mon 08/08/2022

San Giovanni Battista/The Cooper, Guildhall Milton Court Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

San Giovanni Battista/The Cooper, Guildhall Milton Court Theatre

San Giovanni Battista/The Cooper, Guildhall Milton Court Theatre

New voices and unfamiliar operas make for an evening of operatic adventure

San Giovanni Battista submits to death at the hands of the debauched ErodeClive Barda

The practical considerations and limitations of choosing a work for a student showcase can lead to some wonderfully original programming. It doesn’t get much more original than a pairing of Thomas Arne’s ballad opera The Cooper with Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista, currently being staged by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The new Milton Court Theatre is the natural home for something like the Arne – an intimate, close-quarters space where you can see your neighbours’ reactions as well as the action on stage. Which makes it all the more odd that the work’s broad comedy never quite caught the energy of the audience on this, the second night.

Frazer B. Scott’s Scottish sot Mr Twigg seized the stage in his brief cameo

It certainly wasn’t the fault of the orchestra who claimed our full attention with a precise and idiomatic overture, full of joyful energy under the direction of Julian Perkins. Perhaps it was the decision to keep the house-lights up until almost the end of the opera, diluting the focus on Simon Corder’s narrow but cleverly designed stage space in a way that might have worked for a bawdy, boozy 18th-century audience but couldn’t for the prim formality of a contemporary crowd.

The conductor’s note describes Arne’s simple work as “one in which the characters are actors who happen to sing rather than vice versa” – a challenge, then, for GSMD’s opera rather than theatre students. Piran Legg’s lecherous old Master Martin (pictured right with Schneider and Langer) is a delicious caricature, and gets bonus point for singing in a false nose and chin which must play havoc with resonance.

As his nemesis, the sweet but not over-bright young cooper Colin, Gerard Schneider shows enormous promise. This is a bold, warm tenor voice and lends real colour to Arne’s simple, strophic songs. His winsome warmth plays nicely off the sharp schemeing of Lauren Zolezzi’s Fanny, who though she sings sweetly has a tendency to rush, and seems rather ill at ease dramatically. Mention must also be made of Frazer B. Scott’s Scottish sot Mr Twigg, all bulbous nose and thrusting pelvis, seizing the stage in his brief cameo and transforming both it and the audience.

While I was happy to make the acquaintance of the Arne, it’s not a work I’ll feel any great need to pursue further, unlike the Stradella which is a real find. The version performed here has been created by Perkins himself, padding out an oratorio with two instrumental interludes by Caldara and by supplementing the chorus’s role. The result is very persuasive – wide-ranging emotionally, psychologically fascinating, and containing some real musical delights (John the Baptist’s exquisite “Io per me” would be enough to convert anyone, while Erode’s “Tuonerà tra mille turbini" thunders up there with Handel’s finest).

More hands-on here than in the straightforward period comedy of the Arne, director Rodula Gaitanou places the action in an exotic no-place, a court filled with cross-dressing flappers and suspender-clad lovelies, whose excess is set against the pure severity of the Baptist and his disciples. Her real success is in drawing a performance of such ferocity and complexity from Anna Gillingham’s Salome – a Black Swan inspired creature, both child and woman in her tutu, gleeful and horrible, by turns innocent and stomach-turningly knowing. Gillingham’s voice is still a work-in-progress, currently lacking power and focus in its middle register, but flowering into such a potent top, giving a glimpse of extraordinary things to come for this soprano.

Joseph Padfield’s Erode (pictured left with Langer) impresses with vocal muscularity and range, holding his own against the well-matched competition offered by Gillingham and Alison Langer as her mother Erodiade – a neurotic and carefully judged performance, giving her greater vocal scope and opportunity than the precious little ditties of the Arne. Tom Verney’s San Giovanni is efficient – particularly so in the coloratura sections – but needs to find a lovelier place for his tone to sit in lyrical sections.

This was an evening of discovery – new music and new voices offering stimulation on every front. Thoughtful and interesting, this is why London’s student shows are far from second best to the big houses.

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