15 May 2018

Garsington's Douglas Boyd on Strauss and Skating Rinks

‘On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisławów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.’

So noted the New Yorker’s Alex Ross (in The Rest is Noise ), adding, ‘It is at once touching and unsettling to picture Strauss immersed in artifice of Capriccio in the early months of 1941 when German forces were gearing up for the invasion of Russia and Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen were set to slaughter Jews and Slaves in their wake. Touching, because one can sense Strauss’s need to disappear into a realm of tones. Unsettling, because his work was so at odds with the surrounding reality’.

Garsington Opera’s Artistic Director, Douglas Boyd, would beg to differ. When we met this time last year , he was busy rehearsing for the revival John Cox’s production of Le nozze di Figaro which he himself was to conduct, but he was also eagerly looking ahead to the following year’s festival season which would bring the opportunity to conduct his first Strauss opera, Capriccio directed by Tim Albery - a co-production with Santa Fe Opera.

douglas-boyd-DSCF8924.jpgDouglas Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera.

Rehearsals are now underway, and Boyd rejects the notion that Capriccio indicates Strauss’s ‘indifference’ to the world. I suggest that it’s an opera in which ‘nothing happens’: the the Countess Madeleine is asked to settle a dispute between her brother, the composer Flamand, the poet Olivier, and the theatrical impresario La Roche, over the relative status of music and words - and, after two-and-a-half hours of philosophy and art, she is no closer to making her mind up about aesthetic matters than she is to deciding upon the rival romantic merits of the poet and composer.

But, Boyd explains, Capriccio - the idea for which originated in Stefan Zweig’s research, in the British Library, into the controversy about Gluck’s reforms in the eighteenth century, and Zweig’s particular interest in Abbate Casti’s libretto for Pergolesi’s Prima la musica e poi la parole - is so much more than simply an addition to the canon of operas about opera. Far from being ‘apolitical’, Capriccio is Strauss’s response to a world which in 1942 seemed to be on the verge of apocalypse. The question that the opera asks - which is most important, words or music? - is far from trivial; rather, it is an assertion of essential human values at a time when humanity was tearing itself apart. When I note that James Sohre, reviewing Sante Fe’s 2016 production during the last US presidential campaign, had remarked that ‘with all the bombast […] rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio’, Boyd smiles: “Yes, ‘Words, or music?’ is not a question one can imagine Trump asking.” We need to ask ourselves, “What do Flamand, Olivier and La Roche symbolise or represent?”

Sam Furness.jpgSam Furness (Flamand).

Built originally by founder John O. Crosby in 1957 on a former guest-ranch seven miles north of the city, with its panoramic views of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the Sante Fe Theatre - described by The New Yorker as ‘a miracle in the desert’ and, according to The Washington Post, a ‘shining white cloud in the red hills’ - may seem to have little in common with Robin Snell’s ‘floating’, kabuki-inspired Pavilion on the Getty family’s Wormsley Estate. But, as Boyd explains, both theatres are closely connected to their surrounding landscapes: at Sante Fe, the West-facing audience can witness the New Mexico landscape and sunsets which are visible when no backdrops are used; at Garsington, the setting and twilight so often become part of the performance. As I noted of last year’s production of Semele : ‘[Designer Nicky Shaw] presents us with a night-blue observatory panorama of pendulous orbs amid zodiacal light and nebulae. The splintered chandeliers are replaced by gleaming globes. It’s a hypnotically beautiful vista, and as the real night descends around the Garsington pavilion one can almost hear the cosmic harmony.’

Tobias Hoheisel’s set for this Capriccio was designed with both venues in mind. Director Tim Albery has transferred the opera from the late eighteenth-century to the years just after the opera’s composition, but the 1950s locale incorporates an echo of that earlier world and in so doing neatly sustains the meta-theatrical dimension of Strauss’s opera. Taking his cue from the migration of so many artists and intellectuals from Austria and Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, Albery has imagined a post-modern house whose aristocratic owner welcomes these emigres and provides a ‘refuge’ within which artistic relationships can be formed and creativity can be nurtured. Indulging her passion for all things eighteenth-century, the Countess has built a replica drawing-room in which the evening’s conversations, deliberations and entertainments unfold.

Boyd is relishing the new ‘discoveries’ which Strauss’s score continually affords, as he finds new ‘layers’ in the orchestration and explores the way the music meticulously and miraculously ‘paints’ the words and action on stage. The opera is essentially a conversation piece - we have to wait a long time for the final twenty minutes of glorious Straussian arioso, but it’s worth waiting for, adds Boyd - and one of the challenges is to ensure that the dialogue appears spontaneous and natural, as if it were a spoken play; it’s all in the score but it’s tricky balancing the rigour of rehearsed details with the freedom required in the execution.

