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Jonathan Dove The Little Green Swallow (British Premiere)
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 2nd & 8th June 2005

Dominic Wheeler, conductor
Martin Lloyd-Evans, director
Dick Bird, designer
Joanna Poole, costume designer
Simon Corder, lighting designer

The Guildhall School has enterprisingly given the British premiere of Jonathan Dove's opera, mounted originally in Italian and outdoors at the Batignano Festival in 1994 - 'a spectacular and very popular production'.

We saw the new production at its first night in a new English translation by Adam Pollock. On BBC Radio 3 Jonathan Dove enthused about the pleasure of understanding every word in one's own language. He deceived himself, and it commonly happens that a production team becomes so familiar with the material during the rehearsal stages that it loses touch with how it may come across to the audience.

It is an ambitious and complicated work, which takes up characters from Gozzi’s fable, The Love for Three Oranges, familiarised by Prokofiev. There is 'intrigue and magic, journeys and dangerous quests, satirical philosophy, encounters with singing statues, and a green swallow who is really a king under a spell', delivered by a cast of eleven major principal roles and no chorus. The scoring is for an instrumental ensemble of twelve (like Britten's for his chamber operas) which packs a punch and can easily drown the singers.

The production is directed with great flair by Martin Lloyd-Evans (the new Resident Producer to the Opera Course), but with less lucidity than might help. It looks good in the fantastic setting, designed by Dick Bird with great imaginativeness. For long stretches we caught no more than occasional words - and rarely the sense of them - and we wished it had been given in the original Italian with Guildhall's English sur-titles (it needs to be reiterated that they are often - usually? - desirable in Opera in English too for productions in London before mixed audiences (including tourists of many nationalities) and - in our colleges - by student singers from many countries and with variable command of English.

I shall be seeing it again for two reasons, first to try to understand it better (maybe getting a chance to read the libretto beforehand) and secondly to hear the second of Guildhall's two alternating casts (second casts often don't get reviewed). Suffice to tell that the Green Swallow itself is taken marvellously by Iestyn Morris, a great roller-blading counter-tenor of the new generation, and he appears in all performances. I shall try to augment this review after Wednesday's performance.

Jonathan Dove The Little Green Swallow SECOND VIEWING 8th June 2005

I had an opportunity to study the text in the full score (Edition Peters 7763) before seeing the second cast; the libretto is not published separately. My first impressions were confirmed. The libretto (originally adapted by 'cutting and shaping Gozzi's words') is unsatisfactory in its translated complexity, and I doubt whether much more had got across to the first audience outdoors in Italy? The expository first act is surely too long and ripe for cutting which need not be damaging; there are lengthy slow passages puctuated by pauses whch grow wearisome, and you want them to get on with it.

The Guildhall production is anti-romantic, copiously illustrative in detail, and executed with skill and dedication by both casts. But you have to struggle to perceive the pitfalls of pride and luxury as enacted in sets which are dominated by office racks full of cardboard boxes and assorted commercial dummy body parts etc, with quite elaborate demotic props on wheels in which the once-distinguished characters are moved around from time to time unceremoniously. One of those boxes houses the singing torso of a poet-seer, whose words mostly go for nothing, and a great deal is lost of the important utterances of the two French-born statues, and from those of the three Apples (parts intended for Three Boys - c.f. Magic Flute).

Many of the roles did not allow the experienced Guildhall singers to appear at their best; Helen Evora deserves praise for spending most of the evening in a slimy sewer, where she sings and enunciates her tribulations beautifully. Iestyn Morris's Swallow is irreplaceable; he again seized eyes and ears each time he flew onto stage, an tall, gangling Tom Oldham was the better King. Most notable in the second cast was Rafael Vásquez, who had given up lucrative prospects in International Law to switch to singing, as he discussed with Sean Rafferty on Radio 3. He made a great deal of his role as the twin Renzo, and his diction was impeccable.

Dove's music is pleasant and accomplished as always, but is not of quality and intrinsic interest sufficient to hold attention on its own. The Little Green Swallow would however work well on CD with full texts, and this production might have made a worth-while DVD. Guildhall should grasp this recurrent issue and follow the audience-driven initiative at ENO just announced, and settle for English surtitles at all performances, including operas in English.

Until tomorrow you can hear Jonathan Dove discussing his opera with two of the singers on BBC Radio 3 (In Tune - Listen Again).

See reviews of other Jonathan Dove operas and community operas

© Peter Grahame Woolf