07 Jul 2020

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

All the sounds of an English summer can be heard at Garsington Opera’s Wormsley home. An ideal, or idealised, vision of the season, perhaps; after all, umbrellas, midges, wasps and “rain stopped play” are just as likely to cloud the blue skies and rural ventures. But, with a public health emergency knocking the bails flying from the wickets of the creative industries’ spring 2020 season, for a short while back in March it seemed that wistful reminiscences and wishful dreaming might be all that was in store for culture-lovers and festival-goers during summer 2020.

Thankfully, theatre-makers, festival curators and individual performers have proved resourceful and innovative, whatever the challenges they face and as dark clouds gather on the cultural horizon. Garsington Opera have continued the conversation with their audiences, and Garsington Opera at Home has extended that audience, through free-to-view screenings of favourite past productions - full-length operas and ‘Isolated Arias’ - and new musical performances; Music for the Eyes - a new documentary series, looking at opera alongside visual art and literature to draw new connections between genres; and, 20-minute Motivation Monday singing and moving ‘workouts’.

Garsington Opera’s UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion , a live concert streamed from Wormsley on Sunday 5th July was a perfect combination of nostalgia and optimism. Six singers, Garsington’s Artistic Director Dougie Boyd, members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and actor Samuel West reminded listeners of what we are all missing this summer, and at the same time provided uplifting hope for and anticipation of next year’s summer opera season - and the renewal of the UK’s cultural life more generally.

Where else to begin but with Mozart? Garsington’s 2017 highly acclaimed production of Le nozze di Figaro - itself a ‘recreation’ of John Cox’s esteemed 2005 production which was the last performed at Garsington Manor, in 2010, before the company’s move to Wormsley - has been made freely available to watch via Opera Vision until 25th September. 2017’s Figaro, Joshua Bloom, may not have reunited with his former fellow cast members, but he was joined by a stellar cast of young and experienced voices, Soraya Mafi (Susanna), Roderick Williams (Count), Brindley Sherratt (Bartolo), Nardus Williams (Marcellina) and Sam Furness (Curzio). And, they made a dynamic and balanced sextet in Act 3’s ‘Riconosci in questo amplesso’, in which Figaro, in Wildean fashion, discovers unexpectedly that he has a mother after all, and a father, and delights at his unexpected reunion with his progenitors.

The six singers were raised on a gentle curve behind eleven musicians from the Philharmonia Orchestra spaciously spread across the bare Pavilion stage. Dougie Boyd got musical proceedings underway with characteristic immediacy and clarity, instantly transporting us into the heart of the unravelling knots of comic confusion. Bloom (who had been scheduled to sing Rocco in Garsington’s ill-fated 2020 Fidelio) sounded even more richly sonorous than I remember from 2017; Mafi segued with brilliant musical and dramatic slickness through Susanna’s rapidly fluctuating emotions, from excited confidence, to blazing fury, to relieved elation; Nardus Williams’ soprano glowed with the glossy shine of a mother’s joy at rediscovering her long-lost offspring; Sherratt’s Bartolo was plumped up with smugness; while Roderick Williams’ Count and Sam Furness’s Curzio glowered with frustration and impotence.

Scenes of the garden beyond the glass-walled Pavilion reminded us that the listeners were ‘elsewhere’ but that didn’t prevent the singers also transporting themselves to ‘another world’ - one of 18th-century intrigue and tender ironies. One thing was clear: you might take the audience out of the opera house, but you can’t take the performer out of the opera singer.

Strolling beneath the flower-bedecked trellis arches of Wormsley’s tranquil gardens, Samuel West reminded us of Mozart’s ambition, as voiced by Peter Shaffer in his play Amadeus, to write an opera finale lasting half an hour, in which “a quartet becomes a quintet becomes a sextet. On and on, wider and wider, all sounds multiplying and rising together - and then together making something entirely new.”

Naturally, back inside the Pavilion more Figaro followed. First, Mafi’s Susanna and Williams’ Countess plotted and penned an invitation to the Count that would be his undoing (‘Sull’aria’), the intriguers sounding both thrilled at the anticipated outcomes of their deception and as transported by their rapturously intertwining voices as listeners at home. The reduced instrumental forces gave additional prominence to the lovely woodwind playing of the Philharmonia members, the oboe and bassoon elegantly joining the outbursts of delight.

