Daniel Marles (Painting) intrigues the others with his artistic (and vocal) skills in Les arts florissants Pictures: Vitaliy Turovskyy 

Charpentier: Les arts florissants

Offenbach: Mesdames de la Halle

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire/Leamington Music

The Dream Factory, Warwick


The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, now part of Birmingham City University, continues to extend and enlarge its role at an alarming rate. And most beneficially. Solo, chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral studies have all long made their mark, bringing national and indeed international, fame.

One recent coup has been to merge with the Birmingham School of Acting. Theatre has brought a new element to the Conservatoire’s far-reaching studies.

And then there is Opera. The department has just had some great hot news for Birmingham, giving it a substantial lift. Major grant-making Foundation The Linbury Trust (a part of The Sainsbury Family Trust network) has agreed to provide significant support for the RBC’s opera projects over a three-year period. If that isn’t heartening, what is?

And now too it has teamed up in an ongoing collaboration with the indefatigable and astoundingly inventive Leamington Music, whose presentation of concerts in Leamington Spa and Warwick seems to span the whole year round. That accounts for their scintillating appearance at The Dream Factory in Warwick, home of Playbox Theatre. It’s a marriage that may produce many dividends.

Charlotte Day

The captivating Charlotte Day as the ravishing La Musique, who opens Charpentier's Les arts florissants

Opera is now shared with vocal studies (perhaps they could be separated) and headed by Paul Wingfield, who as a conductor has achieved a wealth of top-level experience since he was appointed a ‘Jette Parker’ Young Artist at the Royal Opera. Bury Court Opera’s The Turn of the Screw, which I saw, owed its excellence above all to him. Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Strauss’s Capriccio and Die Frau ohne Schatten and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, in all of which he was involved, evidence how he owes his present prowess not just to the staple repertoire.

His activities since taking over at Birmingham bear this out. Recent RBC stagings include their latest, this March, Banished, by Stephen McNeff - a new opera about the almost century-long brutality expended on convicts exiled to Tasmania. There’s more of this ilk staged by Birmingham: notably Mark-Anthony Turnage’s latest, Coraline (2018), drawn from a dark, scary children’s novella. The Conservatoire clearly embraces contemporary opera with eagerness: doubly valuable for its students.

Meanwhile full operas – two (in this case, three) a year – have come right into their own at The Royal Birmingham. In a novel, outrageous venture, they have had the cheek this summer to pair together Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 5-scene late 17th century opéra (or ‘Idylle en musique’) Les arts florissants - mainly a secular ode in praise of Louis XIV, benign patron of the Arts - with the ever-impertinent Jacques Offenbach: his opérette bouffe – comic operetta – Mesdames de la Halle.


The malicious Discord (Oliver Barker) tries out his evil charms on Peace (Julia Morgan) in Charpentier's Les arts florissants

Comic? More like side-splitting. This Mesdames is about as light as they get – pastiche rather than probing characterisation, a deliciously trivial and weedy plot from Armand Lapointe, 1822-1910, who scripted only one for Offenbach but wrote almost 40 libretti for others.

But first came the exquisite Charpentier. French opera of this period – the relatively early Baroque – requires a frightening degree of finesse to pinpoint its exquisite detail authentically. The opera is essentially an Allegory. Jupiter (as mentioned here) is often – an alias for, perhaps a creeping to, royalty: (Everything weeps unless you return the light of day’. ‘You return the [golden] age of Saturn and Rhea’.) In Purcell’s welcoming odes the monarch is frequently given a mythical name, or parallel, which represents the power of the state, of authority – meaning here, Louis XI.

This was explained to be conductor Fraser Goulding’s first sortie into early Baroque opera. But one can see why he, and his leadership, are so much in demand. Accurate, finessed, often buoyant.

The Conservatoire’s orchestra shines: here a small ensemble - committed, attractively paired violins, enchanting recorders and hard-worked cello (viol) and harpsichord - for Charpentier, evincing polished, affecting and persuasive contrasts; and a generous larger chamber band for the Offenbach.


The touching Ciboulette, in search of her abandoning parents to gain permission to marry her love-lorn kitchen boy, Croûte-au-Pot (the equally enchanting Matilda Wale)

In both operas all instrumentalist, with striking assurance, scored again and again, with some solo detail particularly striking, but all of them sprightly, expressive and at every turn laudably together.

