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Garsington Opera 2009

20th Anniversary Series: Fidelio, La Cenerentola and Mirandolina
Garsington Manor, Wed June 3rd - Sun July 5th 2009

June 18, 2009
running until 5th July
Mirandolina is a bright, sparkling, funny comic-opera adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s La Locandiera, to which it owes many of the elements that make this production a delight. It has an irresistibly naughty heart-breaking heroine, her silly aristocratic suitors, her faithful, sweet-natured true-love; it has a classic eighteenth-century drawing-room comedy plot, which should have the universal sub-title ‘Who Is She Going To Marry?’ (Oh, all right then, ‘Whom’), and a witty combination of battle-of-the-sexes with Plautian duping-of-the-upper-classes.

On the face of it, it’s exactly the sort of frivolous confection that made Beethoven despise opera. But almost in spite of himself, Martinú (who described it as a ‘light, uncomplicated thing’) has included some serious meat among the amuse-bouches.

A brief synopsis: Mirandolina is an inn-keeper – young, beautiful, highly intelligent – an independent woman with a successful business. Two idle aristocrats are competing with one another to seduce her; both claim to be madly in love with her. Mirandolina is always a comfortable three steps ahead of them, when she is presented with a challenge she can’t resist : making a dent in the heart of woman-hating Cavaliere Ripafratta. He loathes all women for their flattery, lying, and deceit.

Mirandolina engages his attention by her startling candour about the games she is playing with Forlimpopoli and Albafiorita, before using her dazzling charm and wit to flatter and deceive Ripafratta into falling in love with her. But she has poked a tiger; Ripafratta is not playing a game, he’s feeling all the passionate intensity of first love, combined with the seigneurial privilege of his rank. He is furiously angry when Mirandolina rejects him.

She has already made it clear in Act I that the man she really prefers is Fabrizio, her waiter; but she won’t marry him because she doesn’t want to lose her freedom and independence. In Act III however, terrified that the angry Ripafratta might break into the house and attack her, she begs Fabrizio to marry her; she now needs a protector. The play ends with a playful warning to the audience to beware the wiles of women; but actually you do feel you’ve witnessed the crushing of a playful human spirit by the cruel boot of the patriarchal establishment.

But I don’t want to make too much of this. This production emphasises the theatricality of its own fictive world by almost surreal set-design, brilliant Mediterranean colours, delicious opera-buffa costumes and old-style vaudeville make-up and lighting. Only Mirandolina herself, Fabrizio, and Ripafratta look like real people experiencing real feelings.

Juanita Lascarro was just extraordinarily beautiful and charismatic as Mirandolina, easily dominating the stage with her saucy sex-appeal (I’d love to see her as Carmen), but not overdoing the flashing eyes and heaving bosoms – a performance of restraint and dignity. Perhaps there could have been a bit more actual flirting between her and Ripafratta; some potentially explosive moments were let go, such as the climactic scene when he lifts her into his arms after she has pretended to faint, and is overpowered by his feelings.

The new English translation, very witty and pleasingly articulate, was as clear as a bell, though we still had the assistance of surtitles. I can’t comment on the music, being unfortunately deaf to the musical idiom of twentieth-century opera, except to say that everyone else enjoyed it very much, and it didn’t interfere too badly with my enjoyment of this otherwise delightful production. I understand there are still one or two seats left, and thoroughly recommend opera-lovers to snap them up as fast as possible.

June 7, 2009
La Cenerentola
running until 1st July
It was a ‘filthy night’, as Garsington Opera’s Anthony Whitworth-Jones readily acknowledged, but the sparkling first night of Rossini’s La Cenerentola banished the British summer’s bad behaviour in a hugely enjoyable and witty performance, directed by Daniel Slater.

Rossini’s retelling of Perrault’s Cinderella demands a heroine of considerable vocal skill and subtlety to execute the thrilling coloratura runs, which Turkish mezzo-soprano Ezgli Kutlu achieved with precison, but her acting skills were no less impressive, growing in confidence from a dark place of abuse to magnaminous forgiveness.

