Thursday, July 07, 2011

The truth in cement, plus ice

A couple of weeks ago the Indy sent me along to Garsington Opera's new home at Wormsley to sample the doughty festival's latest unearthed rarity: Vivaldi's La verita in cimento. The experience as a whole reminded me of a Wigmore Hall for summer opera: the size is similar, the musical standard astronomic and the audience consists of absolute cognoscenti: those we chatted to all turned out to be confirmed opera addicts, immensely knowledgeable and devoted. The new pavilion is glassy and airy; you can watch the sunset through the trees while the opera plays out.

Admittedly, the night we went was so cold and wet that it could have almost have been February; the pavilion is a little too open for comfort in such conditions. We all sat in our coats shivering through the Vivaldi and wondering how the Red Priest himself would have depicted such a season in music.

Having so said, I found myself in the extraordinary position of adoring every minute of the performance. This sphere of repertoire has never been my thang, especially not since 24 compulsory lectures on Italian baroque opera were rammed down our throats at Cambridge, leaving me with a Clockwork Orange response to most of it, other than my arch-beloved Monteverdi (whom I adored before even setting foot in the City of Perspiring Dreams). And so I wrote a five-star review while many of my fellow critics, who are normally much more enthusiastic about all this, were a bit more 'meh' about it. All credit to Laurence Cummings, whose conducting was as light and airy as the pavilion itself.

In case you missed it, here's my review.

Five stars
La verita in cimento
Garsington Opera, Wormsley, 20 June 2011
Review by Jessica Duchen

Not much is black and white in Vivaldi’s opera La verita in cimento - “Truth put to the test”. But the colour-coded designs (by Duncan Hayler) do help, so muddled is the situation in which the unfortunate Sultan Mamud finds himself. It’s all his own fault. Twenty-five years before curtain-up he switched round the babies of his wife and his mistress – who conveniently gave birth on the same day – so that the son of the woman he loved would be his heir. Now he’s decided to own up, throwing both his families into meltdown. It would be easy to show this story as an 18th-century morality tale: the ‘official’ son, Zelim (colour-code white), unravels the mess through personal renunciation. But David Freeman stages it as family drama à la Dynasty and it mostly works a treat.

Garsington Opera, famous for championing little-known repertoire, has struck musical gold with Vivaldi’s 1720 smash hit, here enjoying its UK premiere. The compact cast in this sensibly condensed version – six very busy singers – is perfect for the company’s new home, a glassy, light-filled pavilion theatre which achieves an intimacy rarely possible at any other performance of such world-class calibre.

Vivaldi’s genius presented all the warmth that was missing out in the soggy gardens. There’s always a surprise up his sleeve: a love-triangle ensemble sung by soprano and two counter-tenors garnished with sensual trills; some stunning musical bling for Melindo, the unofficial son (colour-code black), duetting hair-raisingly with the trumpets; or the lamenting wife, Rustena, propped up not only by Pimms but also by an ironically twittering recorder obbligato.

This cast could scarcely be bettered. Paul Nilon, a tenor and the lowest voice on stage, portrays Mamud as a weak, despotic ruler caught between two strong and marvellous women, respectively Jean Rigby as the tippling Rustena and Diana Montague as the self-possessed, flame-haired mistress Damira. The too-pragmatic princess Rosane is an icy, crystalline Ida Falk Winland, betrothed to crown rather than prince and hedging her bets (colour-code one black boot and one white). Both lads are counter-tenors: James Laing a magically poetic Zelim and Yaniv d’Or a Melindo who grew better the more bitter and furious the character became. The Garsington Opera Orchestra, under the inspired conducting of Laurence Cummings, shone as much as the singers: perfect tempi, radiant textures and wall-to-wall virtuosity, the mingling of harpsichord, theorbo and harp cladding the sounds in Vivaldian sunbeams. Glorious stuff.