Next, aerial shots of the gardens invited us to imagine the nocturnal bowers amid which Susanna, disguised as the Countess, sets out to trick Figaro who, recognising her, effects his own double-deception, while the Count’s pompous self-righteousness prevents him from seeing what is going on before his eyes. Despite the lack of theatrical context or accoutrements, Mafi, Bloom and Roderick Williams (‘Pace pace mio dolce tesoro’) conveyed the complexities of the dramatic cat’s cradle and both the strains and delights of the shenanigans, before Mafi’s light, spring-fresh rendition of Susanna’s enraptured anticipation of love’s fulfilment (‘Deh vieni’) drew sympathetic duetting from the Philharmonia woodwind and spread a beam of magic through our imagined garden.

Back to the topiary-hedged garden paths, to hear West read from an unaddressed love letter written by Ludwig van Beethoven, dated 6 th July 1806 - 214 years to the date of the writing of this review, and a fitting introducing to ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’, the Act 1 quartet from Fidelio in which love craved for, hoped for and anticipated unites Leonore (Nardus Williams), Marzelline (Mafi), Rocco (Bloom) and Jaquino (Furness)

The small string forces presented an almost impossibly gentle and heavenly introduction, and the heart-pulse of the double bass deepened its throb with the entry of the voices, the women sweet and pure, Bloom evincing a lovely warm maturity, and Furness’s Jaquino strong and ardent. Boyd sculpted the counterpoint and textures with pinpoint clarity, expertly shaping the intensifying emotions.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin brough richer Romantic urgency. Roderick Williams demonstrated characteristic dramatic and musical insight in ‘Kogda by zhizn’’, the recitative conveying his appreciation of the troubled Onegin’s precariousness and uncertainty, complemented by clarinet delicacies. A lovely cello solo led in an aria of focused lyrical articulateness. I have occasionally commented that Williams’ baritone is a little ‘light’, but here he balanced elegance with surges of rich fullness. And, in all the arias from Onegin, I appreciated, for the first time, just how frequently Tchaikovsky employs the clarinet’s silkiness, and registral and timbral expanse, to complement the emotional landscape of his characters. Boyd’s flexible handling of tempo conveyed both self-reflection and insistent resolve.

In ‘Kuda, Kuda’ - in which Lensky reflects on his love for Olga as he awaits the duel with his former friend, now rival, Onegin - Sam Furness drifted dreamily in Romantic self-absorption then, enrichening his vocal colours and summoning a lovely firm tone, pushed forward with conviction. What a wonderful contrast between the floating head-voice with which Furness asked, “Will you ever shed a tear over my grave and think, ‘He loved me’?”, and the powerful surge of sound from Lensky’s soul, “Olga I loved you: to you I devoted the sad dawn of my stormy life.”

The final ‘musical word’ came from Brindley Sherratt who relished every ounce of joy in ‘Lyubvi vse vozrasty’, in which Prince Gremlin touches Onegin’s heart and conscience with his account of an old man’s joy at finding unexpected love. “Love is a blessing at any age” shimmered tenderly like a petal tremulous with the weight of raindrops, evoking a sense of overflowing wonder. Such openness and vulnerability contrasted with moments of firm authority, of the sort that makes Sherratt such a brilliant Sarastro and Claggart.

West left us with a final quotation from Amadeus. When Shaffer’s Salieri insists that God has chosen him to be his voice on earth, as is evident in Salieri’s exquisite music, Mozart offers his own understanding of his ‘role’: to make a sound entirely new. “I bet that’s how God hears music. Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us.” West might have continued, for Mozart explains: “That’s our job … we composers. To combine the inner minds of him and him and her and her - the thoughts of chamber maids and court composers - and turn the audience into God.”

The String Sextet which opens Richard Strauss’s Capriccio - which Boyd conducted at Garsington in 2018 - suggested that Shaffer’s fictional Mozart was correct. The music is never silent: though it is sometimes unheard, it is always within us.

Claire Seymour

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion will be available here, with no registration required, for six months.

Garsington Opera’s 2021 season celebrates its 10th anniversary at Wormsley.

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion

Soraya Mafi (soprano), Nardus Williams (soprano), Sam Furness (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass), Brindley Sherratt (bass), Samuel West (actor), Douglas Boyd (conductor), Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra.