Royal Academy of Music – Martinů double bill – Comedy on the Bridge & Twice Alexander

Royal Academy of Music – Martinů double bill – Comedy on the Bridge & Twice Alexander

It’s not so much twice Alexander as thrice Martinů, since this double bill of operas by that composer here happily follows soon after the Royal Opera House’s equally rare staging of Larmes de couteau at the Linbury Studio. Like that work, Comedy on the Bridge and Twice Alexander are wry observations on love and relationships; and ‘comedy’ is to be taken more in the serious sense of Dante, as the scrutinising of the quirks of human nature in a situation set apart from everyday life.

Set during a time of war (written in 1935, Comedy on the Bridge poignantly anticipates World War Two) a pair of couples find themselves unexpectedly thrown together on the no-man’s-land of a bridge between enemy territories, caught out by the Kafkaesque randomness with which the Sentries on either side police the comings and goings of people and their papers. The ‘Friendly’ Sentry is so-called, not on account of his affable demeanour, but because he mans the side beyond the bridge from which the four principal characters come. Amidst both Sentries’ tersely barked orders, Martinů’s music for that central quartet tends to break out in flourishing, lyrical melody, expressing the warmth of human character and contact, even as they bicker over the alleged infidelities which Josephine and the Brewer are accused of by, respectively, her fiancé Johnny, and his wife Eva.

Their dialogue – bold and heartfelt by Ellen Mawhinney and Mikayel Sargsyan, more defensively, stridently delivered by Conrad Chatterton and Clover Kayne as their suspicious partners – is interrupted and aptly contrasted by Zahid Siddiqui’s whimsical Schoolmaster, who poses a riddle. He asks how a grazing deer, surrounded by a wall too high to be scaled, can escape – a predicament which, of course, mirrors their own situation. Once victory in the ongoing battle is declared, the Friendly Officer who appears answers that it doesn’t escape, raising the question whether the others have secured inner freedom, despite now being released from the bridge. In Rachael Hewer’s production the point is made tantalisingly in relation to the world at large as the supposed procession of the army – accompanied by the parody of a military march – parades a large collection of national flags, hinting at an elusive peaceful global order. If a gloomy 1930s or ‘40s atmosphere prevails visually, contemporary times are also suggested by some of the stray objects around the bridge, such as a dinghy, barbed wire, and odd bits of domestic furnishings, perhaps alluding to refugees on the move over the sea and seeking shelter on land, but finding only the hostile environment of countries on either side of the water who refuse to take them in.

Twice Alexander (1937) is more a Mozartian farce, in which Alexander wants to test the virtue of his wife, Armande, by playing a similar trick as occurs in Così fan tutte (if Bridge is a Dantean ‘comedy’, then this harks back to the old story of patient Griselda, made famous by Boccaccio). Just as that comedy upturned and satirised all the conventions of opera buffa, so Martinů and André Wurmser’s work seems to play on Mozart and da Ponte’s scenario and make it more surreally absurd. Alexander pretends that his cousin is coming to visit, and so goes to meet him, but returns as that cousin, the second Alexander, just as the male lovers of Mozart’s comedy come back in disguise. Martinů reverses the ploy in that Alexander returns without his beard (but is unrecognised by Armande nonetheless, who falls for him) whereas Mozart’s protagonists adopt outlandish attire with beards to cover up their identity. The real Alexander remains more obviously present in the form of his portrait (rather than in an easy-to-hide locket) presented in the drama as a real character to witness his wife’s fall from grace, in something like a nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. But by coming to life there is also a reminiscence of the ancestors’ portraits becoming incarnate during Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore, especially in Armande’s guilt-ridden dream when the personified image accuses her. The other ironic correspondence to Così fan tutte is that the opera starts with Philomène bemoaning her lot as a maidservant, like Despina. But whereas the latter encourages her mistresses in their illict flirtations, Philomène does not serve as such an accomplice, and in Armande’s dream even takes on the form of the goddess of marriage to draw her back to moral probity.

In Hewer’s production the absurdity of the theatrical doublings is emphasised by presenting the work as a play within a play, being put on by a local amateur dramatics company. Their comic ineptitudes tend to break the fourth wall (the intended singer for Armande is accidentally knocked out and has to be replaced, creating a second Armande to parallel the second Alexander, alongside the other silent extras of the Director and crew for this concept) reminding us of the work’s slapstick nature. That also happens to draw another, clever connection with Così fan tutte – just as the latter’s scenario is essentially controlled by Don Alfonso, pulling the strings of the dramatic action, so Twice Alexander is deliberately held at one remove from reality as an inherently artificial theatrical conceit, put on solely for the purposes of entertainment rather than edification. Any lingering misogyny of its moral (that a husband shouldn’t tempt his wife, implying that she can only be expected to be found wanting) is literally hit over the head as the singer of Philomène steps out of character and whacks Alexander in the form of the Portrait as he delivers that conclusion. 

Lively performances from the singers concerned uphold that spirit of ebullient humour, Erin O’Rourke especially resilient as the put-upon Armande, while Anna-Helena Maclachlan adopts a knowingly ironic musical character. Alex Bower-Brown and Daniel Vening are well-matched vocally as the different forms of Alexander, Samuel Stopford rightly more ingenuous as Oscar, the first suitor to Armande in Alexander’s absence, whom she rejects.

Lada Valešová skilfully delineates the different musical styles of the two works. Comedy on the Bridge is often darkly brooding with melodic lines that vividly come to the fore here, sustained quite heavily and pregnantly by the Royal Academy Sinfonia. The neoclassicism of Twice Alexander (to my mind more irresistibly zesty and witty than Stravinsky’s more straight-laced manner which takes itself more seriously) is delivered with levity and panache, drawing an apt contrast with the first half of the double bill.

Overall this is a delightful pairing of operas, astutely demonstrating two sides of Martinů’s art, as well as the tragedy and comedy which underlie all drama.

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