Cavalli’s Ormindo Splendidly Realised in an Ideal Performance Space.

United KingdomUnited KingdomCavalli, Soloists, Orchestra of Early Opera Company. Christian Curnyn (conductor). The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 26.3.2014. (CS)

Cavalli: L’Ormindo  

Ormindo – Samuel Boden
King Ariadenus – Graeme Broadbent
Sicle/Lady Luck – Joélle Harvey
Erisbe/Music – Susanna Hurrell
Mirinda – Rachel Kelly
Nerillus/Love – James Laing
Amidas/Wind – Ed Lyon
Eryka/Wind – Harry Nicoll
Osman/Destiny/Wind – Ashley Riches

Direction: Kasper Holten
Designs: Anja Vang Kragh
Movement: Signe Fabricus

When the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice – the first commercial opera house in Europe – opened its doors to the paying public in 1637, it initiated a new genre of opera, one which mingled the comic with the serious, relished intricate plots involving complex disguises and deceptions, and exploited to the full the most ‘cutting-edge’, extravagant theatrical effects. Indeed, the engineers who designed the elaborate mechanical contraptions used to titillate the Venetian cognoscenti were often more celebrated, appearing top of the bill, than the composers and librettists whose work they served.

Directing a new production of Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House’s main stage in February this year, Kasper Holten took full advantage of the latest tricks of video animation. Here, at the recently opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Holten had to settle for what the Baroque engineer could offer; but the descent, at the start of the Prologue to Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, of the allegorical L’Armonia (Harmony) from a trapdoor in the Heavens was scarcely less wondrous than the latest technological gimmickry. Suspended aloft, Susanna Hurrell unfurled cascades of sparkling melody, as if the celestial harmony of the music of the spheres was pouring forth the blessing of the gods on all below. Unusually, L’Armonia makes no mention of the drama to come; instead, and with supreme aptness here, she rejoices in the newness of the public opera which had been seen in Venice for only five years.

Modelled on seventeenth-century designs for an indoor theatre in London, which were discovered at Worcester College, Oxford in the 1960s, the Wanamaker Playhouse is a visual delight and an acoustic dream. Entering the candle-lit, timber-framed auditorium, which can accommodate an audience of 350 in its pit and two tiers, is like stepping through the looking-glass into an enchanted world; glancing up, a beautiful painted ceiling depicts the firmament.

The intimacy of the auditorium is used to full effect by Holten. Every word of the libretto is clearly heard – Christopher Cowell’s translation wittily mixes authenticity with anachronism – and the audience are lured into the emotions of the drama, both through actual proximity and deliberate engagement, as characters enter from the rear and bound over banisters, or flash around cherished miniatures of their beloveds, like smartphone selfies, for us to admire.

L’Ormindo, the third collaboration between Francesco Cavalli and the librettist Giovanni Faustini, was created for the 1644 carnival season at Teatro San Cassiano. Set in Anfa (modern-day Casablanca), in the ancient kingdom of Mauretania, the opera presents a tale of amorous rivalry as Amidas and Ormindo, fellow soldiers but competing suitors, contend for the love of Queen Erisbe who languishes in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage to the impotent King Ariadenus.

Mythological deities, L’Amore and Il Destino have much fun meddling in the romantic mischiefs, as Amidas’s former darling, Sicle, and her nurse, Eryka, intervene, convincing Amidas that the betrayed Sicle has killed herself in despair at her abandonment, thereby rousing his regretful anguish. His torment is only salved when, in an elaborate hoax, Sicle rises from the ‘dead’.

Meanwhile, Erisbe and Ormindo elope to Tunis, where the patriotic hero must do his soldierly duty and defend his homeland from attack. The cuckolded Ariadenus orders his sea-captain, Osman, to intercept the fleeing ship and to poison the false-hearted pair, but the latter is persuaded by Erisbe’s lady-in-waiting, Mirinda – who fraudulently offers to marry Osman – to substitute a soporific draft for the toxic potion. In a parody of Romeo and Juliet, the desperate lovers ‘die’, lamenting the pain inflicted by Love and Fate, only to re-awaken to find Ariadenus remorsefully rueing the execution – for the King has received a letter informing him that Ormindo is in fact his son from a youthful indiscretion. In a restorative act which is the quintessence of Baroque improbability and absurdity, he cedes his kingdom and wife to Ormindo and all ends happily.

Holten plays up the naughty raunchiness of sexuality and desire. Perhaps he fails to control fully the transitions from flippancy and farce to psychological profundity and poignancy, but his comic romp is pacey and immediate, rejoicing in an irreverence which delights the audience. Holten is superbly abetted by Anja Vang Kragh’s glorious costumes. Who needs a stage set when the characters can ‘wear’ it? Thus, Hurrell, descending to earthly realms, swaps Music’s virginal white robes for Erisbe’s boudoir bodice, sporting a monstrous farthingale topped with plump pink pillows, and turning to reveal the bed-stead and springs upon which she has been languidly lying.

Throughout the production, chandeliers rise and fall, varying the dramatic ambience. Indeed, the interplay of light, visual spectacle and detail, and dramatic sentiment is one of the most interesting aspects of the production, culminating in Act 3 with Death’s gradual snuffing out of the fragile, flickering candle-lights during the ravishing doom-laden duet. In this extended number we surely see the influence of Monteverdi, one of Cavalli’s Venetian contemporaries, whose L’incoronazione di Poppea concludes with a rapturous love duet for Nero and Poppea.

