The Conspirators

Schubert

Information

Franz Schubert Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators)
also known as Der häusliche Krieg (Domestic Warfare)

A Singspiel in one act

Libretto by Ignaz Franz Castelli, after Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (c411 BC)
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray
Orchestral reduction by Tony Burke for Pocket Publications

The Pfeiffer Hall, Queen’s College, Harley St, London W1
19 and 20 March 2009

Cast

Isella, in love with Udolin Katya Farkas (Queen’s College)
Udolin, in love with Isella Alice Sharman (Queen’s College)
Helene, newly married to Astolf Alexandra Soiza (Queen’s College)
Ludmilla, the Baroness Theodora Hand (Queen’s College)
Herbert, the Baron Edmund Connolly
Astolf, husband of Helene Tom Raskin
   
Queen’s College Chamber Choir
Jessica Mackney, Daisy Hilliard, Katie Levine, Lily Worcester, Ella Clayton, Tyro Heath, Akua Appiah Gilfillian, Hannah Stewart, Frances Good, Liza Bergman, Eleanor Re’Em, Philippa Millward, Tim Lello, Nick Flower, Martin Amherst Lock, Keith Conway
with the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera
   
Conductor Gilly French
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

The Baron’s messenger, Udolin, unexpectedly returns home from a year away fighting and is rapturously received (well, on the whole) by his girlfriend Isella (duet: “It’s you; it’s him!”).  Isella tells him that the Baroness is convening a special meeting for all the women, and Udolin resolves to dress as a girl in order to spy on the proceedings.

Helene is miserable and is missing her new husband Astolf (Romanze: “Without you life is not the same”).  The Baroness holds her meeting (Chorus: “We’ve hurried here at your suggestion”) and encourages the women to find a way to keep their men-folk from a life of violence.  Her “cunning little plan” is not met with great enthusiasm, however, as it involves the women withholding their sexual favours until the men promise to give up fighting – but they swear an oath of solidarity nevertheless (Chorus: “Yes, we promise!”).

The men return home triumphant from their slaughter and warfare (March: “A soldier’s life for me!”).  Udolin reports on what he has found out through his spying (Chorus: “I have discovered something grave”) and the men decide to retaliate by playing the women at their own game – they too will refuse any affection.

The women temptingly greet the men (Chorus: “We’re very glad to greet you”) but are perturbed when their own plan is forestalled by the men’s complete indifference – the men prefer to go drinking instead.  The Baroness finds it difficult to keep the women to their promise, and sends Isella to spy on the men, also requesting a meeting with the Baron.

Astolf and Helene are reunited (Duet: “I’ll wait no longer”) and although she tries to refuse his advances, much against her will, he persuades her that her marriage vows invalidate her later vow of chastity.  Nevertheless she momentarily outwits him.

The Baron, who has been drinking with his men, has a difficult interview with his wife (Ariette: “I’ve risked all I have” and Ariette “I know you have risked all”). Isella, collaborating with Udolin, tricks the Baroness into trying on men’s ‘armour’.  Thus attired, she is caught by surprise by the Baron (Finale: ”I really can’t believe my eyes”).  The women return and, having been duped by Udolin, they also bear arms, believing that this is the only way to win back their men’s affection.  Thus they betray their own conspiracy.  The Baroness sadly realises she has been outwitted and admits defeat, but the men too graciously acknowledge they have been conquered by love, and relinquish their arms.  The true ‘conspirators’, Isella and Udolin, are united “just as we planned”.  Amidst general rejoicing, the Baron and his men advise the women to be gentle, and “leave the fighting to the men”.

Reviews

full of warmth, personality and camaderie… a joy
Opera

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full of warmth, personality and camaderie… a joy

Opera

The year 1823 was a torrid one for Schubert.  Syphillis was taking hold of the bones in his body and the discomfort was immense.  A pain in his left arm forced him (temporarily) to give up the piano, and his near-month-long stay in hospital in June most likely included a course of mercury treatment that couldn’t have been anything but excruciating.  He spent most of the year musing, with increasing bitterness, on the cruel consequences of sexual relations, beginning with his final Singspiel, Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators), a light-hearted piece about the impossibility of abstinence.

The work is loosely based on Aristophanes play Lysistrata, a battle of the sexes.  A city is at war; the women are in revolt.  The females won’t make love until the males make peace and, in the Greek original, the play ends in feminist triumph.  But in Die Verschworenen the belligerant men give up their arms only after lightly humiliating their wives.  Was Schubert, perhaps, trying to settle some scores?

Die Verschworenen is widely regarded as Schubert’s best stab at the operatic form, easily the most dramatically viable and musically consistent of his 15 attempts, and it became hugely popular when it was finally staged in 1861, 33 years after the composer’s death.  It’s attractions are simple: they include a handsome overture, at least two very decent arias, a handy duet and several pretty choral interjections. Yet the simplicity is deceptive, and for Bampton Classical Opera to turn to it for its yearly educational venture was brave.