Henry Waddington’s vulgar, brutish Don Magnifico swaggers and blusters, his self-delusion ripening to monstrous proportions as big as his belly, his hand raised frequently to strike the defenceless Angelina, whose fortune he has stolen, while he canters about stage with a pair of go-go dancing sirens on each arm, his fishnetted, hair-extended daughters Clorinda and Tisbe played with gusto by the superb Romanian soprano Eliana Pretorian, the youngest finalist in the 2005 Kathleen Ferrier competition, and Australian-born Lisa Crosato. Yet for all their clumsy bullying and spite, the trio’s moment of reconciliation and pardon with Angelina is one of moving repentance and self- awareness.

Disguise – an essential fairy-tale element – is played out brilliantly by the swaggering, Italian-stallion, Rayban wearing valet, Dandini (the excellent Quirijn de Lang) , impersonating his employer Prince Ramiro (Greek baritone Antonis Koroneos). He grows so into the part, that when he is stripped of it, and stands apart from his Prince and Angelina’s joyful mutual admiration, his crestfallen good looks and elegant confidence brutally punctured, he is both poignant and affecting.

No fairy tale is complete without a fairy godmother, and Rossini’s substitution of the Prince’s sage philosopher and tutor, Alidoro, played with commanding authority by the Australian singer Joshua Bloom, who recently made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, frames the action of this ‘triumph of goodness’, his beggar’s overcoat spangling with silver glitter.

Angela Davis’ design, cleverly utilising a battered caravan as Angelina’s squalid domestic prison, which revolved in the twinkling of an eye, serves as a glitzy Winnebago for the glamour of Court life, and David Parry’s wonderful, exhuberant conducting of Rossini’s playful score had the audience stamping their feet, and calling for encores with the passion of a football crowd. Or was it the cold, after all?

June 7, 2009
La Cenerentola
running until 1st July

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an operatic retelling of the Cinderella story. A small gentle-looking girl (Angelina or La Cenerentola) steps out of an old caravan and from this slight body pours a beautiful rich voice. A while later we meet Dandini, the dandified valet to the prince, slim and dressed like a model and again the most wonderful voice emerges. Before these we have Angelina’s two step-sisters, outrageous and funny and not only great singers but also great dancers.

This is Garsington’s production of the Rossini opera, a version in modern dress and an evening of beautiful voices and wonderful acting from an international cast. Ezgi Kutlu is Angelina, downtrodden certainly and sweet, but not without character; Quirijn de Lang is Dandini, playing the part of stand-in prince for all it is worth whilst recognising the dangers that this entails.

Rossini’s opera is very funny and the cast milk the comedy from every note but the characters are three-dimensional too. Angelina’s begging to be allowed to go to the dance, Dandini’s bemoaning the fact that he has to return to his lowly job, these feel like real people not cardboard cutouts. Alidoro, played by Joshua Bloom, the prince’s tutor who engineers the meeting of the two lovers, is a director who manipulates the people around him. Henry Waddington’s pompous Don Magnifico and particularly his two ridiculous daughters, Eliana Pretorian and Lisa Crosato, have you laughing out loud with their (highly skilled) antics – this is the first time I have seen an opera singer do the splits on stage. Antonis Koroneos’s prince seemed a bit tentative at the beginning but he warmed to his theme and to his love. Let us not forget the chorus of men who are the servants and the paparazzi, three girls who act as dancers and prospective princesses and the orchestra, all great.

As the programme says, this version of the fairy tale is stripped of all fantasy and magic; the baron is just a bullying impoverished old man, his daughters spiteful gossips and it is the tutor (not a fairy godmother) who provides Cinderella with the opportunity to go to the ball after her kindness to him. The set here is correspondingly simple, just a caravan and a few small pieces of furniture. A great deal of praise is due to Arthur Pita, whose choreography produces some outstanding set pieces but also a smooth transition from one scene to another. In fact, a great deal of praise is due to everyone involved in this outstanding production.

