There’s possibly no better place to try out opera and musical theatre in London than at its music colleges: intense, international competition sets the level high, ticket prices are sensible, the casts fresh and raw – but diligently prepared – and the shows overseen by professional creative teams.
Albert Herring, earlier this month at the Royal College of Music, was another example of young voices igniting an opera. But in Liam Steel‘s affectionate 1950s production, vividly conducted by Michael Rosewell, it was the cocktail of innocence and experience that lit comic fire: Janis Kelly’s (who teaches at the RCM) magnificently haughty Lady Billows grounded the production, her power and risk-taking rubbing off on the youngsters around her, particularly Julien van Mellaert’s obsequious vicar and a bold-as-brass, sweet-toned Nancy (Angela Simkin). Nick Pritchard as Albert himself (in one cast) plays a long game: painfully convincing as a diffident, awkward lad in the first half, he reserves his vocal radiance for the drunken revelries. No arch hamming-it-up required: here’s a real Albert, with a tenor full of glistening promise.
Of course, not everything can be finely-honed: but what’s so compelling about these performances is the way they reveal the distinction between artistic flight and what precedes it, that mysterious moment of dramatic coalescence. In Guys and Dolls, Rebecca Lee (playing the missionary Sarah Brown who falls for gambler Sky) began with a flat, one-dimensional ‘I’ll know’, but in ‘If I were a bell’, with Bill Deamer’s delightfully frisky choreography, she lights up, we relax, she’s there.
Most impressive in finding that tilting edge, where spontaneity slips in, were Katrina McKreever’s irresistible dancing girl Adelaide, with her Queens’ drawl and throaty cackle, and the greasy, wedding-shy spiv Nathan Detroit (Oscar Batterham), the only characters with some dirt under the fingernails and convincingly sore feet. Accents ranged wildly across the Atlantic, and I’ve never seen such an adorably wholesome troupe of Hot Box Dolls, but Adam Wiltshire’s slick, realist set and Michael Haslam’s sassy orchestra (bristling with personality and touching detail) lifted this stalwart on to a comfortably professional level.
In a crowded scene the colleges fulfil a remit, too, of staging rareties and premieres: the Guildhall School of Music’s intriguing double-bill earlier this summer of Henze’s operas, The Country Doctor and Phaedra was an audacious proposition that paid off. Next year, GSMAD students collaborate with the Royal Opera House on Philip Venables new piece Psychosis 4.48, and this November the opera department will stage Wolf-Ferrari’s Le donne curiose.
The Royal Academy/Juilliard’s inspired commission of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Kommilitonen! (2011) gave the world an indelible new chamber opera. In November, Dame Janet Suzman makes her directorial debut with a radical Le nozze di Figaro and Royal Academy students at the Hackney Empire. Keep your eyes peeled on the college websites, and get tickets before the doting parents and talent-scouts snap them up.
From 2 November: Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose, GSMAD, Silk Street Theatre
From 1 November: Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Academy of Music/Jane Glover, Hackney Empire