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Gian Carlo Menotti The Saint of Bleecker Street
Trinity College of Music
Peacock Theatre, London 12 July 2003

Annina Julie Kench
Michele James Scarlett
Desideria Vanessa Heine
Don Marco Ian Pope
Carmela Nicola Pulford
Maria Corona Elizabeth Cameron
Assunta Helen Johnson
Salvatore Tim Hamilton

Director Richard Williams
Conductor Gregory Rose
Design David Collis
Lighting and Projection Arnim Freiss

Gian Carlo Menotti's under-rated opera about faith and doubt (represented by Annina & Michele) has an undercurrent of sibling incestual attraction - not brought out explicitly in Richard William's production - which leads to the doubting Michele murdering his taunting girlfriend, Desideria. Both are outsiders, rejected by the crowd of 'believers' assembled around Annina and her visions in the first Act, and as witnesses to her rejection of the material world in the last. Michele returns as a fugitive, fruitlessly trying to interrupt her investiture as a Bride of Christ and transfer to Heaven in the last.

Summarised baldly, the story may seem trite and in New York The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) had a popular success but mixed critical reaction, some dismissing it as melodramatic, sensationalist and Pucciniesque pastiche. But it has survived revivals and this London opportunity to re-assess it is greatly to be welcomed.

A good background essay discusses the Menotti phenomenon in depth: " - - It is no secret that Menotti has never been the darling of the avant-garde. - - Approve of him or not, he has single-handedly changed the American attitude toward opera, as Benjamin Britten did in England. Amahl, The Saint, The Medium, The Consul, and the Globolinks are performed all over the world, although lovers of the arcane resent his accessibility. - - Who else has made opera so available to such a wide audience?" (Paul Wittke)

I saw The Medium and The Consul some 40-50 years ago, and remember their impact still; I have a special spot for Amahl and the Night Visitors since the late '60s, when my boy-soprano son Simon Woolf starred in Chelsea Opera Group's production at Southwark Cathedral, as the crippled Amahl, miraculously cured.

Trinity College of Music does not have a specialist post-graduate opera department, but taken on its own excellent terms the broad-based vocal department offers a wide experience in preparation for the real musical world as it is. I have in the past admired their productions of Purcell's King Arthur in Greenwich, Diana Burrell's The Albatross at Spitalfields, Monteverdi's Poppea at St Bartholomew's in the City, and now The Saint of Bleecker Street at the Peacock Theatre. Following those links will give you a rounded picture of Trinity's enterprise and achievement in this field.

I was curious, and a little apprehensive, to hear and see a Menotti opera again so many years on. Richard Williams and Gregory Rose delivered a well thought out and carefully prepared account of The Saint of Bleecker Street and the young orchestra relished the score, which they played with enthusiasm and finesse. Balance was good at The Peacock and a sufficient proportion of the words came through. It works well theatrically and is altogether more interesting than I was expecting from the plot synopsis.

We saw the second of two casts, and Julie Kench was outstanding as Annina, her voice clear and true - and without the disturbing vibrato to be heard on the Chandos recording from Menotti's Spoletto Festival [Chandos CHAN 9971]. The supporting cast was fully adequate with some promising operatic singers, but I do not think it appropriate to discuss them individually, having not seen the other cast. The chorus was excellent and the settings suggested life in New York's "Little Italy" effectively and inexpensively. I am sure this two hour opera gave those of us at the Peacock Theatre a more rewarding experience than the 75 minutes of Pagliacci at Covent Garden (£160/seat) which has monopolised critical attention these days.

Trinity College of Music's programme book has a lot of thought provoking articles. I append a section of one by Gavin Henderson, Principal:

From an interview with Menotti, April 2003: Why does “The Saint of Bleecker Street” hold such a special place in your affections?
Because it mirrors my “fight with the angel” which started with “The Medium” and which still haunts me. It is a fight between faith and darkness. Faith, says St Augustine, is a gift and is represented here by Anina. Michele represents doubt. I believe that these two things are constantly at war, yet love each other. I am both of these characters and myself reflect what they stand for. When I had just started the opera, I went to visit Padre Pio da Pietrelcina because I was curious to meet a saint, even in the guise of a rough peasant. At the time, I was depressed by the conventionality of his words.

The Peacock Theatre, now owned by the London School of Economics, owes its title to a legacy from a former student, as does the Peacock Room for recitals and competitions at Trinity College of Music. On the first night of The Saint of Bleecker Street, Michael Peacock was awarded Honorary Fellowship of Trinity College of Music.

Malcolm Williamson Our Man in Havana
Trinity College of Music Opera Company
Director Richard Williams Conductor Gregory Rose
Greenwich Theatre, 8 July 2004 (further performances 9 & 10 July)

Chosen for its topicality (a tale of presumed WMDs and MI6 incompetence) and revived for Grahame Greene's centenary, this whimsical story of a failing vacuum-cleaner salesman, who became a spy in pre-Castro Cuba to satisfy his daughter's expensive tastes, stretched Trinity's operatic capacities too far. This was immediately apparent from the beginning of the tricky overture and the singing gave no comfort. It is a very English story and British music colleges nowadays have many students from abroad; an English language coach was conspiculously missing from the credits!

Hard to know if Williamson's opera (Sadlers Wells, 1963) could be viable given now professionally? "Wrong note" parody needs to be given with the right wrong notes and the score was too complex for this orchestra and taxing for the principals. Sets and lighting were good, but Richard Williams was unable to mould his young cast into credible inhabitants of Greene's imaginary Havana, though the chorus entered into the South American spirit with a will. Not one of Trinity College of Music's happiest nights.

P.S. It is good to report that this production appeared to have improved significantly after the first night! I am happy to direct readers to the reports of later performances on Classical Source and Seen&Heard.


© Peter Grahame Woolf