It's difficult to describe my experience of Wormsley Estate without using the word 'sumptuous'. My night at the opera was preceded by an evening exploring these glorious grounds. You can arrive mid-afternoon and peruse the walled garden, deer park and cricket ground, then take tea or something stronger at the Champagne bar. I opted instead for a picnic by the lake, which was patrolled by a single black swan. Just when I thought I'd wandered into a tableau penned by Prince, for showtime I was summoned by bells to the kabuki-like Pavilion of glass, timber and steel.
You have to hope that a comic opera will raise a titter – by highlighting the absurdity of its libretto, Garsington's production of L'Italiana rated higher on the LOL-o-meter. The culture-clash implied in its title features Italians enslaved to an impulsive Algerian ruler – a politically correct rewrite would lose most of the text – and situates us in the genre of rescue opera. Yet, this one does a Fidelio and subverts tradition. Our titular heroine is assured, self-aware and persuasive, and the 'damsel in distress' is her dreamy lover Lindoro. Tired of his wife and harem, the Bey of Algiers fancies an Italian woman to drink coffee with, et cetera. He gets more than he bargained for when Isabella arrives, with secret admirer Taddeo who poses as her uncle. Quite a slight set-up, but more complex than opera buffa and at the close of Act One, to quote the programme, 'confusion reigns', unexpectedly bringing mille-feuille farce Arrested Development to mind.
Fortunately we had a cast who hit all the right notes whilst managing to story-tell with facial expressions and movement. Riccardo Novaro's Taddeo was all rubber-faced delusions of grandeur, exultantly ridiculous though replacing Geoffrey Dolton who was supposed to perform this role. Luciano Botelho had to prove his ineffectual character Lindoro was worthy of the heroine, and did so by finding real pathos and hope in his aria early on. Quirijn de Lang brought the caprice and libido of Lord Flashheart to Mustafa, Bey of Algiers – credit also to Director Will Tuckett for positioning the character as credible romantic threat rather than the traditional buffo buffoon. The supertitles were almost a character in themselves, enhancing our entertainment with their comical understatement and pithy silliness.
It is around the strongest character that we see the themes set forth: Ezgi Kutlu's Isabella had to be intrepid traveller, slave liberator, fulfilment of Mustafa's desires and faithful lover of Lindoro, and did so with buoyant wit. Calling this a feminist opera is a bit of a stretch, but Isabella has everything under control. There is a frequent idea of 'taming' with which either sex thinks it manages the other, and in everywhere but her words the image is delusional. 'Let a woman show you how to be strong' is the eminently tweetable line of the opera. Its exoticism may be more problematic. However, both cultures get to look foolish in the other's garb – Taddeo being flattered with the rank of High Kaimakan, and Mustafa looking absurd as a newly admitted member of spurious Italian order, the Pappataci. Regardless of the politics, this final sequence was visually and dramatically optimised for hilarity.
There is little space to praise Garsington Opera Chorus for stage presence and musical strength-in-depth, or to acknowledge the cast's skill in rendering Rossini's ultra-ornamented lines. Tickets start at £140. But if you have evening dress knocking about, enjoy opulent surroundings and engagingly presented tales, there's not another day out like it.