The Silken Ladder/A Husband at the Door

  • Opera
  • Music: Rossini and Offenbach
  • Director: Benjamin Newhouse-Smith
  • Cast includes: Naomi Kilby, Jodie Kearns, Alistair Sutherland, Robert Jenkins
  • Arcola Theatre, London
  • 1 - 3 August 2017
  • Review by Owen Davies
  • 2 August 2017
The Silken Ladder/A Husband at the Door
3.0Reviewer's Rating

Arcola’s Grimeborn opera season has a deserved reputation for discovering neglected treasures. For this event, Opera Alegria has found two one-act operas, The Silken Ladder by Rossini, and A Husband at the Door by Offenbach. They are both farces with very flimsy plots but fizzing with wonderful music. To overcome the limitations of the plots they both need fine singing and comic flair from the performers. In this production the comedy is played to the hilt but the singing – with some honourable exceptions – is less convincing.

Rossini’sThe Silken Ladder is the story of a young woman with a tyrannical guardian and two suitors. It transpires that she is already secretly married to one of them so the other one – that her guardian favours – has to be palmed off on her friend. To allow her husband to visit her in secret she hangs a silken ladder out of her bedroom window. This absurd plot of course leads to much hiding under beds and jumping out of windows. The silliness of the story is redeemed by some superb Rossini music but it requires a very specialised technique to sing it well.

Naomi Kirby is superb as the heroine, Julia Stanstead Mountfitchet. She is absolutely secure in her long and florid musical lines but she also has the control of her voice that allows her to sing Rossini’s high notes quietly, an essential skill on a stage like Studio 2 at the Arcola. Alistair Sutherland does a fine comic turn as a Stan Laurel look-alike butler and Christopher Killerby and Christopher Faulkner milk all the laughs as the two suitors.

The second piece by Offenbach has an even less credible plot if that is possible. A young man escaping from an angry husband falls down a chimney into the room of a new bride who has just fallen out with her bridegroom. She and her Maid of Honour lock themselves into the bedroom with the young man while they think of a way to allow him to escape without compromising her reputation. The denouement is even more lazy and unlikely than is that of the previous opera. The heroine’s randy friend is played in both operas by the effervescent Jodie Kearns and Robert Jenkins overcomes the handicap of being trouser-less and  covered in soot with some fine singing as the man who comes in down the chimney.

Both operas are set in the same bedroom, though in the 80 years that have passed between the two operas the building in which it sits has changed from private country house to hotel and conference centre. The bed remains the same, providing the requisite space for intruders to hide beneath.

The two operas provide an undemanding evening of broad farce spiced up with some lovely music and good singing. More of the singing and less of the farce would have suited me but the audience around me laughed a lot and that is quite a tribute for two short operas both written well over 100 years ago.

About The Author

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Owen Davies was brought up in London but has Welsh roots. He was raised on chapel hymns, Handel oratorios and Mozart arias. He began going to the theatre in the 1960s and, as a teenager, used to stand at the back of the Old Vic stalls to watch Olivier's National Theatre productions. He also saw many RSC productions at the Aldwych in the 1960s. At this time he also began to see operas at Covent Garden and developed a love for Mozart, Verdi and Richard Strauss. After a career as a social worker and a trade union officer, Owen has retired from paid employment but is a student at Rose Bruford College studying for a BA in Opera Studies.

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