The two works in Guildhall School’s Baroque opera double bill, Thomas Arne’s light-hearted English ballad opera The Cooper (1772) and Stradella’s dramatic Italian oratorio San Giovanni Battista (1675) had little in common except for the fact that both are rarely performed, yet somehow made surprisingly good bedfellows. It was certainly refreshing to see the young musicians exploring Baroque repertoire other than Monteverdi or Handel which we are now reasonably familiar with. In music the Baroque period is very long – in fact I would argue that stylistically Arne’s The Cooper is bordering on early Classical – and this double-bill gave us an opportunity to widen our view of operas of this long Baroque period.

The Cooper © Clive Barda
The Cooper
© Clive Barda
Of the two works, Arne’s is musically rather simple and slight, with spoken dialogue linking the catchy, strophic ballad-type songs. The plot is a familiar one: the elderly Cooper Martin wants to marry his young and pretty ward Fanny (think Barber of Seville etc.), but she is in love with the apprentice Colin. With the help of his uncle Jarvis to whom Martin owes money, Colin finally gains the hand of Fanny. Arne adapted the text from a contemporary French libretto, and one could detect musical influences from (and even some actual references to) French comic operas by composers of the time such as Philidor and Grétry.

Director Rodula Gaitanou staged the work in a straightforwardly period-style, adding a genuine touch by using as the backdrop a reproduction of an eighteenth-century cloth depicting a cooper’s workshop. The cast on the opening night performed this frothy work with charm and good comic acting prompting hearty laughs from the audience. Anna Gillingham played quick-witted Fanny with great relish and her singing was natural with the appropriate lightness for the music. Piran Legg sang the role of the Cooper with joviality, although this at times verged on silliness, of which maybe the prosthetic nose was, in part, to blame. Tenor Gerard Schneider has a warm and noble voice which blended well in the duets and ensembles and he was certainly more at ease is this work than in the Stradella.

Musically speaking, Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista is a more daring and substantial work than Arne’s comedy. Based on the story of Salome, as an oratorio it was not traditionally staged. Here, however, Gaitarou’s staged it in modern dress and set in a vault-like space. The opera opens with John the Baptist bidding farewell to his disciples and setting off to Herod’s palace to try to convince him to renounce the life of worldly pleasures with Herodias. The rest is the familiar story: John in imprisoned and Salome demands his head and dances for Herod.

San Giovanni Battista © Clive Barda
San Giovanni Battista
© Clive Barda

There were some potentially good ideas in the production but they didn’t quite add up. Salome’s black swan tutu was a clever idea, symbolising her evilness, yet I felt that this was not really fully explored and she seemed mostly girlish rather than anything more darkly sensual. Having John the Baptist stand in a shallow pit enduring the debauchery throughout Part 2 until his aria and duet didn’t add to the drama either. The subsequent beheading was done underground and the bloody corpse came up in a transparent plastic bag, followed by the severed head, with which Salome, now in her underwear, sang her ecstatic aria. This is followed by Herod’s aria of remorse and the work ends with a duet between Salome and Herod which ends strikingly with an unresolved chord.

My problem with this production, however, was not so much the staging but the musical interpretation. A seventeenth-century work like Stradella’s, as with Monteverdi, requires a little more stylistic awareness, especially in phrasing and articulation. Having said that, from a vocal point of view, they were impressive, especially Joseph Padfield’s rich and resonant bass-baritone which portrayed Herod with vigour. Lauren Zolezzi as Salome sounded a little hesitant to start with but her virtuosic aria with the severed head was convincingly sung. Stradella scored the part of John the Baptist for a contralto or countertenor and here it was sung by Chinese countertenor Meili Li. He sang the part with earnestness, although his voice may still suffer slightly from inexperience. The orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Julian Perkins, played with enthusiasm, and though there were signs of opening night nerves, I am sure these will disappear in subsequent performances and bring Stradella’s distinct and vivid score to life.

***11