Samuel Boden, as Ormindo, and Hurrell summon a truly tragic pathos. Particularly striking is the way that Hurrell conveys Erisbe’s transformation, from a knowing beauty who takes a playful delight in manipulating two adoring youthful lovers – a temptress who is ravenous for passion but starved at the regal table, with only cold, bland kisses to satiate her raging hunger – to a candid, unaffected woman genuinely lamenting the loss of love and life. The bursts of coloratura which had signified the excesses of sexual desire give way to more dignified strains which Hurrell imbues with tragic pathos and regality.

Samuel Boden’s Ormindo was dreamily effete, his haute-contre voice light but sure: perhaps it’s worth remembering that the role would originally have been performed by a castrato, Ariadenus’s exact opposite. The purity of Ormindo’s heroism and passion is apparent in Boden’s opening aria when he sang with joyful directness, happy to defend the country from the marauding Spanish as amid the warring furies a blind Cupid has shone the light of love upon him. As his rival Amidas, tenor Ed Lyon is more impetuous and reckless. Lyon’s virile tenor conveyed the burning light of love which he imagines projects upon him from his beloved’s eyes; like Icarus he will aspire to caress the fire. In contrast to Boden’s gentle even-handedness, Lyons was all strutting masculinity and brazen posturing: as the two friends jostle for Erisbe’s attention, fuelled by hot-headedly jealousy he whipped off his shirt to reveal an outsize tattooed heart which put Ormindo’s more modest bodily decoration to shame.

Overlooked by Erisbe, who prefers Ormindo’s more temperate charms, Amidas re-succumbs to the expressive coloratura of American soprano Joélle Harvey’s Sicle when, in Act 3, she hoodwinks him, appearing as an apparition – her own ghost. Harvey displayed an impressive dramatic range: her initial lament for lost love was beautifully tender, but she demonstrated a more rumbustious energy in her furious Act 2 aria where, disguised as a gypsy fortune-teller, she foresees Amidas future and reveals to Erisbe his history of flirtation, fickleness and infidelity.

The youthful cast were versatile and formed a tight troupe, acting with naturalism and dramatic vigour; as servants and members of the lower classes they celebrated the sexual licence that Cavalli relishes in his music. Counter-tenor James Laing, in addition to appearing as a camp L’Amour in a heart-shaped tutu, was impressive as the page Nerillus. The latter’s cynical aria about the dangers of the city to vulnerable women was bursting with an overabundance of Cherubino-like fervour; this extended aria, in which the pre-pubertal youth, whose chin is yet to sport a hair, remarks that wise is he who knows how to flee womanly temptations, was impressive in the way that Laing directly engaged with the audience.

Ashley Riches was notable as both Destiny and Osman, particularly when the latter, moved by his King’s devastation that he has murdered his new-found son, reveals his deceit and declares himself ready to accept the due punishment.

Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, as Erisbe’s confidante Mirinda, offered a dash of worldly realism; when Erisbe responds to her husband’s devotion with mendacious avowals, Kelly’s dry asides were delivered with engaging frankness as the foolish dote swallowed his unfaithful queen’s lies. In Act 3 Kelly ironically and extrovertly commented on the absurdity of the situation, as she duplicitously enticed Osman to disobey his King and spare the fleeing lovers. In the Act 2 duet where the Queen’s companion plaits her mistress’s hair, the interplay of the elaborate lines conveyed more than a hint of illicit passion, inferring that Mirinda shares the desires of the foreign princes for Erisbe. Similarly, in the short aria in which Mirinda reflects on the pleasure that her mistress must be having on the high seas, Kelly’s descending tessitura was suggestive of a rich sensuality.

Such youthful buoyancy was balanced by the more robust singing of tenor Harry Nicoll as the cross-dressed nurse, Eryka, who gleefully encourages licentiousness, and bass Graeme Broadbent as the impotent Ariadenus, who managed to stir the audience to both ridicule and pity, contempt for his weak passivity being countered by sympathy for his sincerity. Ariadenus’s age and impotence make him the butt of many a cruel joke, but Broadbent convincingly evoked the King’s earnestness when he agonisingly reflects that he has unwittingly commanded the execution of both his wife and his son. Learning that his ‘victims’ are in fact not dead but merely sleeping, Broadbent’s final concerted arioso was full of renewed vigour, representing his hope for a happy conclusion to his years.

Christian Curnyn and his eight musicians accompanied from the gallery above the stage; one might imagine that communication between conductor and soloists would prove testing, but this did not seem to be the case. Curnyn’s realisations are characteristically stylish, but also surprisingly restrained in approach, not seeking to match the extraordinary riches of costume or the boldness of the protagonists’ theatricality. The textures are, however, unfailingly crisp and elegant, and Curnyn supports his singers sensitively and skilfully. The subtle approach assists the audibility of the text, the long arioso passages skilfully accompanied by harpsichord, theorbo and harp in varying combinations: the harp’s pure resonance is pitted against the darker timbres of the theorbo. The instrumentalists’ jaunty accompaniments to the short arias and duets complement the theatrical energy below, but are fittingly unobtrusive given the size of the theatre.

Looking back to the past can trigger fresh visions for the future. Clearly, and justifiably, there is a mood of excitement and experimentation at the Wanamaker Playhouse, but the challenges are considerable. Head of Higher Education at The Globe, Farah Karim-Cooper remarks that ‘lighting an entire performance with candles will affect audience response – exactly how, we have yet to find out’; there is surely much ‘finding out’ to be done, not least with regard to working within the limitations of the stage space and, one has to say, the audience’s visibility and comfort. But, on the basis of this production, the conclusions reached could potentially result in some marvellous theatrical and musical experiences.

Claire Seymour

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