Every year, the Guildhall, with each new crop of talent, chooses operas to showcase the current selection of voices on its prestigious opera course. Often, this means reviving rather rare works, a happy side-effect for keen opera fans, though sometimes obscurity can spare a composer’s blushes. In this double bill, we get a violently enthusiastic little farce from Donizetti which, though fiery, is definitely not his best work; but next, we are treated to the revival of a brilliant, beautiful one-act opera by Malcolm Arnold, which is so good that you can’t understand why it isn’t performed more often.

Alison Langer (Norina) © Clive Barda
Alison Langer (Norina)
© Clive Barda
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has created two distinct productions, each unique in tone and approach, with instant atmosphere produced by Yannis Thavoris’ playful designs: appropriately, a grimy padded cell for Donizetti, and a gilded cage of windows for The Dancing Master. Costumes are particularly lovely in both productions, as is the elegant lighting by Richard Howell. We also have one tenuous and unusual link between the pieces: in each work, some characters pretentiously break into French for effect, to the utter disgust of their (Italian- or English-speaking) fellows.

I pazzi per progetto translates as “Madmen by Design”: set in a mental hospital (here, L’Institut de Psychiatrie Experimentale), it is a tale of how a broken marriage is mended by an unfaithful husband and abandoned wife each pretending to go mad to prove their love for their (supposedly) unfeeling spouse. Naturally, no story of madness would be complete without an errant trumpeter who has deserted from the army, or a spurned mistress (whose dubious claim to sanity is that she “knows the whole of Molière by heart”!); Donizetti adds them in, to rather laboured comic effect. His structure, muddled enough by his chocolate-box cast, is skewed entirely by several vast double arias for Norina, the estranged wife: technically tough and requiring huge stamina, Alison Langer makes the most of this tricky part, with lots of natural stage presence and skilful acting. Langer sings with clear enjoyment, showing obvious potential. Szymon Wach is delightfully deranged as her erstwhile husband Blinval, a Colonel with a taste for strict discipline, while Martin Hässler shows innate comic talent and superb musical stamina as the disguised AWOL trumpeter Don Eustachio.

Donizetti’s viciously rapid lyrics are sometimes too much for some of this cast, who lose the occasional final syllable, but Hässler’s phrasing never misses a beat, and his clowning is a delight. The smaller parts are admirably executed by David Ireland as the unflappable orderly Frank, and Milan Siljanov as an evocatively nasty guardian, Venanzio. Praise must also go to Valeria Racco, the on-stage pianist disguised as another mental patient throughout, interacting hilariously with the rest of the cast while accompanying them, as Donizetti mixes full orchestra with solo piano. It may not be Donizetti’s best work, but this cast makes their exuberant best of it, and musically there is much to enjoy, even if it’s all rather bonkers.

Martin Hässler (Don Eustachio) and Emma Kerr (Cristina) © Clive Barda
Martin Hässler (Don Eustachio) and Emma Kerr (Cristina)
© Clive Barda

Arnold’s The Dancing Master, however, is in a completely different league. Romantic, surreal and gently risqué, its music is lyrical and seductive at some points, strong and vivid at others. The Guildhall Orchestra creates a fabulous sound, conducted by Dominic Wheeler, with warm harmonies, crisp brass fanfares, and some especially delicate celeste solos from Ben-San Lau (while, on stage, characters mime playing a guitar). The story is part fairytale, part Rossini love triangle, enacted by not so much characters as humourous caricatures. Our heroine Miranda is a modern Rapunzel imprisioned by her puritanical aunt Mrs Caution (brilliantly sung by Ailsa Mainwaring, in a Puritan collar). Miranda is forcibly engaged to her idiot cousin, but is happily rescued by the true love of the brave hero Gerard, who battles with aunt, French fop and ferocious Spanish father to carry off the girl of his dreams.

Alison Rose (Miranda) and Robin Bailey (Monsieur) © Clive Barda
Alison Rose (Miranda) and Robin Bailey (Monsieur)
© Clive Barda
Alison Rose is spectacular as Miranda, her soprano smooth and lovely, her stagecraft excellent. Having already sung Cristina (the Colonel’s mistress in the earlier Donizetti), Emma Kerr shines here as Prue, Miranda’s maid, naughty and clever in equal measure. Robin Bailey almost steals the whole show as the superb Monsieur, the “whimsical gibbering snail-eater” who is distinctly more in love with himself than with Miranda. Monsieur makes believing his own hype an almost religious practice, and Bailey’s “Gaze not on swans” aria is an hysterical masterclass in supreme camp. Lawrence Thackeray does well as our fresh-faced hero, Gerard; a little plagued by a lisp in his early lines, Thackeray soon settles into a clear, confident and committed performance. Also Darlemont, the head psychiatrist in the earlier Donizetti, David Shipley gives even Monsieur a run for his money with his dynamically Spanish Don Diego, resolutely tuned into Antonio Banderas mode and staying there, singing with fluency and verve.  

Bear with the madhouse: a moment of glorious surrealism awaits you. 

***11