Respighi: Opera Double Bill

Reviewer's Rating

As so often, the Guildhall School is going where the leading opera houses fear to tread. This term’s opera production brings together two little-known one-act operas by Respighi which certainly deserve to be heard more often and moreover receive here the outstanding interpretations they deserve to help put them on the map.

We think of Respighi primarily as a composer for orchestra, rather than opera, but in fact he wrote more than a few stageworks across a broad variety of themes. ‘Maria egiziaca’ (Mary of Egypt) and ‘La bella dormente nel bosco’ (The Sleeping Beauty) are both mature works dating from the 1920s. But their idiosyncratic origins have perhaps precluded their circulation. One started life as a religious pageant and the other was conceived for puppets! Yet both have contrasting and intriguing charms that make for a compelling pairing.

Designer Laura Jane Stanfield has prepared a common two-tiered set for both that cleverly converts from the ecclesiastical to the fantastical with the addition of various elements of decoration, whether naval and Eygyptian in the first half or floral and bosky in the second. Jake Wiltshire’s delicately dappled lighting scheme is also crucial to the evocation of fairy-tale atmospherics in ‘Sleeping Beauty.’

These are very much ensemble pieces and there is real quality across the board here, where in instrumental solos, leading vocal roles or the contribution of the chorus (notable in both of these operas). On the face of it ‘Mary of Egypt’ should not work – the tale of a sex worker called upon to repent of her sins, and who then does just that in long-term desert penitence is about as far away from contemporary sensibilities as could be imagined. But the inventiveness of the composition and intensity of the delivery by all concerned takes the viewer along with the action. The final reconciliation and absolution between the penitent Mary and zealous abbot is very affecting. Holly Brown and Emyr Jones distinguished themselves in these roles, as did the orchestra which has several long descriptive interludes to deliver in between the three scenes. Conductor Dominic Wheeler gave these an almost symphonic shape and focus, while director Victoria Newlyn ensured we kept up with the plot through projected video summaries in the manner of a silent film – all very appropriate to the era of the opera’s composition.

Respighi’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is ideal fare for a conservatoire production, with its many characterful roles to be filled whether from traditional magical tropes through to a group of modern travellers who seem to belong to the world of Indiana Jones. This is much lighter fare than the first opera, reflected in the sparkling vocal writing and delicate harpsichord-inflected orchestration. There was an outstanding performance by Yolisa Ngwexana as the Blue Fairy – her authoritative dispatch of the coloratura demands of this role was simply scintillating. Holly Brown returned to give provide some contrasting punchy negativity as the Green Fairy, and there was a convincing bookish portrayal of the princess from Ana-Carmen Balestra. But the flexible work of the chorus, in various guises, is perhaps what lingers longest in the memory here.

This was a very rewarding evening, and not merely or mainly for operatic completists. These works deserve to be better known and they could not have had a better re-introduction to the repertory.