02 Jun 2016

Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

Although Bohuslav Martinů’s short operas Ariane and Alexandre bis date from 1958 and 1937 respectively, there was a distinct tint of 1920s Parisian surrealism about director Rodula Gaitanou’s double bill, as presented by the postgraduate students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Struggling with the score of The Greek Passion, Martinů seems to have turned to the tale of Ariadne and Theseus for light relief from the magic realism of what would be his last opera — a letter of June 1958 to his family explains that he was ‘taking a rest’ from the larger work — and he completed the 40-minute opera in just one month. The composer prepared the libretto fromLe voyage de Thésée by the French surrealist poet Georges Neveux — who was also the librettist of Martinů’s Julietta. Neveux added a dream-like ambiguity to the myth, with Ariane possibly in love with the Minotaur, who is representative of Thésée’s ‘other self’.

The libretto is full of unanswered, probably unanswerable, questions, and ambiguous suggestions. When Thésée calls for the Minotaure, an echo responds calling for ‘the other Thésée … the Thésée that was’ to come to his aid. When the mirror-image Minotaure appears, he challenges Thésée: ‘Who do you think I should look like? … Who dares to aim his blow at himself and die by his own hand?’ Ariane, regarding the dead beast, tells Thésée, ‘I knew he looked like you’. Who does Thésée kill?

Gaitanou takes this essentially unfathomable melange of divination and doppelgängers and grounds it in the Salle Wagram Ballroom in Paris which was, in the mid-1960s, an important recording venue, taking as her prompt Martinů’s admiration for and fascination with Maria Callas whom the composer hoped would perform the title role. (It was not to be, which may have been fortunate given the celebrity soprano’s vocal fragility at this time.)

The Salle was the home of Pathé-Marconi/EMI and designer Simon Corder decorates the studio with tape reels and microphones of the era, drawing inspiration from photographs (specifically those by Robert Doisneau and Sabine Weiss) of Callas recording Carmen at the Salle Wagram in 1964. The re-imagined recording session morphs the youths of Athens and Thésée’s companions into international stars and recording engineers, whose own entanglements and everyday routines form a background for the enacted recording of Martinů’s opera. In this way Gaitanou both taps into Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and continues the tradition of exploring the ‘meaning’ of our own lives through the re-telling of Greek myth.

Martinů’s score employs a lyrical idiom which roves from a neutral monadic idiom to the charm of Poulenc, to passionate emotional climaxes, and here it showcased some fine singing from the cast of young singers whose arias and brief snatches of recitative did a fine dual job of despatching the story swiftly and focusing on the characters’ emotions.

Both baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé as Thésée and bass Milan Siljanov as the Minotaure exhibited a strong dramatic weight. ‘In recording’, Olivé gave a noble account of the role, characterised by emotional restraint and dignified French declamation. His tone was full and his phrasing finely chiselled. Siljanov combines the heft of a bass with the richness of a baritone, and he gave a characterful portrayal, doubling also as the Old Man. Tenor Dominick Felix produced an urgent, attractive tone as Bouroun, who, impatient with Thésée’s distractedness, resolves to kills the Minotaure himself, with fatal consequences. The role of the Watchman who announces the arrival of Thésée in Knossos was taken by John Findon, who delivered his recitative-like soliloquy stylishly.

The central role of Ariane is a substantial coloratura part and the eponymous heroine’s bravura lament upon the departure of Thésée occupies the last quarter of the opera — think Monteverdi’s Arianne or Purcell’s Dido. Sweet of tone, and just about able to negotiate the virtuosic, and stratospheric, demands, Said’s soprano is, alas, far too light, and lacks both the cream and weight, to carry the emotional weight of the role. Neveux’s simple French was clearly enunciated but the nobility or profundity of Martinů’s musical language was not fully tapped, though Said worked hard at the phrasing and crafted some beautiful trailing diminuendos.

The score recalls Stravinsky in chirpy neo-baroque mode — Pulcinella, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1920 comes strongly to mind — but Martinů also punctuates Ariane with three fairly lengthy Sinfonias, à la Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and the GSMD Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, played them with crisp punchiness, the rhythms sharply defined and the woodwind colours striking.

The partnering work, Alexandre bis (translated as ‘Alexander Twice’ in English and ‘Dvakrát Alexandr’ in Czech) was composed in 1937 to an original libretto written in French by André Wurmser. It’s a variation on Così fan tutte, with a surreal twist.

