Opera: black tie and picnic, circus or seminar?

Garsington Opera Pavilion by Night photo Mike Hoban

Garsington Opera Pavilion by Night
photo Mike Hoban

Picture this. Near the end of Act I of Fidelio, the prisoners are just being released from their dungeon. You, the audience, are sitting in a glassed-in auditorium. The first prisoner climbs onto the stage and the sun comes up in the heavens – the real sun, not stage-lighting. As Rocco finally agrees to let them enjoy the miraculously-timed appearance of the sun, the prisoners walk into an Italianate garden, where they loll about in the borders and rows, until the enraged Don Pizarro orders them back to their cells.
We can only be at the Garsington Opera at Mark Getty’s Wormsley estate near Oxford. Where else could the elements conspire and cooperate to make such perfect use of a June day in England? The Italian garden is an homage to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s creation at Garsington Manor, the former home of the company, and we were all cheered to see its former châtelaine, Rosalind Ingrams, and her family at this first night of Garsington Opera’s 25th anniversary season.
What intimacy the opera has lost in its physical move from Garsington four seasons ago, it has gained in comfort, in capacity, staging possibilities and in backstage facilities. When it comes to landscape and vistas, though, it’s a perfect draw. The existence of this company and its jewel of an opera house is a testament to the best of human pleasures, wit, ingenuity and, above all, generosity. Yes, the very rich can afford to be this generous – but they don’t have to be.
(I first visited Wormsley years ago with my wife and
children, invited by the present owner’s father, Sir Paul Getty, who was determined to teach me, born in America, as he was, the rules of cricket., He failed, as you can read in the archives of The Wall Street Journal – though I profited from his instruction to the extent of occasionally being able to work out a crossword clue involving the game.)
Fidelio, contrary to normal Garsington policy, is a revival. John Cox’s production was worth restaging if only to take advantage of Wormsley’s roomier stage to show off Gary McCann’s battleship grey prison sets. For me there were two standout performances. Jennifer France, and especially Sam Furness, in the usually boring roles of Marzelline and Jaquino, acted and sang impeccably and in such a way as to make you care about characters most productions scarcely bother with. Rebecca von Lipinski and Peter Wedd successfully reprised their 2009 roles of Leonore and Florestan. Darren Jeffrey’s angry flashing eyes and booming voice made his Pizarro memorable, and all the soloists were in fine voice.
The orchestra, conducted by the company’s new Artistic Director, Douglas Boyd, however, was not in such good order. Attacks were ragged almost until the end of the overture, when suddenly the brass players seemed to have warmed their instruments and Mr. Boyd had them all reading from the same place in the score. I had noticed the silence of the orchestra as the audience entered. Were they told to stop their tuning-up as the auditorium filled? I hope not – nobody minds hearing the slight discord coming from the pit, and it does mean that the brass players and horns are warmed up, have found their embouchure and are good to go. In addition, I found the sound of the band a little hollow, as though the middle voices were lacking in strength or missing. Were the violas and the woodwinds under strength?
Worse, Fidelio is an opera in which ensembles are paramount. I got almost cross with the direction, as I felt I could improve the staging myself, given a single rehearsal period. It’s very simple. Every singer in every ensemble number has merely to think: to whom am I singing this phrase? If only the singers would reflect on this and make eye contact with the person or persons he or she is singing to, the plot will look after itself. Occasionally the singer in an ensemble is singing to the audience; but that is a great deal more rare than most directors – and certainly this one – allow. Get but this one thing right (as I learned from a workshop years ago with Sir Jonathan Miller) and you’ve captured the dramatic soul of opera. (This, of course, is why we appreciate the mature Wagner operas. The master dramatist realised that the best way to retain dramatic tension is to remove opportunities for poor acting – so ensembles are reduced to a minimum, and people sing as they speak in real life, one at a time. When Wagner does write a number for two or more, the situation usually forces the singers to interact and look at each other – think of the Norns or the Walküre all on stage together, or Brünnhilde and Sieglinde.)
In Offenbach’s rare operetta Vert-Vert, which we saw at Garsington the next evening, this was not so great a problem, for the piece is little more than musical froth, “like the steamed milk on your cappuccino,” said one champion of the piece. Yes, but I like my cappuccino without chocolate sprinkled on the froth. The plot, which begins with the death of a parrot (scholars will want to take note of this source for Monty Python), is too complex and far too silly, to outline here. Suffice it to say it involves a convent school, some soldiers and officers, the dancing master, headmistress and several clandestine (and surely under-age) marriages.
Francis O’Connor’s vertically-split château set and his costumes are delightful, as is Ewan Jones’ choreography. David Parry’s orchestra sounded a little fuller than it had the previous night; the schoolgirls are all as pretty and lovely to hear as the dragoons are handsome and talented. I award a special prize to Mark Wilde, who manages to sing the part of Binet, the gardener, with a strong Scottish accent – something I imagine is hard to do.
Besides that seeing it is like eating too many KrispyKremes, this production has one big fault – it’s sung in English. As David Parry (who made the translation) admits, it often loses the stress, or crams too many syllables or stresses into a musical phrase. As with the translation of Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s production currently at the Coliseum, some of the lines for the chorus seem to be unsingable. Even if it is possible for the singers to crowd all the phonemes into the rapid rhythms demanded by the music, it is not possible for the hearer to distinguish them. Why try?
As with Charles Hart’s newly commissioned translation of the libretto of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Mr Parry’s translation works perfectly well as surtitles. But surely both pieces work better, and it is much kinder to the singers, to leave them to be sung in French. At least the lines in the original language more or less fit the musical phrasing. Why tamper with this?
This raises a point so fundamental, and its denial was so disturbing, that it marred my enjoyment of an otherwise spectacular production by the English National Opera. There are some wonderful moments –Sir Willard White as a drag queeny Pope Clement VII, preening and admiring his silvered false fingernails; the posse of Swiss Guards who tease us by not being camp until they exit the stage, frocks a-swish; the hundred-strong troupe of circus performers and acrobats; the carnival parade that erupts in the auditorium and boxes, with the giant puppets that swoop over our heads; and the explosive casting of the sculpture, which rotates to reveal only its teasing torso and giant willy. This is said to be the most expensive production ever mounted by the ENO – at least the audience can see where the money has gone.
The stagecraft is perfect – bravo, Terry Gilliam. However the orchestra – and this is a rare complaint to make when Edward Gardner is conducting – sounded under-rehearsed. There were problems of attack and of ensemble. I wish I’d attended a later performance, as I’m sure these glitches will disappear. In the killer title role, Michael Spyres showed the stamina of a god, and never appeared stretched or tired. If only he, and the rest of the very good cast, had been allowed to sing naturally – in French. Once again the asinine ENO policy of performing in English has damaged the production. The point of the policy is to perform in the language of the audience, which presupposes that the audience can hear the words. As is usual at the Coliseum, it can’t.
Is Benvenuto Cellini any good as a piece? Probably not very. But there are some musical high points in the score; and the theme, patronage of the arts and artists as naughty boys, is full of interest. Some critics think Mr. Gilliam has shown too little respect for these themes, and made a circus of what ought to be a seminar. This is the first production of the opera I’ve ever seen, but I doubt the work would stand up well if taken completely seriously. By the second or third performance Ed Gardner will have licked the orchestra into shape, I’m sure; and provided you don’t strain yourself trying to make out the words, seeing this will be a very fine way to spend an evening.
Garsington Opera Pavilion at Night by Mike Hoban

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