‘Separation and reconciliation’: a fitting way to sum up the experience of many of us during the past months. And, also, the theme which united the Opera Scenes – drawn from seven different operas, from Monteverdi to Britten – which were presented last week on YouTube and Facebook in two programmes, on consecutive evenings, by the young singers currently studying at the Royal College of Music’s Opera Studio.
Starting and concluding in the RCM’s Britten Theatre, the scenes, directed by Olivia Fuchs, were filmed in various locations inside the College and in Hyde Park. And, just as the scenes effected transitions between emotional states and physical places, so they explored as Fuchs explained, ‘transitions between childhood and adulthood, life and death, the seasons, shifts of power, new regimes, new ways of living and working, and shifting consciousness, perspectives and understanding. These programmes were striking in their scope, ambition and achievement. The fourteen singers showed enormous commitment, talent and spirit in making transitions between characters, genders, emotional and dramatic situations, locations, and between live and filmed performance.
As Monteverdi’s Poppea and Nerone, Natasha Page and Maria Hegele, respectively, established a dramatic and musical tension which was sustained with thrilling effect, in different contexts, throughout the two programmes. Beginning in the College’s entrance hall balcony, Page’s prolonged goodbye to her imperial lover was energised by her own imperious demands that the Roman emperor rid himself of his wife, Ottavia. Power and dominance were up for grabs here; Page’s Poppea, a dangerous temptress in black lace peignoir and underwear, came out on top. There was also a persuasive move from the intimacy of the ‘bedroom’ in which Poppea toyed provokingly with a golden crown (though the Florence Nightingale field-hospital bed established a strangely frugal tone and did have to do rather too much service through the two evenings!), to the ‘public’ forum of the theatre. The latter, bereft of an audience, offered a dynamic space for dramatic exchange. Page’s lustrous soprano was met with firm, bright challenge from Hegele’s Nerone. Lovely, nuanced theorbo playing by Danny Murphy, bright strings with lots of ‘lift’, and some agile, pointed recorder playing from Hannah Parry created a vibrant palette.
This light and teasing, but deadly serious, scene segued into Act 3 of Monteverdi’s opera, in which Clara Barbier was a delightful languorous Cupid, appealing to her mother, Venus (Sofie Lund-Tonneson), in the tier above, to endorse Poppea as goddess of Love on earth. Again, the delicate tracery of Murphy’s theorbo wonderfully underscored the erotic frisson of the final duet (Jessica Cale stepping into Poppea’s stilettos, Emma Robert donning Nerone’s black tie evening dress), and the dissonant suspensions served as a stirring metaphor for the couple’s desire: should they be resolved that desire would thus be fulfilled and bring about its own end. I did find the later sections of the duet a tad too slow, though; the youthful ardour didn’t quite flow with sufficient infectious joy, and the singers’ efforts to tune the dissonances occasionally went awry.
From the dark intensity of the Britten Theatre, we shifted to the autumnal russet of Hyde Park for a scene from Act 2 of Handel’s Tolomeo, in which the eponymous exiled protagonist thwarts the planned seduction of his wife, Seleuce, by the Cretan King Araspe. Fuchs found the open, external space more challenging that a smaller interior: there was much crunching through leaves but the movement didn’t have a strong sense of purpose as the singers strayed through the Park’s trees. Tied to two of the said tree-trunks, Hegele’s Tolomeo was tender of voice, and Charlotte Bowden’s Seleuce aroused one’s sympathy; their voices blended beautifully though it occasionally felt as if they might like a little more time, as the cello pushed forwards. The orchestral parts must have been recorded separately though, and there were a few, very minor, lapses of ensemble. James Atkinson’s Araspe was simultaneously presumptuous and self-pitying; his baritone firm and purposeful, this was strong vocal characterisation from Atkinson. Michael Gibson and Jeremy Kleeman were the rather undirected balaclava-ed henchmen.
We heard more from Tolomeo in the second programme the following evening, when the Act 3 reunion of Seleuce (Sofie Lund-Tonneson) and Tolomeo (Emma Roberts) was a vibrant and uplifting highlight. The former’s upper register shone with a lustre equalled by the warmth of Roberts’ lower mezzo. The exquisite shaping of the final cadence was delicious.
