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Laura Ruhl-Vidal as Norina in <em>Il pazzi per progetto</em> [Photo by Clive Barda]
06 Mar 2015

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

Double bill at Guildhall: Donizetti’s Il pazzi per progetto and Arnold’s The Dancing Master

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Laura Ruhl-Vidal as Norina in Il pazzi per progetto

Photos by Clive Barda


The comic capers began with Donizetti’s Il pazzi per progetto (literally Lunatics by Design), a one-act farce first heard at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples in 1830. Although the opera held the stage for several successful seasons in the city, appearing 62 times in 5 different theatres between 1830 and 1845, it later languished, until 1977 when a revised score was once again performed in Naples. This GSMD production is the first staged performance in the UK.

The libretto, by Domenico Gilardoni, is based upon a play by Giovanni Carlo di Cosenza which was an adaptation of a French farce by Eugene Scribe and Delestre Poirson, Une visite à Bedlam (the latter had itself been given operatic treatment by Auguste Bertini in 1824). Gilardoni’s text certainly has its fair share of miscomprehension and mayhem, and an attempt to make ‘sense’ of it would undoubtedly result in much head-banging on the padded walls of designer Yannis Thavoris’s amusing set. But, here goes …

1900427_10152757112531365_452572089952684979_o.jpgScene from I Pazzi per Progetto

Set in an asylum in early nineteenth-century Paris, here the L’Institut de Psychiatrie Experimentale, the plot is almost impossible to follow but revolves around the attempt by the jealous Norina — niece of the Institute’s director, Darlemont — and her equally possessive yet philandering husband, Colonel Blinval, to test each other’s love by pretending to be insane. Other inmates and orderlies include the eccentric Cristina, who has been admitted to the madhouse by her avaricious ward Venanzio, and Don Eustachio, a ‘psychiatrist’ who is actually a trumpeter who has absconded from Blinval’s regiment. Cristina believes her ability to recite bleeding chunks of Molière, Alfieri and Tasso from memory will ‘prove’ her sanity; the deserter Eustachio reels off his ‘accomplishments’ in an aria which foreshadows the fraudulent fancies of Dulcamara’s ‘Udite, udite’. Such are the follies and fancies of the incarcerated. The conflict arises because Blinval has promised to marry Cristina — just as soon, that is, as his decrepit ‘old ’wife drops dead; the arrival of the young, evidently full-of-life Norina, throws this plan off-kilter and the comedy plays out until they all abandon their facades of lunacy and ‘order’ is restored.

At a time when those suffering from mental disorder were beginning to benefit from more sympathetic medical treatments and attitudes, Donizetti stuck with the previous century’s less compassionate approach to the mad, and designer Martin Lloyd-Evans does not let a single opportunity for ridicule and hilarity go unfulfilled — including (fittingly for a score which itself delights in musical parody with Rossini’s Semiramide a particular target) mockery of Donizetti’s own more ‘serious’ mad-scenes. So, we have distressed heroines setting light to chairs, an ‘air’ double-bass obbligato from the increasingly senseless Blinval during Norina’s aria, ‘Tirsi Lontan da Clori’, and a ‘seduction’ aria — why does Cristina launch an amorous attack on the timid Eustachio in order to get him to serve as her messenger?? — which is relished by two voyeur patients, thrilled by the unexpected titillating interruption to the mundane routines of the madhouse.

10683565_10152757112521365_3009935693719915220_o.jpgScene from I Pazzi per Progetto

And, who knew that rest and recuperation for the mad included not just quiet reading and gentle chair-rocking but also repetiteur-ing? It was an ingenious move to have a pyjama-clad pianist among the patients, providing on-stage accompaniment to the recitatives. And, pianist Ben-San Lau’s keyboard histrionics and dissonant disgruntlement when the singers refused to sing in the appropriate style were an oblique reminder that rather than the opera is unusual for a farce in having recitatives rather than spoken dialogue.

Scored for the unusual combination of soprano, mezzo-soprano and five basses, the dominant contribution is that of Norina, and Laura Ruhl-Vidal proved well-equipped to meet the not inconsiderable technical demands of the role. Norina has two big arias, both requiring considerable stamina, and Ruhl-Vidal’s efforts revealed a sure technique and personable stage presence. Her elaborations remained crisp and clear throughout the aria de sortie and rondo-finale; and, she has a fresh, appealing sound, although she was occasionally under the note.

As Blinval, Szymon Wach began with a full tone, well-shaped phrasing and characterful charm. His first duet with Norina was engaging but towards the close he rather ran out of steam vocally, though the comic japes were deftly executed.Rick Zwart demonstrated similar comic nous as the hapless Eustachio, and he was the most proficient in the cast in dealing with tripping Italian. As the blue-stocking, Cristina, Ailsa Mainwaring revealed a voice of lovely colour and richness, especially in the lower register. David Shipley (Darlemont), David Ireland (the orderly, Frank), and Milan Siljanov (Venanzio) were similarly accomplished and well characterised.

The episodes of the introduzione which follows the brief instrumental prelude are brisk and conductor Dominic Wheeler got things going at a slick pace, building effectively to the first ensemble, a lively quintet. But thereafter the momentum sometimes flagged — there is rather a lot of secco recitative which however enthusiastically delivered did drag things back. While generally secure, the orchestral playing lacked a certain breeziness and spontaneity; and, there were some unfortunate intonation problems in the horns which at one point might have unsettled a singer less self-composed than Ruhl-Vidal. Together, though, the theatrical and music parts added up to an enjoyable and stylish whole.

