That the RNCM should choose to stage what is perhaps one of the world's most famous operas whilst both their concert hall and opera theatre are out of action is surely a sign of their dedication to performance, imaginative design, and ability to overcome the odds whilst providing first rate opportunities for developing young artists. Today, squeezed into their tiny Studio Theatre, they managed to comfortably fit in a chamber orchestra, staging and audience for the first public performance in a short run of an extremely entertaining Gluck double bill.

Richard Moore and Seumas Begg © Royal Northern College of Music
Richard Moore and Seumas Begg
© Royal Northern College of Music

Opening with Gluck’s unfamiliar and brief two act comedy, L’ivrogne corrigé, in a new English translation by Roger Hamilton as The Drunkard Cured, the RNCM presented an enchanting performance abundant with wit, humour, fine singing and excellent orchestral playing. Written in 1760, this comic entertainment curiously reminded me of a cross between Thomas Arne’s masterful afterpiece of the same year, Thomas and Sally, with its small, rustic ensemble and colloquial characters, and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona.

The stage, which consisted simply of a white, sloping platform, initially gave us something of the distorted perspective experienced when intoxicated, and was used to amusing effect by the two drunks, Lucas and Mathurin. Seumas Begg (Mathurin) was easily the strongest performer here with a clear voice, strong and pure, but resonant in tone and excellent in diction. Richard Moore, the unrepentant drunkard Lucas, also sang well, but diction in the lower registers was sometimes lost. The youngest soloist, third year tenor Adam Temple-Smith (Cléon & Pluto), acted and sang well, though the opportunity for both humour and subtlety in his part was slightly undermined by a consistently direct and declamatory delivery that was perhaps overcompensating for the dryness of the space. Nonetheless, all three gentlemen are excellent singers and performers.

Of the two ladies, Lauren Lea Fisher (Mathurine) and Catrin Woodruff (Colette), both acted excellently, finding the humour, sensitivity and melodrama in their characters to great effect, especially Fisher. The singing here, however, was variable. Fisher, though generally good, was perhaps nervous and her intonation and vocal support suffered slightly, while Woodruff indulged an occasionally intrusive vibrato. I am, however, of the school of critics that prefers a very delicately applied vibrato, especially in early music. Regrettably, in their duet I could not catch a single word, and would have enjoyed a great focus on diction, especially in such an acoustically unforgiving arena.

Of special note in this performance was the orchestral playing – tight, punchy and always well controlled. Director Roger Hamilton crafted an excellent reading of the score and, coupled with his brilliant translation of the libretto, I am strongly considering attending the performance for a second time.

Heather Lowe (Orfeo) © RNCM
Heather Lowe (Orfeo)
© RNCM

Following the interval, the orchestra for Orfeo ed Euridice (consisting mostly of the same players) experienced greater problems with tuning and the collective sound was occasionally a little grim, though vocal performance made up for this in spades. Heather Lowe (Orfeo), Joanna Norman (Euridice) and Catriona Hewitson (Amore) all sang beautifully and each gave an enchanting performance. Personally, I prefer the 1774 Paris version of the opera with Orpheus performed by a tenor (an alto did not sing the role until 1859 under Berlioz’s direction) but Lowe gave an emotionally stirring performance, though I wish she had carried some physical representation of Orfeo’s chief symbol: what is Orfeo but an ordinary man without his harp? Its absence seems slightly nonsensical considering it is with this that he charms all who oppose him. Joanna Norman stood out as having an exceptionally clear, rich voice and complimented Lowe well. The star was Hewitson’s portrayal of Amore, with refined singing, secure and direct, yet subtle and totally entrancing.

The inclusion of ballet music in Orfeo did occasionally provide undesirable audience amusement in such a limited space; the chorus coped admirably in synchronised movement as best they could, though its execution was not always very graceful – they are protected from criticism here by virtue that they are singers, not dancers, and they sang excellently. Especially impressive was their impact as the wicked furies, producing a forceful, intimidating wall of sound.

What really matters here is the conviction of performance, the effort that flows so naturally from all concerned and, regardless of occasional orchestral discomfort and uncomfortably tight dancing room, it’s the evident collective effort and making the best of what you have available that is admirable.

It is productions like this that enthuse me to support the RNCM, and I am already looking forward to the forthcoming summer run of Sondheim’s masterpiece Company