Garsington Opera Hits Gold Standard with Beethoven Revival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven,  Fidelio. (The triumph of married love): Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus./  Douglas Boyd (conductor), Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 8.6.2014. (RJF)

Sung in German with English surtitles

Don Fernando, Joshua Bloom.
Don Pizarro, Darren Jeffery.
Florestan, Peter Wedd.
Leonore, Rebecca von Lipinski.
Rocco, Stephen Richardson.
Marzelline, Jennifer France.
Jaquino, Sam Furness.
First Prisoner, David Woodward
Second Prisoner, Jan Capiński

Director, John Cox
Designer, Gary McCann
Lighting Designer Howard Hudson

This performance represented a rare event for Garsington Opera – a revival. In its silver anniversary year it also represented links with the past as the original production was seen at the Manor where the late Leonard Ingrams and his wife established Garsington Opera. Whilst maintaining the name it is now based in its purpose built theatre at its new location on the Getty Estate in Wormsley, just over the county border at the south of Oxfordshire. As well as the production, the revival also brought back the producer, John Cox, the conductor now Artistic Director, Douglas Boyd, and the two singing leads from five years ago, Peter Wedd and Rebecca Von Lipinski.

 Gary McCann’s set of representational bars and cisterns is simple but effective, particularly as long as one realises the significance of the stepped one, centre stage and which is used for entrance and exits to Rocco’s kitchen and the prison interior. The significance of the three front cisterns becomes clear at the Prisoners Chorus as the lid of one is lifted and the prisoners climb out into daylight and, emotionally highly effective, walkout into the beautiful flower garden adjacent having tugged at our hearts by their singing and acting, individually and as a group. That is to jump ahead, but the presence of the lower part of the steps, located in the orchestra pit, caused a split in the orchestral sound that Douglas Boyd did not master for some minutes with overloud dynamics that could have thrown a less vocally secure Marzelline than the outstanding Jennifer France, whose tone, phrasing and vocal nuance were outstanding;  surely a star in the making? Anyway, it was all sorted out acoustically for the audience by the time of the great quartet. By then Stephen Richardson’s full and mellifluous toned Rocco was already looking and sounding avuncular rather than mercenary, as is often the case. He maintained his vocal clarity and sonority to the magnificent conclusion as he brought the bereft Marzelline and a still interested Jacquino together.

 Act Two opened with cistern one on its side with Florestan chained within it. Wedd’s unstrained vocal security at the opening of Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! was particularly welcome. His subsequent clarity of diction and security of tone were maintained to the end, with his acting matching his singing. If he was good, his Leonore was quite superb in all vocal and acted facets, diction, phrasing, security above the stave being all there to admire, as had been her Abscheulicher in act one.

 The third of a trio of Royal Northern College of Music alumni, all of whom I heard as students there, was the large physical presence of Darren Jeffrey as a particularly evil looking Pizzaro. As with his role in last year’s Maometto (see review) he brought excellent acting skills as well as full bodied tone and characterisation to the role, dominating the stage by his presence and, by glance alone, portraying power over all he surveyed, until Pizzaro’s comeuppance that is.

 At the conclusion of the performance, my wife and I were united in our overwhelming sense of having been emotionally engrossed in a production realised by singers, director and conductor in a manner that that is all too rare today with concepts and updated staging. I can best describe it by saying we went away elated, having been involved and overwhelmed by the emotions of the story and the manner of its realisation by all concerned. It is not an experience we often get these days with live lyric theatre.

 The other emotion was one of regret, no way a reflection on Garsington, merely that Beethoven had not devoted more of his skill to the operatic genre. Was it the failure of his first version, whose staging coincided with an unfortunate invasion by Napoleon, or was it economics. We do know that when Rossini visited him in 1822 he was appalled at the squalor in which the great composer lived. Was this choice or economics? Twenty-five years before, we know how Mozart’s life was governed and influenced by the need for money, he often borrowing from his Masonic Lodge brothers. Beethoven the son of a singer and grandson of a former Kapellmeister perhaps had no such connections, but he surely must have become familiar as a boy with theatrical repertoire. In later years, in Bonn and then Vienna, he certainly became familiar with a wide operatic repertoire. In both cities Beethoven contributed music for theatrical productions providing a score in Vienna for the ballet. We will conjecture for ever and in the meantime glory in his one opera, especially when performed as here, a golden evening indeed for this listener and his partner.

Robert J  Farr


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