Photo, Mihaela Bodlovic

Monday, June 6, 2022

Silk Street Theatre, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Monteverdi’s “three person drama” Il combattimento di Trancredi e Clorinda (Venice Carnival season, 1624) draws its libretto from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, Canto XII, its backdrop the First Crusade. A Christian knight, Tancredi, is in love with Clorinda, a Saracen warrior woman. One last night they meet in combat. Failing to recognise her in the darkness, he wounds her mortally. Baptized by his hand, life fading, she sees Heaven opening. Four centuries on, it remains an extraordinary, tonally radical setting, dissonances and non-committal fifths tensioning the narrative. Were Monteverdi with us today he’d be a bearded young sound-designer journeying planets beyond. The instrumentation is radically innovative, double-fingered pizzicato, notated tremolo and other agitations conveying the sonics of medieval battle – horses, trumpets, swords, circling combatants. Plato’s “harmony that would fittingly imitate the utterances of a brave man who is engaged in warfare” somewhere in the mix.

Preceded by six madrigals, principally from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book (Venice 1638), Victoria Newlyn’s production – “developed through workshopping and devising” – sets the action in a 1920s’ atelier, her immersive direction focussed on “the notion of the artist making art – [intersecting] with power, politics and personhood”. GSMD’s young company (around 120 strong, all departments) responded vigorously, though (from the outset) an inclination to over-act in places, plus a transient lack of self-conviction on the part of some, occasionally lessened the global impact. Now and again deliberated moves and gestures brought to mind the angular two-dimensionalism of pharaonic imagery, not always happily. The borderline between manner and mannerism, commedia and caricature, is a fine one. The first-night cast for Il combattimento showcased Louisa Stirland as a progressively believable Clorinda (her death scene – crumpling to the floor like a feather in slow descent – could scarcely have been better); Jonathan Eyers as Tancredi (albeit more Anglo than Italianate); and Eliran Kadussi as the Narrator (a wiry, vocally agile countertenor/actor of star potential). Earlier, in Zefiro torna (Scherzi musicali, 1632), Nancy Holt dazzled (her characterful naturally sited voice and budding personality holding the stage: the “famous actress [who] comes and goes … muse and inspiration”).

Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1927), Kurt Weill’s one-act opera buffa to a libretto by Georg Kaiser, takes place in another artisan setting, this time a photographer’s studio in 1914 Montmartre – run by the voluptuous, opportunity-seeking Angèle of uncertain age – that gets commandeered by a gang of rain-coated assassins out to shoot the Tsar. In the morally rampant, inflation cursed, politically extremist, plot-and-murder climate of the Weimar Republic, it enjoyed considerable popularity until it was suppressed by the Nazis in 1933, apparently, according to Michael Berkowitz, because its plot “deliberately revolves around what a European audience would have assumed were a set of really stock Jewish characters, not only a pioneering woman photographer, [photographers] were nearly all Jewish then, but also a group of anarchist terrorists.” What the programme book omitted to tell us was that it dates from a notably fruitful, audience-responsive period in Weill’s life, in between Mahagonny-Songspiel and Die Dreigroschenoper  the three works introduced respectively in Baden-Baden, Leipzig and Berlin between July 1927 and August 1928. An example of the short-lived Zeitoper genre, elements of satire, humour, trans-Atlantic jazz, and the advancing technology and mechanicals of one brief decade, input its world and tenor, more threatening undercurrents, suggestive if imprecise subtexts, darkening the complexities and climaxes of the through-composed (rather than number-orientated) score. A couple of dances – the foxtrot accompanying the Tsar’s entrance, the ‘Tango Angèle’ – the latter, a best-selling shellac in its day, pre-recorded for the 1928 premiere, its grooves crackling with dust and amorously acid fingerprints (cf Respighi’s recorded nightingale in Pines of Rome) – leave a distinctive period taste.

Jack Holton, tall of stature, suave in pale summer suit, stood his ground manfully as the Tsar. Erin Gwyn Rossington as the honey-trap ‘False Angèle’ – the chosen but thwarted assassin of the take-over mob – entertained in a virtuosic display of words, looks, actions, struts and projection, claiming the role for herself. More contained in its busy-ness than the Monteverdi half of this double-bill, design (Louie Whitemore) and lighting (Jake Wiltshire) came together organically. In his later American years Weill came to regret writing Der Zar lässt sich photographieren. But it’s enjoyed a fair track record since. This isn’t the first time the Guildhall School has done it. Stephen Medcalf’s production was heard in 1997. It is, though, the School’s first airing of the new reduced orchestration by Vahan Salorian, a former composition graduate – calling for two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, percussion, piano and strings

The instrumental side of the evening was in the care of Chris Hopkins. The Monteverdi – string quartet, violone, baroque guitar and harp, doubled theorbos and harpsichords, equal temperament A=440 (putting a strain on the higher soprano vocals in passages but nonetheless, Andrew Parrott’s words, “a demonstrable historical pitch” with which Monteverdi would have been familiar) – had its expressive moments but the dryness of the room, combined with relatively little eye contact, made for a somewhat distant, detached impression, the players conceivably, oddly, never quite wanting to fuse as an interactive ensemble. Everyone concentrated hard, but greater presence (not necessarily projection) together with better placing/balancing was needed from the keyboards and theorbos – which one might have had reason to expect given that they were in pairs. The offstage male choir, enlarged forces and varied timbre of the Weill fared better, adjusting more fluidly to Silk Street’s upfront acoustic and enveloping haze, Hopkins’s beat clear to the end, nurturing and practical in his support.

Collection of Monteverdi Madrigals
Claudio Monteverdi Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Kurt Weill Der Zar lässt sich photographieren

Christopher Hopkins conductor
Victoria Newlyn director
Louie Whitemore designer
Jake Wiltshire lighting designer