La Périchole

Offenbach opera about two impoverished Peruvian street-singers.
Garsington Opera at the Wormsley Estate, Mon June 18th - Tue July 3rd 2012

June 18, 2012

It's Garsington Opera's 23rd season, and they've bravely mounted two obscure operas on this year's bill. As well as the annually apt L'Olimpiade there's another rare gem, this time comic. So far they've staged Rossini most years, with the happy effect that this time they've moved on to Offenbach to provide the laughter, with La Périchole, set "in the heart of old Peru" but satirising Napoleon's court.

The plot is pleasingly simple and lucid (especially compared with L'Olimpiade!) but is nonetheless crammed full of disguises and people with operatic amnesia. The heroes are two street singers, La Périchole and Piquillo, very much in love but too poor to marry, or even eat. The Viceroy takes a shine to La Périchole but in order to install her at court she has to be married. The Palace officials set out to find a suitable husband and come upon Piquillo, horrified that La Périchole has left him... Soon everyone is drunk, misunderstandings and honourable intentions battle court corruption and malice and our heroes land up in gaol. But it's all sorted out in the end!

The singing is superb throughout. Robert Murray as Piquillo has to sing from the strangest positions, rolling around on the floor on one occasion, but still sounds sweet as honey. Nancy O'Connell was making her UK operatic debut in the title role. She was completely luminous - vivacious in her acting, and singing beautifully - velvety low range, effortless power and loving topnotes. There aren't any heartwrenching arias to really let rip, but there were an enormous number of words to fit in and the cast's diction was perfect. Everything was in English, in a new translation by director Jeremy Sams, which made it easier to follow but simultaneously more ludicrous. I missed the highbrow edge with which foreign language can invest a production, but Sams' wordplay is fast and funny.

This production bears all the hallmarks of Garsington Opera, being beautifully thought out. The staging is both fun and practical, so the shopfronts of the Plaza opened out like a giant book to reveal the palace. This meant one scene could move straight into another, sometimes not even leaving time for applause. The set dressing came right out into the audience, with great lines of colourful Peruvian washing strung up above our heads. The auditorium is very comfy and manages to make you feel simultaneously protected and out of doors. We were lucky enough to see the stage bathed in sunlight through the glass side panels. There were even two alpacas, making a brief appearance to help the Peruvian flavour, looking slightly bewildered by the whole experience!

Going to Garsington Opera is much more than just going to an opera. The Wormsley estate is in a very beautiful valley with deer roaming about and the gentle noises of sheep belying its proximity to the M40. You can arrive early to explore and picnic but the long dinner interval also gives time to spread out your hamper by the lake, a black swan silhouetted in the sunset keeping an eye on you while you eat. The dress is black tie, at least for the first nights, so the audience look as good as those on stage. At the end, when darkness has fallen, your way back across the grass is lit with lanterns and flaming torches. Altogether, it's magical.

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