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Saturday 9 November 2013

L'enfant prodigue and Francesca di Foix at Guildhall

(second night casts)

Debussy was just 21 when he wrote L'enfant prodigue, but already we sense the makings of a very individual composer. Though the inspiration is patchy, the scoring is gorgeous, and there are moments everywhere that remind of the mature Debussy. Massenet is felt as a strong presence - the suave, luxuriant beauty of the writing make this influence unmistakable. Also present are the orientalisms of Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherazade, and Ravel's soft porn Shéhérazade also, until you remember that this score predates both. Also eerily presaged is Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne - a backward looking opus to be sure, but Debussy's woodwind arabesques are uncannily familiar if one knows the later work. This nexus of intoxicating musical associations paints the right picture of ripe sensuality and fantasist nostalgia: beautiful yet slightly lymphatic.

The foundations of Pelléas et Mélisande are here already then, and even the vocal lines point the way towards the fractured calm of that masterpiece. This piece however is a sort of lyric scene or cantata, and was quite obviously never meant to be staged - very little happens, and it's not the fascinating "nothing" of Pelléas - the story is just thin on the ground and lacks conflict. There are large orchestral interludes too which need to be imaginatively dealt with if staged. Three characters hardly get any lines at all, though are touchingly acted by Robin Bailey, Alison Rose and Frazer B. Scott.

Yannis Thavoris's sets and David Howe's lighting designs are clean, airy and quite beautiful but director Stephen Barlow has not managed to make the piece live as a drama. Acting from all is physically unconvincing - it all feels choreographed rather than motivated by psychology or inner necessity - lots of vague drifting about which just seems like an excuse to make use of the whole stage. One bit that particularly jarred: why on earth would a well to do 19th century society lady go straight down to embrace an apparently dead tramp, before she realises that it's her son? The prodigal son in question is suspiciously Jesus-ey looking, and after his reconciliation with his father, he in fact walks on water at the end, before we see a sort of Last Supper scene as a final tableau. Not really sure if anything really specific was meant by these allusions, but the music by this stage has descended into maudlin Victorian clap-trap, so it's hard to take seriously. Still, the best bits of the score are really worth hearing, so it's nice for the piece to get an airing.

Lauren Fagan is in lush voice in the role of mother, Lia. She is very controlled, possessing a wide dynamic range, excellent intonation, and is able to admirably mould the voice to the dramatic situation, though at this stage, in French at least, there's almost no legato line to speak of. Still, a very promising voice. Piran Leg as the father is able to sing a longer line, and has an attractive tone, but there's a risk of singing everything loudly. Gérard Schneider is quite impressive as the Prodigal son, Azael, with an expansive, manful, lyric tenor voice which will surely develop into something bigger with time.

Just as silly, but now deliberately so, is Donizetti's knightly comedy Francesca di Foix, a clichéd story centered around teaching a jealous husband a lesson. Francesca di Foix has been locked up in the Count's castle for too long, and so a plot is hatched to rescue her (naturally involving poor disguises). Then there's a largely unrelated tournament, and of course the Count is forced by his pride to out his wife, thereby hoisting himself on his own petard. He then apologises and it's a happy ending.

Barlow is much more sure footed in his direction of this opera. The King is the leader of "the house of Valois", here a fashion house displaying its 1525 Spring-Summer season. The Count is the shop manager, the page and Duke shop assistants. Thavoris's costumes are a mixture of 16th century garb and contemporary high fashion which works with the set to give the whole a funny and very distinctive aesthetic. Francesca has been trapped in her home by the Count, and when she enters she is wearing an Abaya and Niqab - that is her clothes and face (excluding her eyes) are covered with fabric. When she realises that the Count has been saying that the reason for her incarceration is her hideous looks she becomes enraged, pulls off the veil, and is totally sold on the revenge plot idea. (It's weird that the Count doesn't show any signs of being Islamic, and actually this Islamic oppression side of the story is quickly forgotten after this scene. In fact, when Francesca casts off her trappings, that her liberation is provided by the vacuous world of consumerism is surely a wry dig at the whole idea of women's liberation.) The Tournament is made into a tennis tournament, replete with ultra camp dance routines. The choreography throughout is maybe the funniest part of the show - this time it is actually intended as choreography, and adds nicely to the characterisation. The attention to detail in how the chorus members dress and act is extremely nice also, as we follow and recognise background characters through the story - the hipster, the "rich bitch", the model, the young fashionistas etc. etc. A fun show.

The best of the cast was Szymon Wach's Count, who doesn't get an aria, but manages to draw the most detailed and funny character, and is able to act with the voice just as ably as he can physically. As Francesca Lauren Zolezzi has a very light coloratura voice, extremely agile, apparently untaxed by Donizetti's high flying fioritura, but intonation is very often not quite centred. Acting wise she convinces as a woman who knows what she wants, though her transformation from meek bride to no nonsense game player is a bit of a stretch. As Edmondo (the Page), Marta Fontanals-Simmons manages almost to outdo Zolezzi with her high coloratura gymnastics in her dance routine scene with the male chorus, but in general the role seemed to lie a bit lower than was ideal. Joseph Padfield is charming as the King, and has a very pingy Italianate bass, well suited to this repertoire. Tenor Samuel Smith shows similar vocal promise in the small role of the Duke.

Both pieces are worth seeing for different reasons. This cast has a show on Monday 11th remaining.

photo (c) Clive Barda/Guildhall

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