Garsington Opera Maintains its Standards in its New Home

05/06/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Vivaldi: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera/Douglas Boyd and Laurence Cummings (conductors) Wormsley, Berkshire, 3 & 4.6.2012.(RJF)

Mozart: Don Giovanni. Dramma giocoso in two acts. K. 527
Conductor: Douglas Boyd; Director: Daniel Slater.
Sung in Italian with English Titles

Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade. Musical drama in two acts.
Conductor: Laurence Cummings; Director: David Freeman.
Sung in Italian with English Titles.

Garsington Opera and Wormsley.

My grandchildren, or at least the two of them to whom it is most relevant, tell me that the anniversary of twenty-one years marks more than a rite of passage, being more the start of new challenges and opportunities. In the case of Garsington Opera it marked the end of the beginning and the start of a new book as much as a new chapter. Conceived and realised against many odds by Leonard Ingrams, Garsington Opera reached that seminal age in 2010 with its head held high among Country House operatic venues. Its venue in the grounds of an Elizabethan Manor House as a backdrop to the stage, its walled garden and lovely grounds made it an ideal venue without considering anything of its other, more recent, history. It became more than a mere venue with its imaginative repertoire and stagings, often of works rarely heard anywhere else let alone in the UK. With the premature death of Mr Ingrams in 2007 his wife decided she would like more of her home to herself in the summer and gave Garsington Opera enough notice to celebrate its twenty first anniversary with a repertoire including the British premiere of a Rossini opera, Armida, first seen in Naples in 1817 and which I was privileged to attend. The imaginative staging, excellent orchestral support and singing provided a triumphal farewell to Garsington Manor after twenty-one memorable years (see review).

Garsington Opera faced the massive challenges of finding a new venue, not too far away from the original home and also of retaining the name and reputation of the organisation. Fortunately the team was led by Anthony Whitworth-Jones, an accountant with wide musical interests and expertise who had been closely involved in the creation of the New Glyndebourne in the 1990s. He not only knew about money raising but also about the likes of planning law and, most importantly, how to create anew whilst maintaining the old. Having settled on the new venue in the Wormsley Estate, home of the Getty family, in the Chiltern Hills of Berkshire, just over the border from Oxfordshire and not so far from the original home. Whitworth-Jones and his team set about raising the money to build a new opera pavilion for the performances. At a cost of over £3million. The pavilion houses the stage, the orchestra, auditorium and terraces. It is taken down at the conclusion of the season each July, stored, and re-erected the following April. Garsington Opera has signed a fifteen-year lease with the Getty Estate. If not quite having the historical background of the original, the new was greeted with amazement and rapture last year. Architecturally imaginative it is an absolutely stupendous location with fine views as well as its own particular ambience.

As my grandchildren also remind me, the post twenty-first anniversary also brings challenges of building on the base of what has gone before. In typical Garsington tradition, the works on offer in that first year, and also in this second year at Wormsley, include the well known and the rarely heard. Just in case of complacency the challenges for the immediate future includes a replacement for Anthony Whitworth-Jones who, despite looking nowhere near retirement is in fact beyond the age at which most people take that step. His contribution to opera in Britain is among the most significant to be found and all lovers of the genre will wish him well.

Don Giovanni

Garsington Opera Don Giovanni 2012 credit Mike Hoban

The well-known opera choice for this second year at Wormsley is, as last year, one of Mozart’s later works, composed a mere three years before his tragically early death. By 1785 Mozart had moved from Salzburg to Vienna via Munich. He did this so as to enlarge his opportunities. By then his strengths as an opera composer were widely recognised and the genre was to remain central to his ambitions. In 1786 he commenced collaboration with the poet Da Ponte to realise the immensely popular Le Nozze de Figaro with its taut plot and integrated music. The work was immediately widely acclaimed and was later produced in Prague with unprecedented success. Bondi, the Manager of The Prague Opera, keen to capitalise on Mozart’s popularity in the city, commissioned a new opera from him for production the following autumn. Back in Vienna Da Ponte was working on librettos for two other composers but he agreed to set the verses of Don Giovanni for Mozart, perhaps using some existing material.