1912336_10152757116681365_7384498429162280750_o.jpgScene from The Dancing Master

Though composed in 1951, Sir Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master had to wait until the 2012 ‘Malcolm Arnold Festival’ for its first performance — at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton (the composer’s birthplace) by the Ealing Symphony Orchestra under John Gibbons (when it was paired with Strauss’s Die Fledermaus). This GSMD production was billed as the first fully staged performance.

Malcolm Arnold’s success as a composer for the screen was considerable. He composed almost 70 film scores including music for David Lean’s The Sound Barrier, Hobson’s Choice among them, and he won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet, despite his popular appeal Arnold, the critics did not — and perhaps still don’t — know quite how to respond to Arnold’s work, which so blatantly rejected the musical experimentations of the 1950s and 60s. And, the feeling has lingered among some that the composer’s music is not worthy of serious listening and acknowledgement. So, this was a welcome opportunity to hear a score which, as one might expect of a gifted film composer, is rich of melody and full of wit and impulsiveness. Wheeler drew very fine performances from stage and pit.

Based on William Wycherley’s 1671 Restoration comedy, The Gentleman Dancing Master, the opera had in fact begun its life as a screenplay. Arnold’s friend, the writer Joe Mendoza, had originally written a film for the actress Margaret Lockwood, but Arnold saw its operatic potential and worked with Mendoza to fabric a libretto from the screenplay. A satire of contemporary manners, the national stereotyping in the text may jar with more modern sensibilities but things dance along frivolously enough.

Miranda, closely watched by her puritanical aunt, Mrs Caution, has been forced into a lamentable betrothal with her cousin — a Francophile dandy who prefers to go by the name ‘Monsieur’. Her preferred suitor is Gerard who, having scaled a ladder to climb into Miranda’s room, is discovered by the young girl’s over-excited father, ‘Don’ Diego, who has just returned from his adored Spain. Gerard professes to be a dancing master whose services are required to bring Miranda’s dancing skills up to Monsieur’s exacting standards. Diego is duped but Mrs Caution demands to see evidence of Gerard’s fancy footwork. There are plans for elopement, machinations by Monsieur and Mrs Caution to prevent the beloveds’ escape, and frequent amorous ‘offensives’ — most startling by Prue, Miranda’s maid, who tries to seduce the reluctant Monsieur! Tempers rise, deceits deepen, and a secret marriage ensues; but, confessing all, Miranda and Gerard beg her father’s forgiveness and seeing the sincerity of their love, he blesses their marriage. After all, as a ‘Spaniard’ he knew the truth all along.

11021446_10152757116566365_2138071548717334601_o.jpgScene from The Dancing Master

Sets and costumes in both productions were terrific. Just as the padded walls which restrained those incarcerated in the asylum were replaced now by a glittering array of assorted window frames — through which the ‘imprisoned’ Miranda attempts escape and Gerard makes his gallant entrance — so the white lab coats and strait-jackets of the Institute were now replaced by more flamboyant attire. Miranda’s dresses hung from a rail, forming a colour chart of luxury from salmon pink to ebony black. The Hispanophile Diego donned a dashing matador’s regalia while ‘Monsieur’s’ cuffs and curls became ever more extravagant. Richard Howell’s lighting — unusual juxtapositions of complementary tones — considerably enhanced the drama, the movements of colour, sometimes sudden, elsewhere gradual, serving to underscore the alternation of comedy and tender pathos.

Ranging through a medley of styles — Arnold equals Britten as a master of musical pastiche— the woodwind-dominated score was a showcase for some wonderful playing from the young musicians of the Guildhall School of Music, and there were particularly impressive contributions from bassoon, clarinet and horn — perhaps the whooping horn brays were the double entendres that the BBC found too ‘bawdy’ when they rejected the score in 1952? Wheeler crafted a sufficiently transparent texture to allow the voices to come through readily. Though full of good tunes, this is certainly not an ‘easy’ sing, and the precision and focus of their entire cast was admirable, especially in the sextet towards the close.

Alison Rose was excellent as the ill-used heroine Miranda, revealing a flexible, appealing voice which was capable of comic sparkle as well as sorrow and sensitivity. Robin Bailey flounced with Gallic immoderation as the foppish Monsieur, while David Shipley was once again an imposing ‘patriarch’ —and executed a persuasive fandango. Lawrence Thackeray revealed a gleaming, smooth tenor as Gerard, but could do with tempering his full voice with more varied dynamics. Ailsa Mainwaring demonstrated a lovely bloom to her mezzo as the puritanical Mrs Caution and Emma Kerr was convincing as the conniving, cunning Prue.

There were some shared motifs which united the evening’s two-some: on-stage musical charades, characters with a penchant for ‘eloquent’ French interpolations. With all the conflict resolved, and the chaos — at least for the time being — unravelled, the window-walls of Miranda’s bed chamber were raised and the twirling newlyweds were joined by Donizetti’s cast of crazies for a final champagne-fuelled caper. This may have been a light-hearted evening but it was a serious musical undertaking — and delightfully sung and played.

Claire Seymour

Casts and production information:

Donizetti: Il pazzi per progetto

Darlemont, David Shipley; Norina, Laura Ruhl-Vidal; Blinval, Szymon Wach; Cristina, Ailsa Mainwaring; Venanzio, Milan Siljanov; Eustachio, Rick Zwart; Frank, David Ireland.

Arnold: The Dancing Master

Miranda, Alison Rose; Prue, Emma Kerr; Mrs Caution, Ailsa Mainwaring; Monsieur, Robin Bailey; Gerard, Lawrence Thackeray; Diego, David Shipley.

Conductor, Dominic Wheeler; Director, Martin Lloyd-Evans; Designer, Yannis Thavoris; Lighting designer, Richard Howell; Choreographer, Mandy Demetriou. Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Silk Street Theatre, London, Wednesday 4th March 2015.

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