sun 27/11/2022

The Duenna, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Duenna, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

The Duenna, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

A britch-splitting delight of a comedy heralds the festive season early

Christmas has come early to the Royal Opera House this year. Without a single shout of “He’s behind you!” or even an implausibly-uddered dancing cow, pantomime season is well and truly underway in the form of The Duenna – a corset-straining, britches-splitting, liquor-quaffing delight of a comedy. All of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s familiar wit and whimsy are here, and if they frequently need to pause and sprawl themselves out upon a comfortable melody, then so much the better. What a pity then that the music-making itself is often so uncertain.

English Touring Opera has a fine track record among Britain’s smaller opera companies. Sound programming (with occasional delights such as last year’s excellent HandelFest) and a good eye for young talent (recent alumni include Amanda Echalaz) make them a serious operatic player, and in so many ways The Duenna celebrates their strengths.

Despite its unfamiliarity to contemporary audiences, the show itself – a singspiel or lyrical drama of the same family as Mozart’s The Magic Flute – is of significant pedigree. More popular even than Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, it was revenue from The Duenna that supported the Covent Garden Theatre for many years. Combining the archest of love-farce plots with the innocence of English folksong melodies, The Duenna is a mongrel, but as attractive a one now as it ever was. The score itself, compiled and composed jointly by Sheridan’s father-in-law and brother-in-law Thomas Linley (senior and junior), brings pre-existing contemporary arias and ensembles together with newly composed material and folksong arrangements. The hotchpotch result shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, its freedom from recitative and formal operatic conventions giving it a flexibility that feels appealingly modern.

The plot itself is the predictable combination of young lovers, avaricious old men, domineering fathers and a drunken priest, not forgetting of course the old Duenna herself (Nuala Willis) – as blandly smiling and mischievously wicked a creature as one could wish, many miles away from the stern and perpetually virgin stereotype.

Despite the pragmatic constraints of a touring production, Adam Wiltshire’s set is a miracle of effective invention. Its wrought-iron doors and multiple levels suggest the skeleton of a Baroque home, as though someone had poured acid over the gilded, damasked flesh, leaving behind only the elegant structures beneath. In front of the set a series of oversized picture frames are suspended, moving wittily to frame the characters in their more self-conscious moments of theatricality, and occasionally serving as a meta-frame for them to step through and address the audience directly.

The fragmented structure, with its frequent musical interludes and short exchanges of dialogue, leaves little room for conventional dramatic development. Pace must be swift, satire sharp and cues polished if this perfect miniature is not to ooze into one of the second-rate landscapes so beloved of 18th-century artists. Running at 35 minutes longer than published (minutes that could so easily be eliminated), the show is not yet the aerodynamic creature it needs to be. Driven from the pit, it is the orchestra who must carry the burden of pace, picking up their sudden entries efficiently and with purpose. Sadly the English Touring Opera Baroque Orchestra under Joseph McHardy’s direction were completely at odds. Entries were scrappy and tentative, tuning deeply uncomfortable (and not just in the horns), and they persisted in dragging their feet despite all attempts from the stage to move things along.

A cast of young singers from both music-theatre and conventional opera backgrounds coped varyingly with the singing and acting challenges of the work. Charlotte Page’s Louisa was pertly pretty, handling both dialogue and song with panache, and was competently partnered by Joseph Shovelton’s Antonio. Olivia Safe as Clara was rather less assured; anxious vocally, her tone and delivery felt tense, missing the playful humour of many of her arias and exchanges. She was matched for sheer tension by Jonathan Gunthorpe’s ailing Carlos (though his various comedy turns were ample – particularly in the case of Friar Paul – compensation).

Given a performance as sharply drawn as its dialogue, it could be the most perfect of frothy entertainments.

It was the cast’s more venerable members who dominated, to delicious effect. Richard Suart, in a pleasing composite of his Gilbert and Sullivan and Handel personas, was dangerously close to obliterating all in his comic path. A staggering, leaping, bewigged fantasy of an avaricious father, all gleeful self-congratulations and red-faced rants – “If a daughter you’ll have she’s the plague of your life!” – he was balanced by the placid scheming of Willis’s Duenna and the fragile pomposity of Adrian Thompson’s elderly lover Isaac (“The Portuguese”).

With epigrams aplenty – “Nobility is but the helpmate of fortune, and like a Japanese bride should perish on the funeral pyre of the estate” – and tunes that include a particularly delicate canon for a trio of voices and a cod-operatic revenge aria in the Italian style, The Duenna is a real find. Given a performance as sharply drawn as its dialogue, it could be the most perfect of frothy entertainments. As it is, it’s still a jolly night out, though with perhaps more of a touch of the amateur dramatics than even English understatement really calls for.

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