Don Giovanni was well received in Prague. However, for a production in Vienna the following year there were problems. The tenor couldn’t sing his Act 2 aria Il Mio Tesoro and Mozart substituted the aria Dalla sua pace, better suited to his abilities, at No.10 in Act One. The role of Anna was to be sung in Vienna by a protégée of Salieri; she demanded a scena for herself. Mozart added the accompanied recitative In quail eccessi and aria Mi Tradi at No.26. Common performance and recorded custom is to incorporate the later Vienna additions into the Prague original. However, perhaps as a result of the origins of the libretto added to the insertions of the Vienna scenes, a performance can sometimes seem a hotch potch and dramatic cohesion is lost. Douglas Boyd, conductor of this new production, meets the problems head on as he explains in a brief introductory essay. Quoting a production in Hamburg in 1789 and a keyboard arrangement a few years later, he has moved the aria to Act One immediately following Leporello’s catalogue aria and where he believes it does not disturb the dramatic cohesion as it does in Act Two. The tenor substitution of Dalla sua pace does not fare so well with the pleasing tenor Jesús León only getting Il mio tessoro in act two.

Any production of Don Giovanni needs to be capable of quick change from one often short scene to the next, whilst the producer needs to accommodate the intimate with the more public group situations. The very modernist set by Leslie Travers has a number of set spaces at different levels to achieve this. There is a bedroom space, an office space with a computer and screen, a central tower like staircase with access to the top out of sight. The centre stage where most of the action takes place is furnished with a table and modern chaise longue; these latter two items see plenty of action in the course of the evening with fights, Giovanni’s bullying of Leporello as well as some sexual shenanigans.

Director Daniel Slater sees Don Giovanni’s predilection for sexual conquest and activity as being the focus of the opera. With the modern costumes being high heels and short skirts for the women, and even scantier for Zerlina’s wedding dress of silver sequins; there was enough simulated humpy to qualify for an X rating. Giovanni was dressed in jeans and open necked shirt, looking every bit a scruff, with Leporello dressed as his capped chauffeur appearing distinctly upmarket in comparison.

Giovanni’s scruffy appearance appeared incongruous when he invited the populace to his castle for dancing and food. But as the opera prelude and opening scene involves Anna in scanty dominatrix type gear propositioning Giovanni, with the clear offer of sexual favours with passionate kissing and handcuffing him to the table, maybe she fancied a bit of rough despite her upbringing. This use of handcuffs was not the only bit of bondage activity during the evening. The initial goings on bring down the sleeping Commendatore who dies for his protection of his daughter’s supposed chastity and who, by then, is putting on the act of crying rape. His body is removed on a hospital trolley and we later see a cut out upper scene of him being treated in casualty.

Other particular interesting touches included a very long computer printout of Leporello’s Catalogue, whilst more idiosyncratic and more than rubbing it in about Anna’s view of Ottavio, was her placing a silver muzzle over his face and leading him in to Giovanni’s festivities on a dog lead. Given Elvira is using a mobile phone it figured that Giovanni would use his app to switch on a DVD of a German recording of The Marriage of Figaro as accompaniment to the reprise of the music from that opera as he feasts whilst Leporello steals some food behind his back from his barbeque cooking. The graveyard scene went for little with a ‘corpse’ on a trolley wheeled centre stage whilst Christophoros Stamboglis was unable to project the Commendatore’s imprecations to Giovanni from high up in his hospital ward. This was a loss as the Greek bass’s sonorous singing from the stage was strong. The final scene with Giovanni taking the dead man’s hand and going off to eternal damnation was a melange of mixed images. Some lighting of flames might have helped for how many of the audience appreciated the rocking figures on the bed represented people in purgatory? If in doubt, Anna’s comforting of Giovanni’s corpse, by then centre stage in a wheelchair, linked in with her her earlier behaviour and gave Ottavio an excuse to run up the stairs and bring the whole to a close via the electronic button, a reversal of Leperello’s start to the proceedings.

Garsington is also about giving young British singers opportunities among a wider casting policy under what I believe is Sarah Playfair’s expert guiding hand. The fact that the Grant Doyle and Joshua Bloom as Giovanni and his servant were born in Australia matters little, as both also appear to the benefit of British audience in various venues. I have heard the former with Opera North and was particularly impressed by him in their acclaimed production of Ruddigore (see review). His clear diction, convincing acting and easy stage presence and athleticism add to the strengths of his nicely tuned bass baritone voice. His is a name to watch. Like his master, the Leporello of Joshua Bloom brought sonority of tone, good phrasing and a welcome ease of youthful movement to complement his convincing acting. Callum Thorpe’s Masetto was well played and sung and he too will have a successful singing good career I suggest. As the put-upon Ottavio, Mexican Jesús León, dressed in suit and tie showing some aristocratic class, acted his role well; his light tenor was mellifluous in its phrasing and even in tone; I quite missed the Act One aria.