The Director, Stuart Barker, RBC’s Director of Training and Productions, is vastly experienced at producing student opera for virtually all the major Music Conservatoires.

And his delicate, original staging caught Charpentier’s allegorical text to perfection: elegant moves, and poses, and stances truck, and subtly designed shifting blockings for the black-clad main characters, Music, Poetry, Painting and Architecture, in that order, so that at the outset fabulous Charlotte Day had an opportunity to produce a gorgeously light, almost pointilliste character and tone as Music, possibly the most affecting of all, and heralding Poetry and Architecture (Genevieve Hawes and Katie Hackman); whilst the tenor, Daniel Marles (often in highish countertenor range) evinced a lovely, enticing sound, indicating much promise, as Painting.

The Arts were not entirely florissants: a mischief-maker muscles in. The two main personnel were Peace (Julia Morgan – it’s she who equates Louis XIV with Jupiter)  - and her opposite, Discord (Oliver Barker), jealous of the King’s achievement (‘The deep abyss of the land of darkness’). Eventually he is kicked out (back to the Underworld) and the imperturbable Peace restores order. They, like all the rest, captured the mood and their individual characters ideally; whilst Barker’s direction was subtle, scrupulous, precise and fastidious throughout: just what this mid-17th century genre needs, and by which, as here, it can excel.

Conversely Barker really went to town on Mesdames de la Halle. This joyous romp gave the students a field day, in which they expounded the comic text as if they had been devising comedy all their lives.

One important feature was the incredibly colourful costumes – all designed and manufactured by students from the University’s relevant department(s). You had to laugh just to look at them. But Barker imported such endless scuttlings and visual uproar that something was constantly happening: there was never a dull moment; and I guess one word that applies is the teamwork he elicited.


Pushy vegetable seller Mme Beurrefondu (Oliver Barker) tries out his bizarre gossip on neighbour Mme Madou (here, Charlie Murray, on right).

One moment, one sequence of moves folded naturally into one another. Even the crazy tiffs, jealousies, feuds and fisticuffs - then making up and reembracing again - of the two most prominent competing vegetable market vendors – do they really deserve the term ‘ladies’? - Mme Madou (Alex Pratley) and the brilliantly acted, endlessly farcical, giggle-inducing Mme Beurrefondu, ‘I’ve got a succulent leek’ - Oliver Barker (again).

And so we laughed. And laughed. Even when the earnest little lad Croûte-au-Pot, a sweet, lovesick and believably youthful Charlotte Browne, avoids the clutches of these raunchy merchandesses and searches desperately for his true love. She was wonderful. And if several other voices were pretty awe-inspiring, the charming Ciboulette, like her languishing boyfriend, was the most tuneful of all. Not least when she reaches up for high tessitura (top notes). The pair’s duet, winding around one another with such elegance, was pure enchantment.

Other characters mostly beamed. The fish-seller (Mme. Poiretapée, Archie Playdon), a fine voice across the range, and remarkably acquiescent, at least not too ruffled, at the end (when it emerges that she is the abandoning mum. So did the not quite pompous Drum Major, Raflafla, not allocated an exactly challenging role by Offenbach, until the sudden overturn at the end (he is the missing papa, Figaro-style). The police officer (Commissaire, Henry Saywell) is quite happy to be bribed so the vendeuses he has arrested can get back to their stall.

And when the sweet young Ciboulette comes up with lines like ‘You are the light that shines in my firmament; ‘The God of Love will visit us’ we seem almost back to Les arts florissants and its traditional, over-the-top extolling of Louis XIV. Just as Croûte-au-Pot’s poignant aria (‘Ma Ciboulette’) needs charm and delicacy (like their duet), so Ciboulette’s ditty calls, partly, for bounce: qualities Fraser Goulding brought alluringly to the fore with his agreeably brilliant players, some of whom excelled in solo (perfectly phrased clarinet, trumpet, etc.) and all of whom shone, gloriously, in the fuller orchestral scenes, not least the build-up to and delivery, with huge and cheery aplomb, of the glittering, ebullient finish.

Roderic Dunnett


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