The result – a collaboration with a London girls’ school, Queen’s College – was intermittently scrappy and confused, yet still also a joy.  Few of the period opera companies, who spend so much time and effort trying to recover the original feel of a work through elaborate academic digging, come close to conjuring up the atmosphere of authenticity of these performances.  Schubert and his friends would surely have felt at home with Bampton’s small production (directed by Jeremy Gray) and tiny orchestra (conducted by Gilly French), so full of warmth, personality and camaderie, all charmingly fraying at the edges.

The young, raw voices were the highlight.  As the programme notes pointed out, Anna Gottleib was only 12 when she sang Barbarina at the premiere of Mozart’s Figaro, and it was a 13-year old, Ella Clayton, who stepped in when her classmate came down with a bug.  She sang the lead role of Isella with a clarity and confidence that was truly astonishing.  But the finest aria – the romance for Helene, a winsome newly-wed – was sung by the finest of the young singers, Alexandra Soiza, who performed with such a natural grace and naïve intensity that my only recording of the sung – by an older, fuller Elly Ameling – pales in comparison.

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Igor Toronyi-Lalic

 

…delightfully entertaining, remarkably confident and outstandingly assured…
Opera Today, 24 March 2009

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…delightfully entertaining, remarkably confident and outstandingly assured…

Opera Today, 24 March 2009

Schubert was desperate to be an opera composer — or so one might surmise from the many (at least 18) attempts he made to make a name for himself as a man of the theatre.

Given that each Schubert Lied is in many ways a ‘mini-opera’ — tightly dramatic, conveying character, situation and a gamut of emotions with immediacy and power, the ‘meaning’ expertly communicated through an intense interaction of words and music — one might have expected him to have been more successful. Unfortunately, while he understood perfectly the musico-dramatic conventions of Mozart and his contemporaries, he failed to find his Da Ponte … and repeatedly applied his musical talents to undeserving material.

However, with ‘The Conspirators’ — his sixth and final effort in Singspiel — Schubert found some posthumous success; written in 1823, it was only performed privately during his lifetime, but the public staging in 1861 was well-received and the work became a popular success. One can imagine that its wit and parody were instantly appealing to the admiring Arthur Sullivan who, in the autumn of 1867, travelled to Vienna, returning with a treasure-trove of rescued Schubert scores.

Modelled on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Schubert’s libretto, written by Ignaz Franz Castelli, presents a tale of domestic discord and sparring spouses. The original play is a comic account of one woman’s mission to end The Peloponnesian War: Lysistrata convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to forgo warmongering, a peace strategy that ironically inflames the battle between the sexes. Castelli updated the action - a band of Crusaders, commanded by Baron Herbert von Ludenstein, are dissuaded from continually waging war by their wives, led by the Baroness — and removed some of Aristophanes’ more explicit obscenities! This was not enough to prevent trouble with the censors, however; for somewhat obscure political reasons, they balked at the title and insisted on having the opera renamed Der Häusliche Krieg (The Domestic War). It seems Schubert’s was out of luck once again …

Sadly, in this domestic tussle, the women do not prevail; but, whatever their own feminist principles, this did not prevent the girls of Queen’s College London from presenting a delightfully entertaining, remarkably confident and outstandingly assured performance of this unjustly neglected opera.

Bampton Classical Opera has an admirable history of devising challenging educational projects which enable young singers to work with professional musicians, thereby encouraging them to aspire to, and attain, the highest standards. In this shrewdly cast production, the young soloists proved an equal match for the two professional singers, tenor Tom Raskin and baritone Edmund Connolly, who supported and encouraged the young performers sensitively throughout. Indeed, ‘The Conspirators’ seems ideally suited to young, light voices, with its sequence of lyrical solos and duets demanding not virtuosity but clarity and precision, interspersed with lively, inventive ensembles — many of which had been deftly arranged and reallocated to allow members of the chorus to step briefly into the limelight.

After the Singspiel style, the dramatic action is largely conveyed spoken dialogue. Rightly doubtful that the witticisms of the 1823 text would still pack a punch, Gilly French and Jeremy Gray also revised the text, providing a new English translation, brisk and uncluttered, which struck an effective balance between detail and dramatic momentum. Even the literal silencing, by a severe throat infection, of one of the leading ladies could not stall the show: Hannah Burns read the dialogue from the wings with fluency and naturalness, while Katya Farkas’ graceful gestures and eloquent movement aptly expressed Isella’s coyness and cunning. In the opening duet, Isella’s lines were performed by thirteen-year-old Ella Clayton who, having learned the part at extremely short notice, displayed a confidence and talent far beyond her years.

