It was a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon as The Blonde and I walked down Oxford Road towards the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) to attend its reopening to the public. The opera double bill featured two shorts, Ariadne auf Naxos and The Medium.

It is an intriguing and, dare I say it, daring pairing as both lie outside the accepted opera canon. It was good to see the RNCM observing all the current (and ever-changing) COVID-19 rules. Masks to be always worn and entry was with a vaccination pass which I had on my phone. With recent government confusion and the spread of an even more infectious variant, I found the whole process reassuring, especially in a busy venue full of opera loving vulnerables. An excellent IPA steadied any residual nerves.

RNCM Ariadne ©Robin-ClewleyWe played spot the cast as they mingled with the public in the café. It’s a good way of increasing an audience’s anticipation, though I hope they had all tested negative. I suspect it would not be allowed under Plan B or C, or wherever we are now, but if they were carrying cheese and wine, I’m sure it would be fine.

Ariadne started out as a play with music by Richard Strauss in 1912. By 1916, the play had been dumped with Strauss turning it into a short operetta which explores the relation between high art and low comedy. The opera takes place backstage at the performance of a new piece written by an earnest young Komponist (composer) (Sarah Winn). He is told by the Haushofmeister (fundraiser) (Liam Karai) that his must share the staging of his serious work with a comedy cabaret starring Zerbinetta (Zoe Valle). Confusion and slapstick ensue but love will out as the Komponist and Zerbinetta fall for each other.

RNCM Ariadne ©Robin-ClewleyWinn and Vallee excel in the lead roles with powerful voices and some great comic timing. The rest of the cast are equally brilliant as this play within a play entertainingly unfolds. The opera finishes with the comedy and opera cast taking a reverse bow at the back of the stage to wild applause from an imaginary audience. Their combined performance had been a success as had the real drama of Ariadne auf Naxos.

The Medium was a rather more austere and modern production. Written for a commission from Columbia University, Menotti’s short opera was first performed in New York at the end of World War Two. It has the feel of a film noir and there is a film version from 1951. It deals with the dark world of a drunk, fraudulent medium, Madame Flora (Morgana Warren-Jones), who, with the help of her daughter, Monica (Georgie Malcolm) and a dumb orphan Toby (Alex Riddell), con money out of grieving parents. Searching for the voices of their dead children Mr and Mrs Gobineau (Sam Snowden and Sally Pitts) and Mrs Nolan (Lila Chrisp) come to the salon of Madame Flora for reassurance in their grief.

The Medium, RNCM, ©Robin ClewleyFlora is not happy to exchange their sadness for money, but it slakes her own unhappiness. Haunted by the silent ghosts who wander the stage, a confused, drunk and paranoid Flora shoots Toby dead screaming “I’ve killed the ghost! I’ve killed the ghost!”.  It is a chilling production punctuated by the sparse modernity of the music. It is wonderfully inhabited by the powerful central performances of Georgie Malcom as Monica and Morgana Warren-Jones as Madame Flora.

With all the current uncertainties, we went home happy in the knowledge that the RNCM still manages to mount student productions of such enduring quality, stuffed full of talent who will go out and populate the opera stages of the world for years to come.

By Robert Hamilton

Main images: The Medium, RNCM ©Robin Clewley