To those scrutinising value for money in the arts, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama will have delivered paroxysms of ecstasy and delight with its Autumn opera production, featuring not one, not two, but three operas in one evening. The double or triple bill has been a feature of Guildhall productions for many years, allowing a greater number of students to perform while exposing them to different styles, languages and genres. Though regular visitors to the Guildhall may have seen Le Portrait de Manon – the first of the trio – performed at the Silk Street Theatre before, it is unlikely that many will have seen Dame Ethel Smyth’s Fête Galante or Nino Rota’s I due timidi.

Joseph Chalmers in I due timidi
© David Monteith-Hodge

Director Rodula Gaitanou’s concept is to link all three works into a coherent narrative thread based around the La Scala Picturehouse in the 1920s, creating a world of individual rivalries, friendships and relationships in which the individual plots of the operas play out virtually seamlessly. Des Grieux, therefore, lurks mournfully in the dark of the projection room, gazing at the “portrait” of Manon, here a collection of photos projected onto the wall (derived from the 1926 German film), before later stepping out to oversee the entertainment, the performers of the Fête Galante, provided for the cinema’s new owner, Signora Guidotti. Thereafter, we are moved to the box office where two booths face each other, each occupant in love with the other. On the whole it works remarkably well, the pieces segueing into each other naturally, and Gaitanou is to be congratulated for such organic and lively direction, helped by a cast of students who throw themselves into the action with unrelenting enthusiasm. 

Patrick Dow (Des Grieux) in Le Portrait de Manon
© David Monteith-Hodge

Le Portrait de Manon is a quietly lovely piece, a whimsical sequel which sees Des Grieux in a parental capacity overseeing the education of his young nephew Jean while still gripped by grief over Manon. Determined, despite the objections of his friend Tiberge, to block Jean’s relationship with the penniless Aurora, he eventually yields after seeing her in a dress belonging to Manon and discovering that she is in fact her niece. For me, the highlight of Le Portrait was Patrick Dow’s Des Grieux. His assumption of the role was entirely compelling, from the slight stoop and almost forced movements conveying someone still in the throes of an aching grief to the careful modulation of his velvety baritone. Mezzo Nancy Holt also stood out as Jean, showing a pale instrument with appealing pianissimi and fragrant diction. With boyish charm and verve, one could see a Cherubino in the making. Jack Dolan sang a bombastic Tiberge and Inguna Morozova’s supple soprano was well used in what little music is given to Aurora. 

Jonathan Eyers (Pierrot) in Fête Galante
© David Monteith-Hodge

Of the three pieces, I found the Smyth to be the weakest, though it allowed for a range of action and diversity of style among the performers on stage, with the men of the chorus in particular taking obvious delight in its comic and slapstick elements. The plot is somewhat complicated, but is a combination of commedia dell'arte and fairytale, a mash of jealousy and existential angst. There are some interesting musical ideas – the score is deftly written – but even with the energy of the Guildhall performers it felt overlong and marginally forced. Baritone Jonathan Eyers’ melancholy Pierrot drove the action and had a tendency to draw the eye, giving a very physical performance which echoed his elegant and expressive singing. Louisa Stirland was a sympathetic Colombine, showing off a soprano voice with a gleam at the top and a delightful trill. 

Mark Bautista (Raimondo) and Faryl Smith (Mariuccia) in I due timidi
© David Monteith-Hodge

I due timidi, was a real discovery. Rota’s score is bold, characteristic of the cinematic writing for which he is better known than for his operas, but the perceptive drawing of his characters – sketched out and clear to the audience within moments – was brought to life by the singers in this performance. First among equals here was the Mariuccia of Faryl Smith, who brought listless yearning to the character. Smith’s soprano is a plush instrument, with bags of colour and integrated register: very easy on the ear. Her Raimondo was sung by Mark Bautista (a commendable Harlequin in the previous work) with Italianate warmth and a ping at the top of the voice. Careful phrasing and an earnest manner gave real pathos to his interactions with Smith. I enjoyed the rather hyperbolic Dr Sinisgalli of Jack Dolan (a natural comedian) while Alexandra Achillea Pouta’s forceful soprano was a good fit for the commanding Signora Guidotti. The trio of Nancy Holt, Inguna Morozova and Louisa Stirland were arguably the highlight as the bickering, bitchy triumvirate, taunting and teasing the rest of the staff.

The orchestra's performance under Dominic Wheeler was impeccable; particularly strong in the Rota, they were in complete harmony with the singers. This was a slightly long evening, coming to well over three hours, but most rewarding.

****1