There is perhaps no exploit quite so quintessentially British as quaffing French Champagne and listening to German opera on an expansive country estate. Sussex have Glyndebourne, and Ox-Bucks have Garsington. In a skeletal pavilion nestled equidistant between a cricket pitch and a deer park, Garsington Opera was in fine form once again, for the opening weekend of its 25th season.
For a company who have been known to utilise Jaguars, life-size pop-up story books, llamas and Chanel handbags in their sets and dressing, the stage for Fidelio stands in stark contrast to previous productions. An imposing grey construction of concrete and girder, and a feeling of watchful claustrophobia, instead take centre stage.
In Beethoven’s stormy, passionate and only opera, our lead Leonore (Rebecca von Lipinski) dresses up as a prison guard (Fidelio) and attempts the rescue of her political-imprisoned husband, Florestan (Peter Wedd) on the outskirts of Seville. Von Lipinski is faultless throughout in reprising the role from Garsington’s 2009 production, and Wedd’s spotlight moment at the opening of the second act is heart-wrenching and expressive.
Jennifer France as the lovestruck Marzelline, fawning over prison guard-disguised Leonore is sublime in her high soprano, and a real standout of the opening act. It's also lovely to see the in-house progression, in France’s stepping-up from last season's Garsington chorus, to lead, with professional ease. The perfectly balanced early semi-circled quartet is so atmospheric and accomplished, it really feels like something special; the difference between good and great.
The supporting chorus were superb in their subtle atmosphere manipulation, circling vulture-like on ever-present watch along the upper deck scaffolding, in creepy cloaks worthy of a guard of Azkaban.
As Leonore, in a dangerous act of mercy, summons the prisoners out of the giant central manhole cover, we experience what is perhaps, unexpectedly, the most moving scene of the night. The two dozen inmates climb out of the sewer in a piece that looks like it's come straight out of Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies, except it's 18th century Andalusia. The Wormsley rose gardens are used to beautiful effect, as they stumble out into the sunshine.
Sam Furness as Jaquino, who spends most of his time running around after Marzelline, brings excellent comic timing, and provides a welcome bit of light relief. And Stephen Richardson is endearing and redeeming as chief gaoler and dad, Rocco.
For the emotional end, director/conductor Douglas Boyd throws all but the kitchen sink into the fray, with a few dozen more chorus, creating a striking and spectacular finale.
As a stunned crowd stagger out into the prisoners’ darkened rose garden, with even parts champagne and overwhelmed wonder in their misstep, we overhear a seasoned patroness; “Oh it’s good to be back to Beethoven!” Hear hear, ma’am.