Of the women, Natasha Jouhl as Donna Anna was outstanding. Given a bit more to do than in many productions she played the temptress, and the innocent as well as the hypocrite required in this production, with conviction whilst making Non mi dir a vocal highlight of the evening in purity of tone and phrase. Sophie Bevan’s Elvira came out badly in the costume department whilst her frenetic pursuit of Giovanni came over well, albeit loosing some vocal purity along the way. As Zerlina Mary Bevan has the figure du part for her costume. Her sexy little Sue would tempt any male let alone the testosterone fuelled Giovanni and with a little fuller vocal tone, hers would have been a perfect realisation.

Under Douglas Boyd, whom I know well from his performances with Manchester Camerata, the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus met Mozart’s demands with distinction as did the keyboard accompanist.

L’Olimpiade.

Garsington Opera L’Olimpiade credit Mike Hughes

This most appropriate work to precede London 2012 Olympics follows last year’s La verità in cimento and is the last of three pioneering British production of the composer’s operas. Whilst Vivaldi is perhaps better known for his instrumental compositions, later in life he composed a large number of operas in the tradition of the time with vocal display and singing by castrati being dominant features. The opera L’Olimpiade is based on one of the most popular of Metastasio’s librettos and was set by Caldara, Pergolesi, Paiseiello and Cimarosa among others. In the usual manner of operas of the baroque, the rivalries and complications and competitions of love abound and, in this instance, are added to by the athletic variety with changed identities adding more spice to the cocktail of vocal display and bravura music.

Designer David Roger’s set was simple and in period: four classical statues, adorned by foliage in Act One, and in full nakedness for Act Two, and an altar that later was exchanged for a beheading block. Spectacular additions came from the rear stage with it opening with one addition at least producing much amusement. Casting for opera of this period caused problems for many years with males often being portrayed by women in travesti. The emergence of well-schooled counter tenors has overcome this stumbling block for acceptance of the genre. Some still find it strange to see fine physical specimens of manhood singing like women, and in this case a woman taking the role of a man. Given the chance, along with imaginative production, here achieved by David Freeman, many such baroque operas will find a more ready place in the repertoire.

Given the Olympic theme it was easy to see an updating. The opera opens in a gymnasium with our strapping hero Licida in the person of counter tenor Tim Mead on a trolley, pace Don Giovanni, receiving a massage from his supposed tutor Aminta, also a counter tenor and sung with varied tone and a fine trill by the widely travelled and in demand Michael Maniaci. The Olympic competitions were played out simply and with a bit of spectacle added. Tim Mead played his role as a rather sulky bad boy who had been discovered cheating after asking his best friend Megacle, sung and acted superbly by the soprano Emily Fons, to compete and win under his name and thus secure the hand of the woman he loves. Mead’s singing and overall portrayal was a match for his tutor. Emily Fons was quite spectacular in both her singing and acted portrayal, her wide-ranging voice expressing the drama of the words whilst her acting matched that quality. Also singing and acting to this high standard was Ruby Hughes whose love for Licida was not reciprocated, even though she offered her life to save his. Throughout her involved portrayal and expressive and varied singing I could not help but think that she would make a superb Elvira in Don Giovanni, though no criticism is implied of Sophie Bevan who took the part the previous night.

Riccardo Novaro as King Clistene, tall, suited and a king to his fingernails showed authority, compassion and anger in body language and vocal nuance. In those qualities he was matched by his adviser cum general Alcandro, complete with eye patch, and sung by William Berger. Rosa Bove, as his daughterAristea, used her warm mezzo to good effect. The tempo of the drama was well controlled by Laurence Cummings in the pit and the gymnasts cum athletes cum chorus playing their full part.

In introducing the opening two-night spread over Britain’s Jubilee Weekend, Anthony Whitworth-Jones paid tribute to the sponsors who had continued to help with the provision of under seat heating and air conditioning. Whilst wishing that the British weather had called the latter into use he hoped that the former would aid the audience’s comfort as the heavens deluged in typical British fashion on its celebratory festival.

Robert J Farr

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