventful piece presents some challenges for the students. While vocally strong, with diction on the English text particularly impressive, the characterisations could do with greater physical commitment. The expressionistic sets by Madeleine Boyd slide, swoop and fold to constantly re-frame the action with a boldness that shows up a slight diffidence in the performances.
Nicky Spence, in the role of the matchmaker Kochkaryov, shows great comic flair, resembling a silent movie comedian with red hair and baggy clothes, but though some of his clowning is inspired, even he could follow his impulses more fully. Nevertheless, it’s good to see this bright young tenor, who a couple of years back looked as though he was suffering from an early-peaking career, now learning his craft. It should take him a long way.
He’s not alone, with excellent vocal contributions from Rhona McKail as the panda-eyed heroine and Duncan Rock a sturdy Podkolyosin. Despite a few shortcomings, this is a hugely enjoyable dip into Martinu’s considerable operatic repertoire during his 50th anniversary, something noticeably missing in the schedules of the main London companies. Well done to Guildhall for that.
After the interval, there are no reservations. From a charmingly funny ballet of legs (not to mention bottoms) during the overture, Rossini’s one-acter is an absolute delight. The first night cast Alexander Robin Baker, Raquel Luis, Derek Welton, Carlos Nogueira, Rebecca van den Berg and Andrew Finden were uniformly excellent.
Acting, singing and handling the business director Alessandro Talevi throws at them (including making an ice cream milk shake while singing an aria) are all spot on. Talevi comes up with one ingenious idea after another, as he updates the action to a contemporary sleazy bar cum brothel, complete with pole-dancers, drug deals and peepshow booths, which seems to fit Gaetano Rossi’s scenario perfectly.
The students handle both the testing coloratura and, just as importantly, the often lengthy recitative, with complete assurance, investing all with great meaning, expression and considerable humour. Head of Opera Studies Clive Timms conducts a fleet-footed performance of Rossini’s trickling score. Glorious from first to last.
There are further performances on 5,8 and 10 June, with main singers alternating. Details at gsmd.ac.uk or 0845 120 7500. A number of the students will participate in Garsington Opera’s production of Martinů’s Mirandolina, opening on 18 June.
Read our feature on Martinů’s operas here