Madcap mayhem! Aulis Sallinen's The King goes forth to France is off the wall. England is in the grip of an Ice Age, so the Prince of England, four girlfriends and the populace cross the bridge over the channel (yes) and invade France. Cue for ragtag armies of archers, Genoese, blind Bohemians and the houses of Parliament wielded like a cannon. Don't ask.
Guildhall School of Music operas are a delicious secret not known to the mainstream Establishment. This production shows why. Guildhall students have fire. It's refreshing to hear performers so enthusiastic that the lack of polish actually makes the experience more exciting. Who cares about note perfect when they're clearly pouring out their hearts ?
The King goes forth to France was a good choice because its crowd scenes let many students participate. They need the thrill of "live" to grow. This is an opera with so many vignettes everyone gets a chance to contribute. It's full of gags, visual, vocal, and musical, which stretch the performers so they learn their craft while having fun. Indeed, this is "why" the Guildhall is important. Statistically only a very tiny minority end up at La Scala or the Vienna Philharmonic. But the experience of performance will remain with them forever, enhancing their lives whatever they go on to do. From an employers point of view, students like these are a good bet because they've learned to care about things, to work in teams, and that trying your best is spiritually more rewarding in the long run than coasting.
The opera itself has its ups and downs. It's funny, which is almost harder to do than depressing. In Finnish, apparently, the text is hilarious, full of puns which have Finns howling with laughter. In English, we have to make do with visuals like the procession where the peasants carry symbols of Englishness like fish and chips, football scarves, Colman's mustard etc. Then when we get to France the locals carry placards marked "Fermé". The plot's mindless, but then so is reality, these days. It could be blacker, but let's be glad of small mercies. This opera has only ever been staged in the UK once, years ago at ROH.
A friend of mine attended the Covent Garden performance, hated it then and hated it again. The Guildhall performers are definitely not to blame though. For one thing, Sallinen wants to pile so much in that the business becomes busyness. Like telling the same joke ad nauseum. After a while it gets stale. After nearly three hours, your brain goes numb. I learned this opera from the (only) recording, which meant I could hit pause and get it in smaller doses.
But it was worth going to for the performers. Many, like Derek Welton as the Prince/King have interesting voices that will adapt to many things. He's singing Jephta, on 12th March, part of the London Handel celebrations. Hanna Hipp (blessed with a name the Gods could not have devised better) as The Anne who Strips, has real dramatic flair. The part is great, but I suspect, it's partly thanks to her ability to make it so. Ensembles were tightly directed - I liked that mock marching with hops! The scene with the Calais burghers was very well done. In groups like this, individuals don't stand out but one of them drew the eye and ear. Perhaps that is the secret ingredient no-one can ever teach - charisma and personality. Even if we all don't end up mega bucks like Bryn Terfel, this is what makes a person interesting.
These productions deserve support. Coming up next, in June, is an intelligent programme - Martinu's The Marriage and Rossini's La cambiale di matrimonio. Anyone in London, pencil it in your diary.