All soloists showed themselves capable of projecting a range of musical emotions. Alice Sharman, remarkably convincing as Isella’s lover, Udolin, relished the occasion and was inspired to reach the peak of her performance in her ensembles with the male professionals. Alexandra Soiza communicated both Helene’s misery and her resolution in her beautiful opening aria, in which she laments the prolongued absence of her husband, Astolf. And, as the bossy Baroness, Theodora Hand delivered a consummate musical and dramatic performance which suggested that her operatic ambitions may well be fulfilled in years to come.

Perhaps the highlight of this opera is Schubert’s ensemble writing: given the opera’s clear delineation of the sexes, he shows a genius for exchange, for phrases that call across a musical space and are answered in kind. This production made the most of such opportunities, exploiting the small stage effectively and utilising the whole performance venue to take advantage of the antiphonal and imitative writing. Indeed, the staging was extraordinarily inventive. The restricted space and budget were no hindrance to the imagination of director Jeremy Gray: a combination of neat motifs and swift gestures produced the deft visual and verbal wit which has come to characterise Bampton Classical Opera’s unfussy, sharp approach.

The chorus also included members of the College staff. And, throughout there was a sense, not just of ambition and aspiration, but of genuine enjoyment and fun — a joy which was shared and conveyed by the small accompanying ensemble under the assured baton of Gilly French. A delightful evening.

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Claire Seymour

 

What the audience said

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What the audience said

…we endorse everything that Jeremy has said. He has done a magnificent job in staging this piece, and Gilly got a wonderful performance out of the band. The professional singers were excellent and the girls were really good.   Without in any way seeking to diminish the achievement of everyone involved tonight, I would just say that, for me, one of the great joys of the evening was discovering the music, which was ravishing and unexpectedly jaunty at times.

I just want to say I am glad that I heard about this event from the Bampton Classical Opera newsletter, because it was really good, and interesting.  And Alexandra Soiza had a very impressive voice!

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Programme notes

Love wins through and peace is restored…

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Love wins through and peace is restored…

Schubert is little known as an opera composer, despite his serious ambitions in this genre.  Die Verschworenen was his sixth and final effort in Singspiel and, although written in 1823 (possibly in merely three weeks) it was only performed privately with piano in his lifetime, waiting until 1861 for a full performance.  Thereafter it became immensely popular, but is now unaccountably rarely heard.

The music is immensely attractive and shows Schubert’s mature lyricism at its height.  Its rich parody and wit may anticipate Gilbert and Sullivan, but there is also great seriousness in the extraordinarily beautiful music for Helene, accompanied by Mozartian clarinet obbligato.  The warring Baron and Baroness are brilliantly characterised and the ensembles and choruses are treated with breathtaking vitality and variety.  However easy on the ear are the charming melodies, the sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic language and the always apt word-setting demonstrate Schubert’s supreme mastery.

Although perhaps problematic to perform in a girls’ school, when the opera concerns a battle of the sexes (and with a deeply anti-feminist outcome), this is nevertheless an ideal work for young voices.  The choruses and ensembles are effective and memorable, the solos and duets lyrical without demanding undue stamina or virtuosity.  It should be remembered in any case that professional singers in the classical period were often young and with light but clear voices, balanced with small orchestras and venues.  Luisa Laschi who sang the first Countess in The Marriage of Figaro was 21 and Maria Malibran sang Rosina in The Barber of Seville in London aged 17.  More surprisingly the first Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, now considered one of the most taxing and mature of roles, was the 19yr old Anna Milder-Hauptmann, and a subsequent Leonore was only 17.  Anna Gottlieb – whom the musicologist Richard Wigmore describes as “the Charlotte Church of her day” (her subsequent career proved more illustrious) – was just 12 when she sang Barbarina in the premiere of Figaro, and still only 17 when she created Pamina in the Magic Flute.  And most of Schubert’s Lieder would, in his lifetime at least, have been sung by amateurs not professionals.

Aristophanes wrote his comedies to entertain the Athenians, but also to raise serious questions. When he produced the Lysistrata in 411 B.C., Athens had been fighting a disastrous war against Sparta. This comedy presented the Athenians with the idea of the women of both cities going on a sex strike to force their men to make peace. The joke was ridiculous, but it not only gave the audience some light relief from their anxieties: the play urged them to consider peace on terms that would be acceptable to both sides.  Schubert’s librettist Castelli updated the action to the Crusades, and made the theme significantly more polite than in the original; in the anti-emancipatory Biedermeier period in which he lived, he also deprived the women of their ultimate victory.  But since Love wins though and peace is restored, perhaps he can be forgiven. 

The Conspirators is the fifth and most developed education collaboration between Queen’s College and Bampton Classical Opera.  These productions enable talented teenagers to work as equals alongside professionals, singing major roles and giving both parties great insight in to how the other works; this has unfailingly raised the standards of the girls’ singing and proved life-enhancing to the professionals.


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