Separation rather than reconciliation, at least in earthly spheres, characterises the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and in Act 4 of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the newly weds must be rent asunder after their nuptial bliss. We returned to the ‘bed on the balcony’, and some lovely string playing, heightened by the slightly piquant oboe, established the tender, full-hearted warmth of the scene. Whenever I’ve taught this play, my young female students have lamented Romeo’s lack of ‘backbone’: and here, it was Jessica Cale’s Juliette who definitely seemed the more mature young beloved. Her soprano was strong and communicative though Michael Bell’s Romeo was no less expressive – and it’s difficult to have authority when dressed in white boxer shorts and vest. In this scene, Fuchs made good use of the stairwell to suggest spatial separation and emotional connection, and the richness of the orchestral playing conveyed both the lovers’ self-indulgence and the urgency of Romeo’s departure.
There was more strong instrumental playing in the tomb scene from Act 5 of Gounod’s opera during the second evening’s programme, which began with an expressive cello solo from Anna Crawford. Michael Gibson had no problem surmounting Romeo’s high tenor peaks, which are sustained and testing, and his controlled phrasing communicated the dramatic tensions skilfully. But, if there was melodrama, then the sensitive softness was in no way neglected either, by Gibson or Page. The scene requires carefully structuring and pacing, and given the circumstances of production this was admirably achieved, though the sepulchral lighting was occasionally a little too gloomy, rendering the singers indistinct.
A similar intensity was conjured in the scene from Act 2 of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites in which, on the eve of the French Revolution, the fears, honesty and desires of the father (Marquis, Jeremy Kleeman), brother (Chevalier de la Force, Ted Black) and sister (Blanche, Jessica Cale) collide and conflict. The two-piano accompaniment was a compromise, but the pre-WWI setting was effective, the claustrophobia of mores and manners tightened by the panelled-room acoustic. Kleeman captured the Marquis’s naïve nostalgia and grief; Black was intense and insistent; Cale conveyed Blanche’s conviction with immaculate line and subtlety. As the emotive temperature rose, it was a little relentless at times, but not in a way that is inappropriate to the fervour that Poulenc conjures.
The next evening we returned to Act 2 of Poulenc’s opera, for the scene in which the Chevalier (Michael Gibson) visits Blanche in the convent to try to persuade Blanche (Sofie Lund-Tonneson) to leave for her own safety, while she resists and insists upon sacrificing herself for the greater cause. This was tremendously dynamic and ‘real’ music-drama, as both singers exploited the urgent, impassioned score to full emotional effect.
Offenbach’s La belle Hélène provided some light relief, though the satire is just as impactful as Poulenc’s tragedy. Fuchs elided three numbers from Act 2 effectively, taking us from Hélène’s dreams to her nocturnal tryst with Pâris, and on to the discovery of their adultery by Agamemnon, Ménélas and Calchas. Emma Roberts and Maria Hegele bloomed with equal lustre as the iconic Queen of Sparta, Ted Black’s displayed much vocal vigour as Pâris, and in the Trio patriotique Michael Bell (Ménélas), Jeremy Kleeman (Agamemnon) and Mikhail Biryukov (Calchas) developed persuasive dramatic momentum, singing with tremendous precision and ensemble power.
There was some room for Mozart in the second programme, which took us back to Hyde Park for the seduction by Don Giovanni – suave in white suit and panama – of Zerlina. Kleeman was a wry Leporello, knowingly acknowledging the women’s adversity; Biryukov oozed confidence as the deceptive Don; Masetto’s fury and frustration as conveyed by Edward Jowle, inspired sympathy, the more so when he subsequently came in for a good thumping. I found Biryukov rather too forthright in ‘Là ci darem la mano’ – less would have been more, vocally and seductively, but Charlotte Bowden and Clara Barbier both captured Zerlina’s essential good heart, a quality enhanced by some fine woodwind playing.
The second evening concluded with the un-smooth ‘course of true love’ charted by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, courtesy of three scenes from Britten’s opera which began in the park with Atkinson’s Demetrius pursuing Bowden’s Helena into the ‘woods’ of Hyde Park – this was stronger direction from Fuchs than in the earlier Handel – and then traced the four lovers’ mix-ups and make-ups. Pianists Paul McKenzie and Joseph Ramadan once again fulfilled an orchestra role, and produced some lovely delicacy to conjure Shakespeare’s, and Britten’s, magic. A procession from the Park back to the Britten Theatre introduced a metatheatrical touch, absolutely in keeping with the themes and spirit of Shakespeare’s play, and the closing moments of the lovers’ reconciliation had a wonderfully fragile intensity which left one hoping that our own reconnection, reunion and resolution is not too far away.
Opera Scenes 1: Separation and Reconciliation can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrO7JI1kUac
Opera Scenes 2: Separation and Reconciliation can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koGYg1r8KYM
A programme is available at https://issuu.com/royalcollegeofmusic/docs/rcm_opera_scenes_programme_2020
Streamed on YouTube and Facebook, 27th and 28th November 2020.