10 Jun 2010
Musically Astute Armida, Garsington
Garsington has become a distinctive part of the English summer opera season.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Garsington has become a distinctive part of the English summer opera season.
It was founded by Leonard Ingrams, who began hosting operas nearly 20 years ago at his home, Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. Tragically he died, only in his 60’s, in 2005, but the festival continues, moving next year to new surroundings at Wormsley Park, owned by Mark Getty. Ingrams was specially fond of Rossini, so this performance of Rossini’s Armida was a tribute to him, and to his artistic vision.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York did Rossini’s Armida earlier this Spring. This Garsington Armida was completely different, but by no means the lesser experience. At the Met, Armida was a vehicle for Renée Fleming, designed to showcase her coloratura talents. At Garsington, the emphasis was on Rossini, and on the dramatic heart of the opera.
The theatre at Garsington is tiny, capacity only 517, smaller than the 1500 seat Real Teatro di San Carlo but this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as Armida is almost more baroque than bel canto. David Parry has conducted no fewer than 7 Rossini operas at Garsington (one planned for next year). He’s currently Artistic Director at Opera Rara, so he’s attuned to period performance. Some of the musicians in this orchestra have been with Garsington since its formal inception.
Parry emphasized the inherent purity of Rossini’s orchestration. It’s carefully structured, clean, built on almost symmetrical foundations, from which extravagant flourishes can take flight. Indeed, images of M C Escher’s drawings came to mind. Escher’s flights of stairs and archways resemble Rossini’s musical architecture. The vocal parts soar, run after run, pushing the scales to ever greater heights.Sudden leaps and decelerations creating a strong sense of movement. Parry kept the lines clear and uncluttered, revealing the clarity of Rossini’s ideas, which seem to reference Handel and Gluck.
The production takes its cue from the musical logic.A well known critic described the Act One set with its row of chrome and leather chairs as “Ikea”, the Swedish design warehouse. And why not? The principle behind Swedish design is a fusion of function and classic elegance, an apt metaphor for Rossini’s style in Armida.
The theatre at Garsington is temporary, but solid enough to withstand inclement weather. Designer Ashley Martin-Davis brings the struts and metal framework into the opera, by simply painting them red and black. It’s an intelligent comment on the action, for this Act takes place in the camp of the Crusaders (also tented, like Garsington, one presumes).
Nicholas Watts as Eustazio and Bogdan Mihai as Goffredo [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera]
The Franks (and Italian Rinaldo) belong to a military order with semi-religious vows, but Rossini very deliberately doesn’t identify them with the Knights Templar. Torquato Tasso’s original poem, on which the narrative is based, dates from 1580. but connects to traditions that long predate the Middle Ages. In painting, the protagonists are usually depicted as idealized Greeks or Romans. In any case, Armida is a fantasy, for Armida is a sorceress who can use magic. Audiences in Rossini’s time had no delusions that the opera was “historic”. Indeed, the idea of priests succumbing to temptresses would have been only too obvious, and Rossini couldn’t risk offending the all-powerful Church.
Military orders are highly disciplined, and these paladins have vowed to repress love and earthly pleasures. Martin Duncan has the men move in orderly procession. They troop up parallel flights of stairs — the structured music, the Escher ideas, coming together beautifully. They’re ascetically garbed in black, reinforcing the idea of an austere sect. The costumes, stark as they are, are beautiful — elegant and simplicity again.
Armida is justly famed because it affords glorious coloratura display. But it’s important not to forget the context. Armida and Idraote and Goffredo’s Knights are polar opposites. The opera pivots on the dichotomy between love and duty, pleasure and higher ideals. Indeed, Armida’s singing shines all the more brightly when the context is given due respect. Armida’s luminous gardens wouldn’t be so tempting if they weren’t such a contrast to life in the regiment.
A small, temporary festival like Garsington does not do megastars, so it’s pointless to compare Jessica Pratt’s Armida with Renée Fleming or Maria Callas. Instead, she brings youthful energy to the part. If her ornamentations aren’t too flamboyant, she reaches the high peaks in the score, and acts well with her voice. She comes over as a warm hearted spirit, so when Rinaldo leaves her, you sympathize with her pain. In Dove son io? she finds the different stages of emotion. It’s not all piercing frenzy, but gradations of feeling.
Because the balance in this production isn’t entirely one-sided, the male parts take greater prominence. Victor Ryan Robertson sings Rinaldo with pluck. He brought a sense of wonder to his Dove son io!, a deft parallel to Armida’s final aria. The contrast between “hero” Rinaldo who kills for honour and “lover” Rinaldo, conquered by sensuality, was clear.
For such a young singer, Bogdan Mihai’s Goffredo had vocal authority and physical presence. Nice richness to his voice which will serve him well. He doubled as Carlo with David Alegret singing Gernando and Ubaldo. Alegret paced the long Gernando recitatives carefully, so the sudden explosions up the scale at the end of long phrases were very effective.
The Knot Garden [Photo courtesy of Garsington Opera]
Christophorus Stamboglis singing Idraote and Astarotte was impressive too. His voice has character, so it was almost a pity the parts weren’t large enough to show his full measure. Nicholas Watts sang a nice Eustazio.
Naturally, or rather supernaturally, Armida’s gardens in Acts 2 and 3 were vividly coloured. Now the male chorus appeared as blue-painted demons, hiding behind the infrastructure of beams that evoked both forest and ocean. When the nymphs appeared the audience gasped in delight. They were stunning, pale pink top to toe with glittery skirts, moving like exotic flowers. The choreography was simple, more group movement than dancing, but it supported the singing, rather than distracting from it. Gradually the male figures emerged from hiding and embraced the nymphs chastely. The choruses re-enacted Rinaldo and Armida’s relationship. It was another sign that this production developed from an understanding of the music and the opera.
Those who know the gardens at Garsington will be familiar with the strangely twisted topiary trees in the parterre garden the theatre opens onto. As we filtered out after the performance, the garden was lit with emerald light, the more famous large shrubs picked out in mauve. It was unearthly, as though we were experiencing Armida’s garden for ourselves. Imagine Garsington staging Tannhäuser ! That is part of the magic that is Garsington, where stage and reality interact.
This production, though, could easily be transported to another theatre. Indeed, any theatre suited to chamber opera. It’s much too good to be missed. Perhaps Garsington might consider joint ventures? In the long term that might be a way forward.
Performances run from 5th to 29th June 2010. For more details, please see www.garsingtonopera.org