The Duenna: English Touring Opera - Linbury Studio, 13 October 2010
English Touring Opera are back at the soon to be reopened (yay!) Hackney Empire next spring, but meanwhile the Royal Opera House are kindly putting them up. I was lucky enough to nab a ticket for the first of three long-sold-out shows of The Duenna in the Linbury Studio before it goes on tour round the country.
If there was a prize for most fun night of the season so far at Covent Garden, The Duenna would win it.
But is it an opera?
At least half is spoken dialogue, the most vital half too. You could follow the story if the music was taken out, but not the other way round. The author is Richard Brinsley Sheridan, so perhaps that’s not so surprising. Fresh from the success of The Rivals he devised his opera in a similar vein.
The age-old story of young lovers prevailing against a monstrous father with the aid of a cunning servant (the Duenna of the title) is distinguished by Sheridan’s ferociously tight plotting and the eloquent, sardonic, Irish wit of his language. The interleaved songs come from Sheridan’s father-in-law and brother-in-law, both named Thomas Linley. Linley senior was a noted composer, his son a 19 year old who died just three years later. Linley junior has been compared (not least in this show's programme notes) to his contemporary Mozart. While I could certainly hear that, it’s the Mozart of Bastien und Bastienne, not the mature composer. It is tempting to wonder how Linley’s gift might have developed. At this early stage, charming simplicity and colourful characterisation are its main virtues, and Linley junior’s contributions sit easily alongside his father’s.
Michael Barker-Caven’s clever production made the most of limited space and a tight budget with a portable set of skeleton walls and windows that concealed eavesdroppers and framed the asides.
The ETO Orchestra I think did the music justice, though there was plenty of rough, slipshod playing and dodgy tuning along the way. The singing wouldn’t win any prizes for finesse either, though it’s fair to say the cast seemed to have been picked more on the basis of their uniformly excellent acting abilities. The most experienced came out best, with Nuala Willis a brave standout in the title role. Richard Suart was in fine blustering form as the dyspeptic father of the unwilling bride, and Adrian Thompson was splendidly idiotic as her vain and unwanted suitor, Isaac Mendoza.
After a gap of some 170 years since its last Covent Garden outing, the score had been lovingly reconstructed for this production with due respect to authorial intentions. But of course all the casual anti-Semitism of the original text's references to Mendoza - as the “cunning Jew” and so on – was plucked. Not all of Sheridan’s humour is timeless.
Incidentally, the advertised 2 hours 35 minutes length is way short of the mark – plan for at least 3 hours if you’re going.