Frozen Music: Vivaldi from Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Vivaldi, La verità in cimento: Soloists, The   Garsington Opera Orchestra, Laurence Cummings (conductor)  The Wormsley Estate 23.6.2011 (BK)

Rosane Ida Falk Winland (soprano)
DamiraDiana Montague (mezzo)
Rustena  – Jean Rigby (mezzo)
MelindoYaniv D’Or (counter-tenor)
Zelim  – James Laing (counter-tenor)
SultanPaul Nilon (tenor)
Conductor  – Laurence Cummings
Director  – David Freeman
Designer  – Duncan Hayler
Lighting Designer – Bruno Poet

The Garsington Opera Orchestra

The New Garsington at Wormsley Opera Pavilion

The transfer to  Garsington Opera’s new home at The Wormsley Estate seems have gone extremely smoothly;  so well in fact  that  all of the Garsington traditions – including plenty of  time and  lots of covered  spaces for picnics  – have been preserved very faithfully. Robin Snell’s new Pavilion,  which will be   specially erected for the opera season each year  and dismantled afterwards, is extremely attractive visually and is almost a literal example of architecture as ‘frozen music.’  It is  more spacious than the old  one on the Garsington Manor  estate and so can accommodate more elaborate sets and larger orchestral forces.  On the evidence of this hearing,  it is also an  acoustic success although  I  did  wonder whether the rows of microphones mounted just below the stage and above the orchestra pit signified the installation of carefully gauged sound reinforcement. If that is in fact the case, then the results  are very  impressive.

Garsington invariably pulls at least one rabbit from the  hat every season and this time it follows up   the success of L’incoronazione di Dario in 2008 with another largely unknown opera by Vivaldi.   The work’s  first surprise is that the mixed-up baby plot line familiar from the likes of Trovatore and HMS Pinafore turns out to be  much older that we might have thought, predating Verdi  and  Sullivan by a good couple of hundred years. In  La verità in cimento – ‘Truth put to the test’  –   a Sultan with two sons, one born to his Empress and the other  to another of his wives on the same day, switches the boys round so  that the second wife’s child  will inherit  the  kingdom.  Twenty  years later we find the false ‘heir’  betrothed to a Princess from a nearby country, very happily it  seems because the  couple are deeply in love. Then the Sultan spills the beans about his  deception because his conscience is pricking him,  much to  the everyone’s consternation.  The story arising from this backbone, such as it is, proceeds through a series of solo and ensemble items for the six-character cast until the denouément  when the false heir gets the girl and the real heir gets the kingdom.

Production Picture © Johan Persson

As the  programme notes point  out this is a fairly  dotty plot  for an opera but  it’s also particularly thin as drama when it comes to sustaining interest in the characters.  Its greatest problem however – at least for the director surely  – is deciding whether it’s meant as comedy or drama because of the vast tracts of text exploring the sense that each character makes  of the changed situation. Despite excellent surtitles, the ‘ action’ – and sometimes the  actual emotions expressed by the characters  – were often difficult to follow even after allowing for  the opera’s beautiful and  occasionally  ravishing  music.  I  found it hard to  care very much about these people or even to differentiate between most of  them all that clearly  in terms of what they were meant to represent:  apart from the second wife / concubine Damira that is, who is dressed throughout as a ‘scarlet woman’  while everyone else is in black and white or silver.

At this point however  I do have  to confess that I left at the half time interval despite my undying admiration for Laurence Cummings’ expert conducting. His  hand was every bit as obviously in command of this music  as it had been when I heard him  last –  in a memorable  performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Aldeburgh. What drove me  away though was neither the operatic plot nor the quality of the singing,  but the remarkably chilly conditions in the unheated Wormsley Pavilion.  Purcell’s Cold Genius felt far too close for comfort for most of the 90 minute first half.

Bill Kenny

Footnote: I am told that the new Pavilion does in fact have heating, which unfortunately was not working properly on the evening that I was there.  (BK)