Garsington Opera Season 2011

This season: The Magic Flute (Mozart), Il Turco in Italia (Rossini) and La verità in cimento (Vivaldi) in the new site.
The Wormsley Estate in the Chiltern Hills, High Wycombe; Thu 2nd June - Tue 5th July 2011

June 22, 2011
La Verità in Cimento - Vivaldi
Mon June 20th - Mon July 4th 2011
This season, Garsington Opera, newly re-homed in the beautiful Wormsley Estate, hosts the UK première of Vivaldi’s opera La Verità in Cimento (Truth put to the Test), first performed in Venice in 1720, which tells the story Sultan Mamud of Cambaia, a man torn between the conflicting needs of his two sons and the opposing demands of his wife, Rustena, and mistress, Damira. At heart an exploration of the demands of duty and virtue weighed against the impulses of affection, the story offers much food for thought for the modern audience, dealing with themes of emotional manipulation, motherly love, unconventional family units and the requirements of leadership, along with dazzling vocal work, soul-searching, hand-wringing and unforgiveable hair.

The plot is operatically complicated: at the instigation of his beloved mistress, Sultan Mamud agreed to swap his two sons at birth, so that Melindo, Damira’s son, would reign over Cambaia instead of Queen Rustena’s son Zelim. But as the young men reach maturity their father begins to regret giving into Damira’s maternal ambitions, and announces his intention to reveal the truth and restore Zelim to the throne. Matters are further complicated by the presence of Rosane, the princess shortly due to wed Melindo in his position as heir, but also the object of Zelim’s puppy-like devotion.

Musically, the piece is rich in detail, making great demands of the performers but offering less in the way of catchy arias than some of the more frequently-staged operas. For the non-expert, this can be quite heavy going, but the burden is lightened with beautiful, uplifting ensembles and some expressive acting, notably from Diana Montague as the manipulative Damira and Jean Rigby as the emotional, heavy-drinking Rustena - the cast are all strong but the matriarchs steal the show, dominating the stage like ranks of soap-opera barmaids. Individual motifs are skillfully rendered, from the sweetness of Zelim’s (James Laing) sorrowful reflections to the grand distress of a conflicted Rosane (Ida Falk Winland).

Garsington Opera offers a lovely experience overall. Wormsley is a truly beautiful venue, and the pitiless drizzle, whilst causing some discomfort, showed off the wooded valley and informally sculpted surroundings to a perfection of leaden greens and lush greys. Wear sensible shoes.

June 5, 2011
Il Turco In Italia - Rossini
Fri June 3rd - Sun July 3rd 2011
This year is a new beginning for Garsington Opera: after almost thirty years at Garsington Manor it has relocated to the spacious Wormsley Estate, nestling in a hollow in the Chilterns just south of the M40. A visit to Garsington is never just about the music: one goes for the bucolic yet gilded country-house ambience, for a leisurely evening combining artifice and nature. The new surroundings are a triumphant success. Wormsley may not have the intimacy or historical resonances of Garsington Manor, but its elegantly landscaped topography, complete with lakes and deer park, provides a supremely calming and welcoming environment for the bespoke new auditorium.

This unostentatious 600-seat pavilion is constructed as a kit, going up for 5 weeks a year and otherwise leaving the ground as deer pasture the rest of the year. Nonetheless its acoustics and sight-lines are superb, and the seating is comfortable and has very generous leg room. The stage blends seamlessly into the seating area (in a horseshoe-shape around the orchestra pit) creating an illusion of intimacy, belying the distance between performers and further-flung seats. The overall feeling is light and airy, with both sides largely cut away giving views of surrounding countryside (and the manor house’s illuminated walled garden) whilst protecting you from any wind or rain. As the opera begins the space is filled by natural light, as it ends darkness has fallen and your world has focussed to the artificially illuminated drama on stage.

Tonight’s performance was Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, composed when he was just 22. A light-footed comedy, it combines happily ludicrous plot lines of shifting loves and mistaken identities with knowing satire provided by the character Prosdocimo, practically a one-man Greek chorus who narrates, discusses and often instigates the action, whilst gleefully stealing ideas for his next play.

This production (set in post-war Italy) was consistently inventive and playful, making ingenious use of limited back-stage facilities, showing touches of whimsy, and frequently toying with levels of audience engagement. Use of light and colour was especially successful: juxtaposing soft wide lighting with intense focused lighting to clarify levels of action vs narration; picking out new-found amorous pairings with boldly coloured clothes whilst later presenting an exhausted love-triangle in washed-out green-white-red attire and seated below tricolour bunting.

The orchestra was excellent, tripping through Rossini’s frothy score with both energy and delicacy, it was conducted by David Parry, who also provided a particularly playful fortepiano continuo. The singing and acting was of a similarly high standard, with especial plaudits going to Geoffrey Dolton and Rebecca Nelsen as the cuckolded Geronia and his tempestuous wife, Fiorilla.

Overall it was a perfect Garsington Opera evening: high musical standards complemented by idyllic surroundings. May the festival go from strength to strength in its new home.
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