We’ve forsaken sun and sand for chilly June nights and picnics in the shelter tent. Summer opera festivals are increasingly prevalent, ever more fun, and gaining in cultural weight. We’ve recently seen a pair of operas that would not have been possible, or at least very difficult, to stage in the context of a normal season, Garsington Opera’s Mirandolina by Bohuslav Martinů and Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s The Fairy Queen by Purcell.
Hard to credit this, but Mirandolina, first performed in Prague in 1959, just months before the composer’s death, was receiving its UK première, in a faintly footling translation by the usually witty Jeremy Sams from Martinů’s own Italian libretto, which he based on a Goldoni farce. The music, though tonal, is ferociously difficult, partly Neo-classical in style, with some foretastes of the chugging rhythms of the next decade’s minimalists, combined with rapid changes of texture and mood and the harmonic difficulties for the singers of speedy swapping of speech for recitative and equally expeditious arioso giving way to ensemble singing. The overall effect is glorious, and I’m sure in subsequent performances the band, under Martin André, has gained confidence.
Martin Duncan directs his young cast winningly, so they ham it up when appropriate, and move across the stage with grace. Francis O’Connor has costumed them in eye-popping 18th century Day-Glo, with angular architectural sets in strong colours. Mr O’Connor makes the stage seem positively spacious, by having moveable stair, arches and even balconies. One of the things I’ll most miss when the company moves from Garsington Manor for the 2011 season is the ingenuity every designer seems to bring to overcoming the huge restrictions placed upon them of having to make the Elizabethan house’s (less antique, but still old) small loggia into a stage.
The plot of Mirandolina would be beside the point, except that the inn-keeper of the title is a strong feminist character who not only reserves the right to make up her own mind about whom she marries, but also rejects three aristocrats, at least one of whom is also rich, to marry, if anything, below her own station. The scheme of Cenerentola (also part of this Garsington season) stood on its head, so to speak.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Bohuslav Martinů. Glyndebourne is celebrating its 75th anniversary and the 350th of Henry Purcell’s birth by staging, probably in full for the first time since the Restoration, his The Fairy Queen. It’s not surprising that it’s so rarely done, as requires forces, scenery and costumes so massive that it nearly bankrupted the Queen’s theatre, Dorset Garden when it was first put on there in 1692. How on earth has Glyndebourne (which receives no public funds for anything but its education programme) managed to fund this semi-opera based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with prologue, five acts and four masques? I suppose, as Oberon famously says, “I know a bank where…” sponsorship flourishes.
A Maecenas was certainly needed, for in director Jonathan Kent’s production, it was nothing-but-the-best night: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was in the pit, conducted with dramatic gestures of authority by William Christie himself. The sensational soprano Lucy Crowe headed a cast that included the great Desmond Barrit, who not only doubled as a hilariously Welsh Bottom, but as the Drunken Poet showed he has a more than respectable bass voice. Except for the other bass, Andrew Foster-Williams, the entire cast were making their house debuts, and most of the soloists were members of the chorus being given their fairy-godmother moment.
Weirdly, I had a few days earlier seen Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller company perform their Punk production of the Dream, and can tell you that the opening of the play (most of which was actually performed at Glyndebourne) was superior in terms of credibility. That said, even from our excellent seats in the middle of the orchestra stalls, I had some difficulties hearing the actors speaking their lines. I wonder if the acoustic of the house that is so conducive to carrying the singing voice is not so receptive to the spoken word? Not that it mattered a jot, for this was an evening given over to the visual – and to excess. Theseus and the Athenians were in designer Paul Brown’s Restoration costume, and Theseus and Egeus remained so right up to the end of the play/opera, as a sort of framing device. The Nicole Farhi-clad fairies are balanced by the Rude Mechanicals, who are contract cleaners (funnier than Propeller), Juno in white Issy Miyake/Fortuny pleats (singing her aria suspended in mid-air – how uncomfortable is that) and the Michael Jackson-ish Puck (he ends up with the Changeling Boy in one scene, very un-PC).
In the post-Act II Masque of Seduction, the chorus are clad in Harvey-style rabbit costumes, and have a side-splitting bunny-bonking orgy. When they shed their skins, they’re dressed for a hayride in Oklahoma! and there’s a haystack in the middle of the stage, from which emerge Coridon and a drag-Mopsa. You get the idea. A gloriously OTT evening, with gods popping out of the trap door, swans turning into fairies, nymphs springing out of the cabinet of curiosities that lines the walls of the permanent Restoration drawing room set, loads of dancers and acrobats, creditable singing and supremely fine playing from the orchestra.