I comment that the cast of Capriccio, indeed of all of Garsington’s 2018 productions, comprises a good balance of young and more experienced singers. Alongside Miah Persson’s Countess, Andrew Shore will sing La Roche and William Dazeley is the Count, while Gavan Ring as the poet Olivier will contest for the Countess’s love and preferment with Sam Furness’s composer, Flamand. Boyd aims to welcome strong, international casts who are committed to performing at Garsington - he’s not interested in ‘big names’ who are flown in because it looks good on the headed paper - and he warmly and strongly praises the invaluable contribution made by Garsington’s Director of Artistic Administration Laura Canning, in her work with production teams, principal singers, chorus and orchestras.

Louise Alder (Pamina).jpgLouise Alder (Pamina).

To my query whether co-productions will become a familiar feature of future Garsington seasons, Boyd comments that there may be further co-productions - there can of course be cost benefits - but that co-productions need to be mutually advantageous to both partners. He will return to Santa Fe in the autumn for discussions with Robert Meya, who will take up his post as SFO’s General Director in October, and Alexander Neef, recently installed as the company’s first Artistic Director, about possible future collaborations, but there are no definite plans.

In the meantime, there are three other new productions at Garsington this summer. To start the season, director/designer Netia Jones and conductor Cristian Curnyn make their Garsington debuts with Die Zauberflöte . Boyd has previously worked with Jones - she added visuals which reacted in ‘real-time’ to a performance of Verklärte Nacht by the Manchester Camerata in 2011, for example - and the marvellous light and transparency of the elevated Pavilion will surely inspire Jones’s visual imagination as she explores the magic and enchantment of Mozart’s singspiel. Two young singers return to Garsington in the principal roles: Cardiff Singer of the World prize-winner Louise Alder (Ilia,Idomeneo, 2016) and Jonathan McGovern (Pelléas, Pelléas et Mélisande, 2017) sing Pamina and Papageno, while tenor Benjamin Hulett makes his Garsington debut as Tamino.

Garsington is committed to developing engagement with opera among new audiences and this year The Magic Flute project will see vocal director Lea Cornthwaite and director Hazel Gould create a 30-minute piece based on The Magic Flute for Garsington’s Adult Company in partnership with the C&C Choir, a choir of residents from sheltered accommodation in North London run by C&C Housing. The piece will be performed on the main stage at Wormsley on 3rd August.

Mid-way through the season, Bruno Ravella returns to Garsington, along with designer Giles Cadle, following his esteemed 2015 production of Strauss’s Intermezzo to direct a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff which will be conducted by Richard Farnes, winner of the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Conductor of the Year Award. Henry Waddington is the eponymous knight, Mary Dunleavy and Richard Burkhard sing the roles of Alice Ford and her jealous, raging husband, while Victoria Simmonds and Soraya Mafi appear as Meg Page and Nannetta respectively.

Soraya Mafi (Nannetta).jpgSoraya Mafi (Nannetta).

Boyd speaks energetically and with passion and commitment about all three above-mentioned operas, but it is the fourth of Garsington’s 2018 productions which seems to ignite his greatest zeal and intensity. The Skating Rink is a newly commissioned opera by British composer David Sawer, with a libretto - based on the short novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño - by award-winning playwright Rory Mullarkey. The story is gripping, blending murder, lust and corruption with a touch of the surreal. Obsessed with a beautiful young skating champion, Nuria, Enric determines to build her an ice-rink in a deserted mansion near a Spanish sea-side town, and resort to underhand means. An eclectic cast of characters encircle the voyeuristic Enric, and as he watches Nuria spin ever-faster arabesques, so the web tightens on his secrets. A recent play-through with the cover singers has stirred Boyd’s excitement and anticipation for this new opera, the music of which he says is just as mesmerising as the drama which it so perfectly paints.

David Sawer composer  & Rory Mullarkey librettist .jpg David Sawer, composer, and Rory Mullarkey, librettist.

Garry Walker (The Cunning Little Vixen, 2014) returns to conduct The Skating Rink, with director and designer Stewart Laing making his Garsington debut. The first night will be the occasion of another debut, too: Garsington’s first world premiere. It is obviously enormously important to Boyd that we should have faith in modern-day composers and that while, undoubtedly, there are risks in commissioning new work, its essential that alongside superb productions of established work, Garsington enables the creation of new work for new audiences. “It’s the future, and it’s our legacy.”

Claire Seymour