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Isouard’s <em>Cinderella</em>: Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square
19 Sep 2018

Isouard's Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square

A good fairy-tale sweeps us away on a magic carpet while never letting us forget that for all the enchanting transformations, beneath the sorcery lie essential truths.

Isouard’s Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Kate Howden (Cinderella) and Bradley Smith (Prince Ramir)

Photo credit: Bampton Classical Opera (photographs taken at Bampton Deanery, July 2018)

 

We may relish our submission to fantasy but flippancy and human foolishness are necessary ingredients too, and Bampton Classical Opera, in presenting their twenty-fifth anniversary production - Cinderella, by the Franco-Maltese Nicolò Isouard who died 200 years ago at the age of 41 - have found the perfect recipe for their magic spell.

(Isouard’s three-act opéra-féerie was premiered at the Opéra-Comique on 22 nd February 1810. See my article, Bampton Classical Opera Goes to the Ball , for further information about Isouard and Cinderella.)

Jeremy Gray’s designs aptly juxtapose dull monochromes with dashing technicolour, mirroring the ugliness-beauty dichotomy embodied by the three young women who reside in the house of the ostentatious Baron de Montefiascone - here attired in shiny silver pyjamas (costumes by Jess Iliff) and played with haughty self-importance by bass Alistair Ollerenshaw. The sampler above the fire-place proclaims ‘Home Sweet Home’, but while the 1970s woolly wall-paper may be soft as silk, the mood in the kitchen is spiky and spiteful. As Cinderella (Kate Howden) labours with brushes and brooms, the Baron’s step-daughters, Clorinde (Aoife O’Sullivan) and Tisbe (Jenny Stafford), sabotage the sagging washing-line, only pausing from their malicious mischief-making to rejoice when the morning-post brings their invitations to Prince’s Ramir’s gala ball.

BCOset.jpgAlistair Ollerenshaw (Baron de Montefiascone) and Aoife O’Sullivan (Clorinde).

Despite Cinders’ despondency, Gray uses light and visual motifs to hint that Fate may be kinder than family and elevate the down-trodden lass to higher realms. In the corner of the yard stands a cubist tree offering golden apples, and as Cinders gently plucks the fruit, the branches are bathed in a pink glow which seems to suggest that the future will prove rosy. Indeed, in Act 2 the apples are transformed into magical lanterns which gleam warmly.

But, all good fairy-tales need a fairy-godmother - or, in this case, godfather, in the form of Prince Ramir’s tutor, Alidor (Nicholas Merryweather). Alidor stumbles on to the set cloaked in grubby grey rags and pushing a supermarket trolley filled with an eclectic assortment of oddments - a gramophone, bird-cage, flower-pots, a straw hat - but despite his beggar-disguise, there is no hiding Alidor’s wealth of wisdom and kindness. His royal tutee (Bradley Smith) may be an ingenue as far as romance and courtship are concerned, but just one glance at Cinders sees Prince Ramir smitten, and he can rely on Alidor to concoct a plan to win his bride.

Ramir and tree.pngBradley Smith (Prince Ramir).

Gray waves a magic wand - with a little help from a twirling ‘Mary Poppins’ whose umbrella dispenses fairy dust - to transport us to the ball, the grey fronds adorning the Baron’s walls blossoming into a forest of pink roses. Clorinde and Tisbe swap their fluffy slippers for some slinky frocks and set off in hot pursuit of their ‘Prince’, lured by the lurid gold medallion of office sported by one Dandini on his puffed-up chest, leaving Ramir free to woo Cinderella over a game of chess.

Trolley and Alidor.pngNicholas Merryweather (Alidor).

Isouard really does suggest that the devil has all the best tunes. Simple airs and romances suffice for Cinderella and her Prince, but the two sisters are blessed with characterful duets and a sparkling solo each, proving that virtue and virtuosity are certainly not bedfellows. Aoife O’Sullivan and Jenny Stafford made a wonderfully wicked pair, relishing the capricious coloratura and blending in curlicues of thirds and sixths the melodiousness of which belied the sisters’ malice. O’Sullivan demonstrated a thrilling sparkle and superb precision in Clorinde’s Act 2 show-piece which, designed to catch the Prince’s ear and eye, inspired the ball-goers to fling themselves into a bolero worthy of Torvill and Dean. Tisbe’s rueful lament in Act 3 was no less impressive and, miraculously, even managed to suggest that this harpy had a heart after all.

Nicholas Merryweather always commands a stage; thus, although we are more used to seeing and hearing the baritone in comic guise, he was a masterful mentor, using his strong baritone to convey the maturity and insight that his naïve charges lack. Merryweather also ensured that we heard every word, whether spoken or sung - even when he seemed to be singing with his mouth stuffed full with bananas. Kate Howden’s diction was less clear, but she captured Cinderella’s sweetness and warmth, singing with beautiful tone in her romances with tenor Bradley Smith’s Prince Ramir. I’d like to see both of these singers in roles which offer them greater vocal and dramatic challenges. And, the same goes for tenor Benjamin Durrant, whose Dandini would give Liberace a run for his money, and Ollerenshaw, who had little to sing but who proved a sterling foundation in the ensembles, really making his presence felt vocally. The energy and wit of Lucy Cronin and Susanne Dymott in various choral roles also made a vivid contribution to the whole.

Tisbe, Dandini, Clorinde.jpgTisbe (Jenny Stafford), Dandini (Benjamin Durrant), Clorinde (Aoife O’Sullivan).

Conductor Harry Sever made the most of Isourd’s instrumental colours and the musicians of CHROMA produced a variety of orchestral hues; I particularly enjoyed the nasally windings of the woodwind duets, and there were strong contributions from the horns (Lizzi Tocknell and Richard Bayliss) and harpist Oliver Wass. With the musicians seated behind the set and Sever visible to the cast on two side-screens, it was not surprising that the ensemble occasionally slipped. St John’s Smith Square is not a kind venue for opera, but Gray and his cast did well to overcome the challenges of space and acoustic.

Given the slightness of Isouard’s ‘drama’, we can forgive some occasional hamming in the dialogues and longer ensembles; for there was plenty of sharp wit and neat detail in Gray’s direction and Gilly French’s English translation. Unlike the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, Isouard offers us no dark terrors, political inferences or journeys into the psyche. Simply and sincerely, his music tells a familiar tale, but such is the score’s charm that we’re drawn into a story that we’ve heard so many times before. Goodness triumphs over greed, justice over jealousy. Once again, Bampton Classical Opera have shown us that dreams really can come true.

Claire Seymour

Isouard: Cinderella

Clorinde - Aoife O’Sullivan, Tisbe - Jenny Stafford, Cinderella - Kate Howden, Prince - Bradley Smith, Dandini - Benjamin Durrant, Alidor - Nicholas Merryweather, Baron - Alistair Ollerenshaw, Chorus -Lucy Cronin, Susanne Dymott; Director/Designer - Jeremy Gray, Conductor - Harry Sever, Associate director/Choreographer - Alicia Frost, Costumes - Jess Illif, CHROMA.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Tuesday 18th September 2018.

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