In a time of such worry for the performing arts, attending one of the termly opera productions at London’s conservatoires is a bittersweet experience. The pleasure in hearing so many talented young musicians gives great reassurance that there are dozens of excellent performers to see in years to come, but one is increasingly aware that with cuts to classical music and opera the opportunities for these young musicians to develop are becoming scarcer. Opera productions at the conservatoires tend to lean either towards the most staple works or the eclectic. The Royal College of Music has very much hit upon the latter in its staging of Respighi’s La bella dormente nel boscoin a double bill with Ravel’s better known L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

La bella dormente nel bosco
© Chris Christodoulou

As is becoming customary in double or triple bill productions, director Liam Steel links the two pieces by a common thread, a neglected young boy – the Child from the Ravel – with a distant mother and a father keen on education by the belt. It makes for a powerful piece of theatre. It’s rare to hear Respighi’s operas outside of Italy (Cagliari has particular form for promoting the composer’s works) and the RCM makes a convincing case for this most whimsical of pieces. Deriving from a request to the composer by noted puppeteer Vittorio Podrecca for a work for marionettes, the opera premiered in its first version in 1922. It’s a beguiling score, displaying Respighi’s advanced facility for orchestration and his flair for the dramatic, melded into ravishing vocal writing which includes particularly lovely coloratura.

Lylis O'Hara (Princess) and Zixin Tang (The Old Woman)
© Chris Christodoulou

The puppet element is comfortably worked into Steel’s theme by way of our lonely Child, a copy of Charles Perrault’s tale next to him, playing with two puppets at the opera’s opening; what follows is the largely joyous product of youthful imagination. Michael Pavelka’s set and costumes are a beautiful reflection of the fairy tale world, getting to the heart of the puppet origins of the piece in a Bunraku-style telling of the story. Our fairies whirl and swirl like plastic bags in the wind, which is essentially what they are – a frame with a few lights, covered in translucent plastic and spun around the stage. The Blue Fairy is distinguished by a little blue wand, while the Green Fairly expands across the stage in vivid malevolent fashion. Spiders via crutches, a dubious cat, a chorus of red-eyed frogs: Steel and Pavelka cover every detail with glee. At some points the production feels like an opera and at others we are taken back to childhood Punch and Judy shows.

L'Enfant et les sortilèges
© Chris Christodoulou

The cast coped well with the unorthodox staging; singing was of a high standard across the board. Particularly impressive was Seonwoo Lee’s Blue Fairy, a demanding coloratura role that Lee tackled with deft precision and considerable success. We have a budding Zerbinetta there. Lylis O’Hara’s sparky Princess, tinged with sadness in her final scene, was well sung, notes secure and articulation clean, though occasionally a little underpowered in the lower register. Her final, Puccinian, duet with Dafydd Jones’ Prince April was a moment of intense musicality, Jones’ ardent tenor – not large, but precise and well-projected – an even match for O’Hara. Among the lesser roles, bass Jamie Woollard stood out for his sensitively sung King. Michael Rosewell led a strong performance from the pit, immersing the audience in the light and shadows of Respighi’s score.

Anastasia Koorn (China Cup) and Sofia Kirwan-Baez (Fire) in L'Enfant et les sortilèges
© Chris Christodoulou

For the Ravel, Steel develops the theme of our frustrated Child; his destructive rampage becomes an expression of trauma rather than the more typical petulance of a spoiled brat. The gentle daydream of the first opera veers into a nightmare as the furniture comes alive and he is dragged through the wardrobe in Narnian fashion into a forest. Echoes of Freud are visible in the blending of mating animals with a blink-of-the-eye sex scene between his parents. The ingenuity of the staging and choreography is matched by the game enthusiasm of the cast, from Anastasia Koorn’s haughty China Cup to Sam Harris’ frankly terrifying Arithmetic (enough to deter even Rishi Sunak from further Maths lessons). The linchpin of this production, though, is the complex performance of Lexie Moon as the Boy, whose expressive and glinting mezzo-soprano reflected the poignancy of her acting. The evening was a salient reminder of the artistic quality that can be found in London’s musical greenhouses.