Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us
Bizet La jolie fille de Perth

Henry Smith – Huw Rhys-Evans
Mab – Harriet Williams
Catherine Glover – Judith Howarth
Ralph – Jonathan Gunthorpe
Simon Glover – Martin Robson
Duke of Rothesay – Damian Thantrey

Chelsea Opera Group / Dominic Wheeler

Cadogan Hall, London – 30 June 2007

“Why has this tuneful opera been so unjustly neglected?” was the question on everyone's lips at Cadogan Hall yesterday evening, and the only answer I can come up with is that it got off to a very poor start.   Presented with a weak libretto which stripped the plot of all its romantic Scottish colour and then threw in a Bohemian Gypsy Queen to confuse matters further, Bizet fell back on standard operatic ploys to create his drama.    He also wrote exceptionally florid coloratura arias for the title role as the celebrated Swedish diva Christine Nilsson, renowned for her interpretation of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor , had been engaged.     When Nilsson withdrew, her substitute proved disappointing and the critics' verdict was damning.  

But, to quote from a pre-performance talk written by Christopher Fifield but read for him in his absence, the piece is “well on its way along the operatic yellow-brick-road to Carmen” .   Beecham was it's strong advocate, giving the UK premiere in 1917 (his 1949 recording is still available on Beulah 12PD20), and very recently David Lloyd-Jones has researched the Paris archives to produce an edition heard at last year's Buxton Festival and repeated here.

From the opening bars of the overture it was immediately apparent that conductor Dominic Wheeler was shaping each phrase with loving care.   This graceful opening leads straight into the sound of hammer on anvil and a robust blacksmith's chorus introducing our hero, the aptly named Henry Smith (sung with rugged honesty by Huw Rhys-Evans).   By now Bizet's roller-coaster is running and all the stock clichés follow virtually without a break.   Mab delivers her gypsy's warning (Harriet Williams, a nicely rounded earthy sounding mezzo), Catherine our heroine makes an entrance (Judith Howarth in a red and green outfit that nicely hinted at tartan, and a steely voice that bit into her coloratura with relish), and she and Henry join forces in a delightful Valentine duet.   Enter the fly in the ointment, the opportunistic and smooth talking Duke (Damian Thantrey looking every inch a matinee idol, with creamy voice to match) and the duet becomes a trio.   The return of Mab leads to a quartet, with beautiful evenly placed voices and a big finale to the first act.

Act 2 gets underway with a march and carnival chorus.   Then there is the gypsies Bohemian dance, starting very quietly and rhythmically with woodwind, harp and plucked strings and building to a spectacular frenzy.      On to the tenor's Serenade, the one aria that has held its place in the repertoire, delivered with charming restraint, to be replaced by the apprentice's drinking song (Jonathan Gunthorpe in his element and with the most fluent sounding French of the evening).

A minuet for flute and harp opens Act 3 (a demanding evening for flautist Roy Bell and harpist Maria Beattie), familiar from its inclusion in the second   L'arlesienne suite, and develops into a duet for Mab and the Duke – this seems to be the one place where Bizet's instincts failed him, as the orchestration seems to sit uncomfortably high for a mezzo/baritone combination.    By this stage Catherine's imagination and jealousy are in overdrive and in her next aria we hear the beginning of her decline into insanity with Judith Howard's voice rising above the orchestra with ease.

Act 4 is generally regarded as too ludicrous for enjoyment, but the musical standard remains high.   It begins with a tenor / baritone duet which Huw Rhys-Evans and Jonathan Gunthorpe made every bit as effective as Au fond du temple sainte , the St Valentine's Chorus is convincingly the best ensemble of the opera, and Judith Howarth triumphantly swooped and trilled her way through Catherine's mad Ballade.    Just as it looks as though a disastrous ending is inevitable, the misunderstandings are cleared up, and sanity and joy are restored.

It all worked splendidly in a gimmick-free concert performance with no surtitles, and the audience went away longing for more.      A very marked contrast to the truly appalling mess of Kismet I had endured earlier in the week at ENO.

Serena Fenwick