The Royal College of Music’s double bill on Wednesday evening was a surprising double win: with two short farces given by keen students, how could they bring this off without disintegrating into the abyss of hammy affectation? The answer was by playing both pieces completely straight – a successful way to ensure a funny evening. So, hats off to the director Stephen Unwin and his designer Neil Warmington, who were both looking down the barrel at opera at its dottiest.

Harriet Eyley (Therese) © Chris Christodoulou
Harriet Eyley (Therese)
© Chris Christodoulou

They began with Chabrier’s Une éducation manquée (“A lack of education”). In the narrative, Helene and Gontran have just got married and it’s their wedding night, but neither of them knows what this actually entails. Helene seeks advice from her aunt, but’s she’s an old maid so can’t help. Meanwhile Gontran’s tutor, Pausanias, throws his hand in the air, saying he’s covered every subject. Gontran whispers in his ear about the facts of life, at which Pausanias says he’s been “too busy”. The newlyweds eye each other awkwardly and eventually Helene goes to bed. Luckily, however, there’s a storm and a terrified Helene returns and jumps into Gontran’s arms. He is delighted by her and suddenly everything is clear. Both Gontran – played by soprano Julieth Lozano – and Helene, sung by Rosanna Cooper, got off to nervy starts which befit the plot. But when Lozano relaxed, her talent shone through. She has a smoky lower register, a pinging top which she projects (think Ileana Cotrubaș) and could one day be a superb Violetta. Cooper, who towers over her little husband Lozano and cuts a delightful, English rose-like figure, blossomed after the first number, but she should be wary of swallowing her notes. Her Englishness made more sense due to the spoken English in the piece (the singing, meanwhile, was in French). Set in an elegant design of two adjacent doors separated by a window seat for two, the staging seemed simple which is probably why it worked so effectively. Kieran Rayner was vocally and dramatically secure as Pausanias. 

Julieth Lozano (Gontran) and Kieran Rayner (Pausanias) © Chris Christodoulou
Julieth Lozano (Gontran) and Kieran Rayner (Pausanias)
© Chris Christodoulou

Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias (“The Breasts of Tirésias”) is a uniquely eccentric operatic story with the motto: “You must make babies now as you never have before”. Set in the imaginary town of Zanzibar in the South of France, it tells the tale of Thérèse, a feminist, who grumbles about her husband’s demands. He gropes her and she knees him in the groin. Her breasts magically turn into balloons and fly into the sky, then she grows a beard. In this production, Thérèse had the balloons ingeniously tied to her fingers with invisible string – she’s not dithering with her decision but making a point at getting rid of the breasts. Her husband wore Thérèse’s clothes, a Hyacinth Bucket-esque floral dress, jaunty hat and pink gloves. He decides to have babies without the help of a woman, and produces 40,049 in one day.

Julien van Mellaerts (husband) and Ashlyn Tymms (newspaper vendor) © Chris Christodoulou
Julien van Mellaerts (husband) and Ashlyn Tymms (newspaper vendor)
© Chris Christodoulou

Questions abound, but again Unwin played the story straight and the craziness was entertaining and reminiscent of Dada rather than simply puzzling. Harriet Eyley made a steely Thérèse to which baritone Julien Van Mellaerts responded manfully. He was never without a cigar and even in the Hyacinth Bucket outfit strode confidently across the stage. The smaller roles were equally well cast, especially the silvery-toned Ashlyn Tymms as a newspaper vendor and the bass-baritone Timothy Edlin as Monsieur Presto, a gentleman gambler. The second act opened with a delightful piece of incidental waltzing by the people of Zanzibar – a luxury chorus of young artists. There was also a waltz in the Chabrier which sounded curiously similar to Poulenc’s. Praise should go to the movement director Natasha Harrison, whose choreography commended the production. The rest of the credit must go to the conductor Michael Rosewell and the Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, who made sense of these little-known scores and brought them to life with charming musicality.