Alexandre decides to test the fidelity of his wife, Armande, by shaving off his beard and posing as his cousin visiting from out of town. Armande is in fact virtuous: for years she has fended off persistent admirers. Now, however, she submits — even though she recognizes her husband in his deception. Just as Ariane cannot distinguish between Thésée and the Minotaur, so Alexandre is her husband but not her husband. We’re back in a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fissure between delusion and reality. Armande has betrayed her husband by loving her husband, and had fun; from now on she will be unfaithful, and so she succumbs to the urges of her serial admirer, Oscar. The maid Philomène and a singing portrait imitate Mozart’s Despina and Don Alfonso by commenting on, and interfering in, the action. Wurmser’s moral, unlike Da Ponte’s, turns its censure on the men: ‘Don't knowingly lead your wife into temptation, for the devil never sleeps, and there are never two without three.’ We’re all weak so don’t take the risk. This is, after all, as the subtitle tell us, ‘The Tragedy of a Man who had his Beard Cut’.

The opera is characterised by bizarre juxtapositions and non sequiturs — of the kind that the surrealists believed allowed the unconscious to express truth. Gaitanou and Corder play up the comic absurdity by setting the work in a pre-WW2 bourgeois salon inspired by the roof garden of a Champs-Élysées apartment which was designed by Le Corbusier in 1930, and decorated by Salvador Dali, for the eccentric multi-millionaire art collector Charles de Beistegui.

Above a carpet of grass, topiary vegetation is sculpted alongside a rococo fireplace and mirror, peacock fireguard, white garden seating and a parrot on a decorative stand. The outside-inside salon is placed within curving white walls beyond which an azure blue sky glows above pedestal-mounted, gleaming bronzed models of L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre-Dame.

The zany costumes of Cordelia Chisholm and Victoria Newlyn’s mad-cap but expertly co-ordinated choreography — it’s all careering bicycles and tutu-clad dancing devils — add to the lunacy: by the time we get to Armande’s lurid dream sequence we’re not sure what’s real and what’s wished-for fantasy.

Martinů alternates spoken dialogue with sung numbers in the opera buffa tradition, and the cast were fully committed to the absurdity and physical farce without making vocal sacrifices. Olivé again impressed as Alexandre, but ditched Thésée’s mythic solemnity for hamminess worthy of Feydeau. Martinů had asked Wurmser for a libretto including a singing cat, but accepted the writer’s compromise of a singing portrait which acts as a narrator to a tale of bourgeois infidelity. Once again, Siljanov was vigorous of voice, delighting in the monologues which begin with humour and veer towards hysterical aphoristic moralising. He inhabited this bizarre role with aplomb.

As Armande, soprano Elizabeth Karani was more dramatically restrained, but sang with a clean and attractive soprano. Bianca Andrew sparkled as the maid, Philomène, lamenting in her first aria that she is condemned to a life ‘cleaning house in a comic opera’. Andrew’s mezzo-soprano is warm and agile. Tenor John Findon impressed as the persistently flirtatious fop, Oscar.

Redmond summoned plenty of fizz from the pit too, though it was the strings who shone this time with the woodwind sometimes challenged by the score’s demands. That said, the instrumental playing during the evening was some of the best I have heard from the young GSMD players and would be a credit to any professional ensemble.

Alexandre was intended by the Parisian-resident Martinů for performance at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In the event it was not premiered until 18 February 1964 at the Mannheim Opera House, conducted by Georg Calder. The first performance of Ariane took place posthumously, in 1961, two years after Martinů’s death, at the Musiktheater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The latter opera actually owed its UK premiere to the GSMD, when it was performed as part of a ‘Martinů festival’ at the Barbican in 2009, in a staging by Stephen Medcalf, conducted by Clive Timms.

This double bill showed us how grateful we should be to our Conservatoires for taking risks and delivering operatic rarities with such wit and panache.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Ariane :
Ariane — Nicola Said, Thésée — Josep-Ramon Olivém, Le Minotaure — Milan Siljanov, Bouroun — Dominick Felix, 1er garcon — Robin Horgan, 2ème garcon — Bertie Watson, 3ème garcon — James Liu, 4 ème garçon — Laurence Williams, 5ème garcon — Jack Lawrence-Jones.

Alexandre bis :

Philomène — Bianca Andrew, Le portrait — Milan Siljanov, Alexandre — Josep-Ramon Olivé, Armande — Elizabeth Karani, Oscar — John Findon, Dancing Devils — Robin Horgan, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Bertie Watson, Laurence Williams.

Director — Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor — Timothy Redmond, Set and lighting designer — Simon Corder, costume designer — Cordelia Chisholm, choreographer Victoria Newlyn, Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tuesday 31st May 2015, Silk Street Theatre, GSMD, London.

Click here for a podcast about this production.