Respighi: Double Bill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Colin Clarke
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Respighi's Maria egiziaca and La bella dormente nel bosco sit side-by-side in this impressive performance from the Guildhall


The cast of Respighi's La bella dormente nel boscPhoto: David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is known for its ambition, be it the staging of a Viardot opera (Cendrillon, ON Jan 22) or, indeed, a triple bill of Massenet, Smyth and Rota.

Just two operas this time – both by Respighi, and neither originally an opera proper. Maria egiziaca (Saint Mary of Egypt) was conceived as a concert piece within a liturgical setting; La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty) was a puppet opera, with the roles sung within the orchestral space. Here, under the sure hand of director Victoria Newlyn, both appeared in traditional stage format. A single set sufficed for both pieces (Laura Jane Stanfield, designer), differently adorned and lit, but perfectly apt for both. Lighting, by Jake Wiltshire, expertly created harmonious atmospheres.

The score of Maria egiziaca includes written quotations from the Life of St Mary of Egypt, achieved here via projection during the orchestral interludes. Both ‘operas’ use small ensemble, neither using Respighi’s beloved harp.

In accordance with its non-operatic origins, Maria egiziaca is laid out in three ‘episodes’ rather than acts, separated by those interludes. As in La bella, Respighi creates miracles with his forces; it sounded, too as if the Guildhall players were inspired by this orchestrational thrift. Dominic Wheeler, who previously conducted Menotti’s The Telephone and Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune here (ON May 2022), clearly understands both operas well. Most pertinently, perhaps, he was aware of the different tintas that Respighi creates for each piece: there is a respectful religiosity to Maria, and a lighter touch for Sleeping Beauty.

Yolisa Ngwexana as Voice of an Angel in Maria egiziaca | Photo: David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

There are some stand-out singers here: Vladyslava Ionascu-Yakovenko's Maria and Yolisa Ngwexana as Voice of an Angel (and, later, as Blue Fairy in La bella). The Sailor Maria meets early in Maria egiziaca heard Steven van der Linden in strong voice. A determining factor in Maria’s journey, though, is the zealous Pilgrim, who later appears in more mature form as Abbate Zosima. This is a baritone role, well taken by Alaric Green. Casting was clearly carefully considered throughout. 

La bella dormente nel bosco (known initially as La bella adoramentata nel bosco) is another miracle of scoring. Respighi sets up an alternate universe, sculpting the whole in light, airy textures perfectly reflected by the young Guildhall players. The piece has all the ingredients to delight – a couple of fairies (blue and green) and a cat. Who could want more? A small chorus reveals the high standard of singing generally at the Guildhall.

The performance was luminous. This story is of revenge (the Green Fairy is green for a reason: ‘A King has no power over an angry green fairy,’ as Gian Bistolfi’s libretto has it) and human-fae relations (the Blue Fairy is the Princess’ protectrix), of a pricked finger, deep sleep and the all-powerful warmth of the month of April. The singing was as delicious as Respighi’s score. With Ana-Carmen Balestra as a gloriously-voiced Princess, Shana Moron-Caravel and Joe Chalmers as strong Queen and King respectively, Holly Brown completely convincing as the Green Fairy and Yolisa Ngwexana as an agile Blue Fairy, all magic ingredients are present and correct.

A beautifully balanced evening positively dripping in musical talent. This is what conservatoire opera is all about.


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