As well as the usual cohort of friends and relations of the students, the audience for this autumn’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama double bill was augmented by those whose interest was piqued by the repertoire: two rarely performed French operettas. The first was by an acknowledged master of opera, while the second was by a composer whose operas rarely see the light of day, so it was unsurprising that one work was fascinating and the other decidedly forgettable. The surprise was that it was Georges Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle that was forgettable and Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon that fascinated.

Cleo Lee-McGowan (Cendrillon)
© Helen Murray

Viardot was a celebrated mezzo of her day and wrote many mélodies – art songs intended for a salon environment. The operetta opens with a glorious a cappella number for Marie (Cinderella), with which Cleo Lee-McGowan made an immediate impression. In the middle of the Prince’s ball, the action stops and the ladies are called upon to entertain the guests: Lee-McGowan sang Cinderella’s number with art song perfection, clearly enunciated, beautifully weighted and quite bewitching; she also combined well with Florian Panzieri’s Prince Charming, showing that Viardot wasn’t just a great solo singer but able to produce real magic from ensemble voices.

Viardot wrote her own libretto for Cendrillon and it’s delightful, full of subversive little gags which play games with the story that we know so well. As well as smooth singing, Panzieri showed good comic acting skills (he was born in Paris and the French comic mannerisms come easily to him); there was also good comedy from the pairing of Innocent Masuku as the Prince’s chamberlain Barigoule and Jack Holton as Cinderella’s father, here named “Le Baron de Pictordu”. The scene where the two strike up an improbable friendship while reminiscing about a shared distinctly non-gentrified past is handled delightfully. There’s plenty more vocal interest, particularly for the female voices, with Ellie Neate showing nice timbre and a good sense of line in her arias as the Fairy Godmother and Erin Gwyn Rossington and Laura Fleur tunefully madcap as the ugly sisters, Gwyn Rossington particularly notable in a tricky Act 1 aria “Je serai charmante”.

Innocent Masuku (Le Comte Barigoule) and Erin Gwyn Rossington (Maguelonne)
© Helen Murray

Cendrillon was written for piano and voices, so it was performed here in an orchestration by Guildhall doctoral student Amy Crankshaw which was very much in the genre of French operetta of the period and was played with enthusiasm by GSMD's orchestra.

Viardot was 83 when she wrote the piece and it bears all the signs of an experienced composer very much in control of every effect she wanted to achieve. You can’t say the same about Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle, written for a competition when he was just 18. There was better to come from Bizet, it’s not that it’s a bad operetta, just that it’s somewhat undistinguished, rather short of interesting material for its 55 minutes; the moments of comedy are set up clumsily and you see them coming miles in advance.

Jack Holton, Innocent Masuku, Ellie Neate and Amy Holyland in Le Docteur Miracle
© Helen Murray

Le Docteur Miracle uses four singers: soprano Laurette is enamoured of tenor Silvio (who also appears in various disguises); her bumbling baritone father is tolerated by the more sensible mezzo mother. In this production, all four also perform in Cendrillon, three of them in last night’s cast and mezzo Amy Holyland in the other cast. Holyland was the pick of the four, handling the language well and able to step on the accelerator to add emphasis to a phrase without damaging the quality of sound production. Both as Laurette (and as Cendrillon's Fairy Godmother), Ellie Neate needs attention both to her French accent and to making consonants audible. If we set aside the intelligibility issues, her voice is very promising indeed. Innocent Masuku, in contrast, was clear and intelligible as well as showing good comic touch and a lovely tenor timbre; he will need more power if he is to progress to larger stages. Baritone Jack Holton is closer to the finished article, producing plenty of power as well as doing a good job of the classic character of the old duffer father who is all too easily tricked (there are shades of Don Pasquale here).

But it’s the ensemble singing that filled this evening with promise. In both operettas, whenever four or more of these young singers (and, in Cendrillon, the chorus) were tackling complex, multi-part passages, the results were impressive: extremely tight and creating plenty of drive and excitement. And hats off to the Guildhall for programming Pauline Viardot. Listening to Cendrillon really opened my eyes to a wonderful vocal composer, of whom I want to hear a lot more.