Garsington Opera will be in Garsington this year and next and will then move to a new venue which should be revealed in the next month or two. Good luck to them – they deserve it.

June 3, 2009
running until 3rd July
This was a triumphant opening night for Garsington’s Fidelio – at the end of it the audience (largely composed of sedate and beautifully dressed elderly persons) yelled, hooted, and stamped their feet so vehemently that I was just picturing the headlines (‘Garsington auditorium collapses – entire audience squished to death’), and everyone clapped until their poor frozen little arms ached (the weather sadly was not kind).

Fidelio is not an easy opera and is markedly lacking in hummable tunes and fun. Beethoven thought opera was a contemptibly frivolous art form and he only wrote this one, which he tinkered with extensively over a period of thirteen years or so until he had whittled it down to its present rather brief form. Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1948 memorably described it as more of a Mass than an Opera : ‘the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a “religion of humanity” which we never found so beautiful or so necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through.’

Beethoven smacks his audience in the face with serious themes expressed via heart-wrenching drama. For the audience of 1805 it must have been like going to the movies expecting to see 27 Dresses, and then being confronted by Schindler’s List. Tradition has it that most of that audience consisted of French army officers, who had in the previous month occupied Vienna, and one can only imagine how pleased they were by this tale of tyranny, injustice, false imprisonment, cruelty, and redemptive love.

But it struck me last night now very Shakespearian it is (and not just because of the cross-dressing). It is true Romance, in the medieval sense of the word, in which the heroes are separated and endure terrible suffering, but are reunited and restored to their former happiness at the end. It’s comic and not tragic, as Shakespeare’s late plays are comic. But Beethoven didn’t want it to be a fable, set somewhere long ago and far away, and this production, though using costumes roughly contemporary with the original production, effectively made the point that the story is timeless via a harsh and brutal metal and concrete set that cleverly evoked repressive regimes and the inhumane treatment of prisoners in our own enlightened days.

One of the things that is often difficult for production companies to do is make the prisoners, and especially Florestan himself, look sufficiently gaunt and wasted, since it is in the nature of opera singers to be rather on the robust side. This production here triumphed again – the poor prisoners, let out of their underground dungeon for a brief walk in the garden, looked pathetically emaciated and filthy, and successfully performed that divine chorus that makes strong men break down in tears.

Florestan himself (Peter Wedd) was absolutely convincing as a man who has been systematically starved for months and is now very weak and near to death. Rebecca von Lipinski was a superb Leonore, a tall Amazonian blonde in the peak of health, thoroughly feasible as a young man, but every inch a woman in her anxiety about her husband in dramatic asides. She is a very accomplished actress, and her voice is simply miraculous, unusually rich and golden for a soprano, with range, power, and nuance. Sergei Leiferkus was splendidly hissable as the evil baddie Don Pizarro, and Frode Olsen, a genial Viking of a Rocco, was excellent and made the anchor for the production. Claire Ormshaw was a charming Marzelline. The final scene was utterly triumphant thanks to the god-like presence of Pauls Putnins as Don Fernando, the deus-ex-machina of the opera who sweeps in at the end and puts everything to rights; his tall magisterial presence, his striking good looks, and above all, his beautiful mellifluous voice, contributed to the great surge of joy that scene is intended to create.

One of the really wonderful things about Garsington as a venue is its intimacy. The orchestra is brilliantly contained, no-one has to strain their voices, every word is clear as a bell, and the excellent stage set is gorgeously enhanced by the back of the manor house and its ravishingly lovely flower garden. If the weather continues uncertain (I see that rain is forecast for this evening) you definitely should bring scarves, blankets and thick socks (and if you’re seeing Fidelio, tissues). If you are lucky enough to go on a fine warm night, then you are in for a wonderful treat, for the grounds are big enough to absorb even six hundred picnickers in the interval, and are of unparalleled and magical beauty. This is an experience with a time limit, for after the 2010 season the opera must move from Garsington and find a new venue. So do it now, before it’s too late!
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