photo by Mark Douet
Our more or less local country house summer opera season has started with a pair of pieces at Garsington Opera at the gorgeous Getty estate, Wormsley. There’s something magic about the location, with its long, long drive to the ever more comfortable “temporary” auditorium, and the view from it over the landscaped pond. This is an area we know well. Here Paul Getty tried, and failed, to teach me the rules of cricket – Wormsely has its own cricket pitch and, of course, cricket pavilion. The memories are all good. The catering has always been superior, done at first by one of Jamie Oliver’s firms, and is now even better, under the aegis of an Oxford-born chef, Michael North. (Of the catered picnics this year, we found the standard traditional summer picnic and its vegetarian version even better, more generous, varied and fresh than the “gourmet” hamper. I’ll report back on the restaurant when we eat there in a couple of weeks during the interval of Pelléas et Mélisande.)
Opera number one, Handel’s 1744 Semele, with its libretto by William Congreve, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, was a curate’s egg of a production – which is to say, I relished Acts II and III. The trouble with Act I was, on reflection, Handel’s indecision as to whether the “dramatic entertainment” he was composing was to be an opera or an oratorio. The latter might just have been preferable, as the music is sublime and the performances very fine indeed. Jonathan Cohen conducted with flair, attention to detail and to the needs of the singers. Semele departs from the da capo aria model anyway, by incorporating an enormous number of pieces for the chorus, executed excitingly by Garsington’s young and sonorous chorus. The only unhappy aspect was designer Nicky Shaw’s costuming them as the uniformed flight crew of some cut-price airline, leading to lots of visual jokes that didn’t quite work in their celestial scenes. Act I was a relative downer, but that makes it more the pity that the critic of one of the national papers and the three people seated alongside him did not stay to see and hear the considerably better Acts II and III. (By the way, you discover from Jonathan Keates’s learned and graceful programme essay that one of Handel’s contemporaries called the sex-laden piece “a bawdy opera” and another dubbed it “a Bawdatorio.”)
The plot would have been a commonplace to an educated 18th century audience – though it’s something the 21st century opera-goer needs explicated. Semele, daughter of the Theban king Cadmus, jilts Athamas, as she has the hots for someone above her station, no less than the king of the gods, Jupiter, who beams her up from the altar. She ends Act I singing her vision of what sounds like one endless orgasm. In Acts II and III jealous Juno, heavily gravid herself, convinces the six-month pregnant Semele, to refuse sex with Jupiter, until he shows himself in his true guise – which is, of course, as thunder and lightning, and, of course, cremates poor Semele. But her baby rises, as the phoenix from the ashes, and “is a greater god than love.” I thought you had to be as old as I am to rate wine above eros – but maybe not: her son is Bacchus.
The uniformly fine performances include three knock-outs. The veteran stars, Christine Rice as Juno and Robert Murray as Jupiter, give the roles the touch of comic irony we 21st century-types demand, and the fabulous Heidi Stober acts and sings the title role with credible passion and impressive accuracy. But you can see for yourself: there free screenings of Semele around the country, for example, 1 July Skegness & Oxford, 22 July Ramsgate, 29 July Bridgwater, 15 October Grimsby http://www.garsingtonopera.org/news/opera-all-2017-screenings
(Further performances at Wormsley until 4 July)
John Cox revives his 2005 production of Le nozze di Figaro, conducted elegantly by Garsington Opera’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd, with stunning sets (including two not entirely believable walls of Velasquez portraits of Count Almaviva’s ancestors) and lovely costumes by Robert Perdziola. I’m not certain whether I agree with Gavin Plumley’s endorsement in the programme essay of the claim that this Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration is “the greatest work written for the lyric stage.” Kierkegaard was keener on Don Giovanni, and I’m à cheval. (And then, there’s the problem of Wagner.)
But one thing I will say: Wormsley is the perfect place to see this superlative production. A solitary detail will convince: Figaro takes place in the course of a single day (which is one of the reasons for Plumley’s love of it). In this production it’s as though it is taking place in real time. Starting in the summer’s full daylight, we then go off to our suppers at the end of Act II. It’s evening, as called for in the Act III stage directions as we return to our seats, and darkness genuinely descends with Act IV. It is indeed “night” and the breathtaking set for “the garden” pays visual homage to the company’s former home, the garden loggia at Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams’s Garsington Manor.
As usual, Susanna steals a good fraction of the show. Here, she is Jennifer France, who, along with another clutch of awards, won the 2014 Leonard Ingrams Award at Garsington Opera, in memory of the founder. Like all the principals in this staging, she has excellent comic timing; and she sings with a true, beautiful soprano. Kirsten McKinnon’s countess has genuine aristocratic bearing. In “Dove sono” she keeps her hands perfectly still, radiating calmness while singing of her misery. Cherubino, by contrast, is played by Marta Fontanals-Simmons as a gawky, adolescent boy, all angles, and none of them smooth. Marcellina is luxury casting, the wonderful Janis Kelly makes the role rollickingly funny. There is not a negative word to be said about any of the performances. But there is something extra special about the two main male parts. Duncan Rock and Joshua Bloom, as Almaviva and Figaro, respectively, add real menace to this grand production. Their anger is as alarming as the count’s randiness and Figaro’s cunning are comic. In this small house, both these are almost too big voices, when ramping up the fs, but their performances will linger in the memory as testaments, among other things, to John Cox’s genius as a director.
(Further performances until 16 July)