A staging of a pair of rare one-act operas, and by Martinů to boot? It could only be the Guildhall School of Music and Drama living up to its reputation for dusting off fantastic little gems. This double bill of Ariane and Alexandre bis is steeped in the surrealism and absurdism of 20th-century Paris; both were premiered posthumously and neither has ever managed to gain any foothold in the popular repertoire. The conditions of a conservatoire are the only feasible place where these sort of works can be revived; the intimacy of a smaller theatre, young singer-actors who are willing to ham it up a little, and a non-cost based ethos are ideal for the genre’s unique demands.

Nicola Said (Ariane) in <i>Ariane</i> © Clive Barda
Nicola Said (Ariane) in Ariane
© Clive Barda

Ariane is Martinů’s take on the Theseus and Ariadne myth. At the point of composition in 1958, Martinů was working on his last great work, The Greek Passion – he wrote Ariane in a mere month or so as a distraction, but it didn’t premiere until 1961. Deeply enthused by Maria Callas while composing the work, with (unrealistic) hopes that she might take on the title role, the writing for Ariane is clearly influenced by her voice and musical interests. Director Rodula Gaitanou updated the piece to the Salle Wagram Ballroom in 1960s Paris, and staged it as a recording, with microphones, sound adjustments, the hustle and bustle of the studio. As a kind of metaoperatic concept, it worked well; there was plenty of dynamism from all members of the cast, in its recreation of a Callas era studio it captured Martinů’s desire for her interest in the work whilst circumventing certain surrealist staging challenges about identity. As a period piece, Gaitanou’s eye for detail was superb, ably capturing the fashions and decor of the time. Martinů’s little twist to the myth is that the Minotaur is physically identical to Theseus, a happy love-struck version of himself who challenges the other Theseus to kill him. Having done this, Theseus returns to Athens, leaving Ariane to lament on love and passion.

Theseus was sung by baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé, who ‘in recording’ gave a noble account of the role, generally restrained in demeanour except in occasional moments of extreme passion. His voice has a roundness and muscularity that makes it a powerful instrument – he rose easily above the orchestra, but I was impressed by the sensitive text-based approach that he adopted in his singing. Nicola Said’s Ariane was technically capable; the role demands great flexibility and ease at the top of the voice which Said generally met with aplomb, but her voice was often at best underprojected, and at worst, simply too small. To capitalise on what could be a good coloratura instrument, this needs attention. Her lament was sung movingly and there were some really striking diminuendi that were used to great dramatic effect.

Bass-baritone Milan Siljanov doubled as the Minotaur and the old drummer, consistently impressing particularly in the lower register and like Olivé, showing a supportive muscularity that lent real force to his voice. In the smaller parts, Dominick Felix and John Findon sang with enthusiasm. The orchestra under Timothy Redmond were well-paced and the woodwind in particular should be singled out for the quality and colour of their playing.

John Findon (Oskar) and Elizabeth Karani (Armande) in <i>Alexandre bis</i> © Clive Barda
John Findon (Oskar) and Elizabeth Karani (Armande) in Alexandre bis
© Clive Barda

Alexandre bis, composed in 1937, but again not premiered until 1964, was an ideal palate cleanser. Resembling in many ways an absurdist Così fan tutte, it has one couple, Alexandre and Armande, a talking painting of Alexandre and has a splendidly unfaithful ending. Gaitanou again succeeded with an eye-catching roof-garden setting with a vibrant blue background, and well-honed choreography; the dance of the tutu-wearing devils in Armande’s dream sequence was executed with military precision.

Of a splendid cast, the stand-out was Bianca Andrew’s Philoméne, the family maid, who acted with utter charm and vivacity and showed a clean, evenly-hued mezzo with obvious versatility. Her diction was clear and her projection was spot on. Olivé was on stage again as Alexandre with the same sturdy qualities as before, but indulging in hammy acting worthy of Rossini’s operas, as did Siljanov playing the Portrait. Elizabeth Karani as Armande sang with a light, but crisp soprano. Tenor John Findon’s Oscar was slightly rough around the edges and needed to blend text with voice a little more deftly at times, but had an endearing stage presence. There was plenty of vivacity from the pit, the strings bringing rich comic menace to an argument over a butcher’s bill, and on the piano Iwan Davies giving the work real impetus.

Milan Siljanov (Le Portrait), Elizabeth Karani, Bianca Andrew (Philomène) Josep-Ramon Olivé (Thésée) © Clive Barda
Milan Siljanov (Le Portrait), Elizabeth Karani, Bianca Andrew (Philomène) Josep-Ramon Olivé (Thésée)
© Clive Barda

In both works, it was heartening to experience not just excellent singing, but immersive acting that brought out the best in these two obscurities. The remaining performances are must-sees.

****1