I Pazzi Per Progetto/The Dancing Master review – rarities very much of their time

Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
From an opera set in a mental institution to a bawdy tale of racial stereotypes, these two curios are nonetheless enjoyable

This Guildhall School double bill is a pair of rarities, of which each is very much of its time. In 1830, it didn’t seem a bad idea to set a farce in a mental hospital, as Donizetti did in I Pazzi Per Progretto; in 1952, one could expect laughs from deluded Englishmen pretending to be Johnny Foreigner, as Malcolm Arnold did in The Dancing Master.

Back then, when the BBC turned down Arnold’s reworked Restoration comedy, it was not for the cringeworthy stereotypes, but for its supposed bawdiness – a decision of baffling prudery which, combined with Arnold’s general decline in fortune, meant the opera languished until a 2006 studio broadcast. Whether or not this really is its first full staging, it certainly has novelty value, and the music has more than that: conducted pacily by Dominic Wheeler, Arnold’s score is exuberant, brassy and mercurial; in the context, you can’t seriously fault it for skirting real depth of feeling.

Nor is the Donizetti, performed first, a model of profundity. Its unfollowable plot centres on a charmless colonel who arrives at a psychiatric hospital to find his estranged wife, his deserter subordinate and his occasional lover already there. Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production, billed as another UK first, didn’t make anything hilarious out of this, but it was at least a nice touch to have the keyboard player on stage as one of the inhabitants of the asylum’s padded common room, thumping the piano until each arriving character agrees to sing in the correct style. Martin Hässler chewed the scenery engagingly as the mad doctor, Alison Langer negotiated Norina’s vocal athletics powerfully, and David Shipley, soon to join the Royal Opera’s young artist programme, sang stylishly as the hospital owner.

In the Arnold, the chief scenery-chewer was tenor Robin Bailey as the Franglais fop, but there were good character turns all round, especially from soft-grained soprano Alison Rose as Miranda and from Ailsa Mainwaring as the maiden aunt.

• Until 9 March. Box office: 020-7638 8891. Venue: Barbican, London.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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