S&H Opera Review

Massenet La Navarraise & le portrait de Manon; Debussy L'enfant prodigue Guildhall School of Music & Drama, 4 November 00

A brief welcome and recommendation for an interesting triple bill at The Guildhall, whose productions continue to please and are a bright jewel in the London opera scene.

Massenet attempted to cash in, 10 years on, upon the success of his Manon. This small-scale sequel was a moderate success in its time but proved disappointing encountered now. A reminiscent elderly Des Grieux relives his earlier amour through a nephew, and links are made with the famous score. Played behind a suspended picture frame setting, and without any memorable performances, this was the weaker centrepiece of a good evening.

La Navarraise was something other - a rumbustious, noisy verismo one-acter, set behind the barricades with the then losing forces trying to defend Bilbao during the Carlist wars of 1874. Acted with panache, and with splendidly realistic sound effects (at the triumphant first performances Bernard Shaw noted that in the first thirty seconds more than half a ton of gunpowder had been consumed!) and excellent staging and production by the team of Stephen Langridge, Jessica Curtis & Neil Austin, this sent us home invigorated. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers is a fine dramatic soprano and was an impressive tragic heroine. Her agitation, displayed from the commencement, nicely prefigured her disastrous impulsivity in the key scene, when she went off and single-handedly assassinated the Carlist's leader. Wrongly suspected of being a spy, her crucial action inadvertently led to the death of her man. She was well supported by Andrew Rees and a colourful cast of soldiery.

Debussy's L'enfant prodigue, more often heard in concert, made a charming opener, set 'near the Lake of Genazareth', with decorous, elegant rituals and a ceremonial tribute to the Golden Calf. It starred a grieving mother and the performance of Katarina Jovanovic (winner of the Montserrat Caballe Competition 2000) was auspicious indeed, combining a rich, beautiful lyric soprano with poise and natural stage movements. Her son was well sung by Breffni Horgan, but he adopted the prescribed, rather formal, movements as directed, rather than living them. The orchestra was under the capable direction of Clive Timms and was thoroughly idiomatic in the luscious early Debussy score; and in full force with extra off stage trumpets and percussion they made a fine showing in La Navarraise.

To my sadness, the GSMD does not offer surtitles, nor were the libretti of these rare works made readily available, so we had to content ourselves with brief synopses of the action, getting the general drift of the goings on and picking up occasional phrases, more or less of them according to the level of our French.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Further performances can be seen on 6, 8 & 10 November (Katarina Jovanovic on 8th only; replaced by Natasha Jouhl on 6 & 10). Details from JFARMER@gsmd.ac.uk

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