A Rossini double bill,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
Rossini's one act farse were written when he was still in his teens and are amazing pieces of work for one so young. Most people are familiar with the overtures to Il Signor Bruschino and La Scala di Seta but the complete operas are less often done. To open their autumn season at London's Peacock Theatre, British Youth Opera chose to present the two operas in a double bill (seen Friday 4 September 2009). Each opera was cast separately and both were double cast (the final performances of the run being sung by the understudies). Thus giving the maximum possible exposure to the young singers.
Both operas are about young love thwarted by an older parent or guardian, but everything comes right in the end. The action is fast paced and genuinely farcical, so that the casts must not only be able to sing Rossinian roulades, but project swift comedy.
Adriana Festeu as Marianna and Thomas Kennedy as Bruschino padre in British Youth Opera's 'Il Signor Bruschino'
Il Signor Bruschino concerns Florville (Thomas Herford) who loves Sofia (Elena Sancho), but her guardian Gaudenzio (Michel de Souza) has chosen Signor Bruschino junior (Adam Kowalczyk) as husband. Florville manages to impersonate Bruschino junior, giving rise to much confusion and finally the two are wed. Signor Bruschino senior (Daniel Roddick) has a substantial role in the action, whereas Bruschino junior is a relatively small part, appearing just at the end. Roddick was one of the understudies and only knew he was going on, due to illness, the morning of the performance. Normally one would have to excuse the performance somewhat, but Roddick needed no excuses and produced a confident and impressive performance. The final singers on the roster were the policeman, Eliot Alderman, and the maid Marianna (Adriana Festeu).
Adriana Festeu as Marianna, Michel de Sousa as Gaudenzio, Thomas Kennedy as Bruschino padre and Thomas Herford as Florville in British Youth Opera's 'Il Signor Bruschino'
Director Jamie Hayes and designer Will Bowen had set Il Signore Bruschino on a fixed stepped stage, dressed only with white drapes, but populated with various pieces of furniture which enabled the cast to dash from room to room when necessary. A flexible and elegant solution (and cost effective). Costumes were roughly traditional nineteenth century, Hayes had wisely decided to play the farces at face value. The piece is a busy one, full of action, and my only complaint of Hayes' direction was that he had chosen to make it even busier by introducing extra action for the maid Marianna.
'Il Signor Bruschino' - British Youth Opera company principals
Thomas Herford as Florville, looked and behaved like a young Simon Pegg, which certainly shows that he has a gift for comedy. His voice is a light, lyric tenor (he sang Prunier in last year's BYO La Rondine). His voice is not strictly Italianate, but it is beautifully lyric and he used it with charm in the role. Elena Sancho as his beloved had a similarly attractive lyric voice with an equally charming personality. They made a fine pair and had developed good rapport both in the comedy and in the love scenes. My only worry was that Sancho's voice tended to get a little hard at the top.
Thomas Herford as Florville and Elena Sancho as Sofia in British Youth Opera's 'Il Signor Bruschino'
Michel de Souza's Gaudenzio was a well captured comedy dupe, all the more funny for the way he didn't try and send up the role. Roddick's Bruschino senior displayed immense charm and personality combined with a lovely baritone voice and I look forward to seeing him in a younger role.
Thomas Herford as Florville and Benjamin Cahn as Filiberto in British Youth Opera's 'Il Signor Bruschino'
Alderman, Festeu and Kowalczyk displayed impressive stage manners, and confidently sang what little Rossini gave them.
In the second half we had La Scala di Seta, which concerns the trials of Giulia (Natalya Romaniw) who is actually married to Dorvil (Carlos Nogueira), but whom her guardian Dormont (Eliot Alderman) wants to marry Blansac (Aaron Alphonsus McAuley). A complication is that Giulia's cousin Lucilla (Hanna Hip) is in love with Blansac. Giulia and Dorvil have been meeting secretly, she lets down a silken ladder from her bedroom and Dorvil climbs up. Needless so say everything works out in the end, with the help of the servant Germano (Gary Griffiths).
Aaron Alphonsus McAuley as Blansac and Carlos Nogueira as Dorvil in British Youth Opera's 'La Scala di Seta'. Photo © 2009 Clive Barda
Whereas Il Signor Bruschino was essentially a farce of mistaken and transposed identity, La Scala di Seta was one of action, with many comings and goings, people constantly hiding behind furniture, overhearing each other and generally getting things wrong. The basic set was the same as for the first opera, but Hayes and Bowen had chosen to keep the pace moving by effectively doing away with the furniture. Instead six supers, dressed as servants but wearing Venetian masks, acted as furniture. When people had to hide, they were simply given an empty picture frame. This meant that not only was the action brisk and smoothly flowing, but that even on a tiny budget the opera had a distinctively different look to the first one.
Hanna Hipp as Lucilla, Natalya Romaniw as Giulia and Carlos Nogueira as Dorvil in British Youth Opera's 'La Scala di Seta'. Photo © 2009 Clive Barda
Since appearing in BYO's La Rondine last year Romaniw has appeared in the song finale of the Cardiff Singer of the World. Her Giulia was richly vibrant, pert, confident and not a little charming. Romaniw used her rich voice well in the Rossini, though the top seemed to be a little too under pressure. As her lover, Carlos Nogueira was more subdued in the comedy, he is probably a less gifted comedian but has an endearing stage presence. His voice had a rather husky quality which made it rather distinctive, and not necessarily ideal. But he coped admirably with the tessitura of the role, singing the high lines with aplomb.
'La Scala di Seta' - ensemble. Photo © 2009 Clive Barda
McAuley's Blansac was a big charmer. But unfortunately he had a tendency to overact and to take the limelight, something which does not seem to have been reigned in by Jamie Hayes. Gary Griffiths as Germano on the other hand was required by the plot to undergo all sorts of comic business, and Griffiths impressed not only by the way he sang but with the deft way he undertook the comedy. As Dormont, Alderman was required to do little but come on and bluster, which he did admirably.
Natalya Romaniw as Giulia and Aaron Alphonsus McAuley as Blansac in British Youth Opera's 'La Scala di Seta'. Photo © 2009 Clive Barda
None of the singers in either opera was perfect as regards their passagework, with most displaying moments of roughness and smudged fioriture. But all brought the music off impressively as a stage piece. The casts formed strong ensembles and gave the comedy quite some zing.
'La Scala di Seta' - ensemble. Photo © 2009 Clive Barda
The South Bank Sinfonia, conducted by Robert Dean, provided deft support with the wind players contributing some lovely solos. Continuo was neatly played by Jean-Paul Pruna and Christopher White, though I would have preferred a piano to the harpsichord (which is surely anachronistic).
British Youth Opera isn't just about singers: the operas were put on by a back stage crew that included a large number of trainee staff in all departments.
This was quite a long programme, with nearly three hours of music. Whilst the operas provided brilliant opportunities for the singers, both were a little to close to each other in both plot and style. Despite great work by Hayes, Bowen and the cast, we came away at the end with the suspicion that we had seen the same opera twice. It might have been better to pair one of the Rossini operas with something a little more contrasting. But if the intention was to provide opportunities for the maximum number of young singers to strut their stuff in Rossini, then the show worked admirably.
Copyright © 8 September 2009