When one sets off to the opera to attend what is usually called a ‘double bill’, one will, most of the time, expect to see two operas clearly contrasting in character. More unusual is to find two extremely different works, hardly sharing anything between themselves, presented in a reading that digs deep for any possible echoes. This Bizet double bill, presented by students of the Royal College of Music, is undoubtedly in the last category: a rather peculiar dittico.

Anastasia Prokofieva, Filipa van Eck & Pnini Grubner in Le Docteur Miracle, © Chris Christodoulou
Anastasia Prokofieva, Filipa van Eck & Pnini Grubner in Le Docteur Miracle,
© Chris Christodoulou

Djamileh, an opéra-comique on a libretto by Louis Gallet after Alfred de Musset’s oriental tale Namouna, is often classed as one of Bizet’s most original scores. Premièred in Paris in 1872, it dates from the composer’s maturity (Carmen would follow only three years later). The exotic setting – the opulent palace of a sultan in Cairo – is lovingly developed through orchestral and harmonic means, and constitutes the most intriguing element of Bizet’s work: the première came only five months after Verdi’s equally Egyptian, but overtly monumental, Aida.

Le Docteur Miracle, a much earlier work, is an operetta that won a very young Bizet first prize at a comic-opera competition advertised by Offenbach in 1856. When we listen to it with the wandering melodies and slippery harmonies of Djamileh still in mind, Bizet’s juvenilia, with its Rossinian sonorities and rhythmic clarity, inevitably makes us take a large leap backwards in nineteenth-century music history.

In Alessandro Talevi’s production, the curtain opens on a gloomy, smoky room (a distinctly unglamorous regal palace) in which sultan Haroun entertains himself with his slave girls. The dense vapours and dim lights, which enshroud Djamileh almost throughout, convey very well the sense of a dream in which all characters are living. Slave-girl Djamileh refuses to see that Haroun, with whom she is deeply in love, does not care for her; Haroun, for his part, eventually realises that, at base, he too is emotionally involved with the girl; to complicate matters further, his servant, Splendiano, lives with the illusion that Djamileh will soon be his. One of the most gripping moments comes when Splendiano confronts the heroine with the cruel truth: the lights suddenly get brighter, and, in one of the few moments of spoken dialogue, Djamileh accepts the sad reality (and decides a plan, which involves disguising herself as a sensual dancer and so making the sultan fall in love with her). One only wishes the production had played more with this idea of dream versus reality, and that – as a result – the lighting changes had been more numerous.

In spite of the minimal changes to the set (one of the several elements meant to establish some kind of continuity between the two operas), Le Docteur Miracle takes us into a completely different musical (and dramatic) world. This is pure comedy, with the libretto translated into English. A shame that, since no surtitles were provided, quite a few words went missing. Talevi’s Docteur was an explosion of colour and energy. Captain Silvio makes repeated attempts, once again by means of disguise, at gaining permission from his beloved Laurette’s father (Podestat) to propose, taking us through a number of witty numbers, the most original being an ‘omelette quartet’.

Both casts on 30 November provided engaging performances. Katherine Crompton was a very sensitive Djamileh. Edward Grint (Splendiano) has a powerful voice, which projected very well. Lei Xu (Haroun) is a tenor capable of touching lyricism. To all three of them experience will certainly bring further confidence as stage presences, allowing them to gain greater freedom in their movements. Excellent performances also characterised Le Docteur Miracle. Oliver Clarke was just right as Silvio/Pasquin. Pnini Grubner (Podestat) and Anastasia Prokofieva (Véronique) excelled as Laurette’s comic parents. But above all, Filipa van Eck was a fantastically skilful Laurette, with a voice that could be both powerful and capable of amazing pianissimo. One could not ask for a more tight-knit cast.

The Double Bill is definitely a striking dittico, with two operas very distinct in conception and style brought closer by a number of clear directorial choices. As long as we do not push such experiments too far (arguing for implausible links between distant works), such attempts can do anything but harm to the rediscovery of oft-forgotten musical treasures.