We’re suffering post-Brexit gloom, and disappointment at the cabinet appointments made by the new Prime Minister. (Who is Matt Hancock, the new Minister for Culture? I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing of the MP for West Suffolk at the theatre, opera or at a gallery.) As for Mrs May’s major choices of the interesting David Davis, the dreadful Liam Fox and bonkers Boris Johnson to implement Brexit: she has obviously said to the trio – you made the mess, you sort it out. My theory is that almost everyone concerned knows that Britain can’t actually extricate herself from Europe – that Brexit is not actually achievable; and by appointing the tough-guy troika to make the attempt, she has also seen to it that these three (and those they represent) will have to take the blame for the failure.
In the meantime, the pound plummets in synch with the price of London houses, academic research projects are endangered because of the threat to the ten percent of their funding that comes from Europe, and opera productions are menaced by the promise of restrictions on freedom of movement (when a singer is indisposed, it’s usually cheaper to fly in a European cover who already knows the role, than to have trained up an understudy from scratch). And the weather’s lousy – here in Oxfordshire winter seems to have ended only yesterday.
Still, there’s a lot to be happy about. Last week we drove, in under an hour (and in opposite directions), to two world-beating country house operatic performances. Garsington Opera at Wormsley has the ambition to stage one production each summer that involves other art forms, and this year collaborated with Ballet Rambert in a truly remarkable evening featuring Haydn’s The Creation. Garsington’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd conducted the orchestra, which was on the stage, behind designer Pablo Bronstein’s permanent set of a gothic rood screen, with the mighty chorus seated, female voices to their right, males to the left above the orchestra. Mark Henderson’s lighting assured that there was plenty of variation, both in the shadows cast on the stage by the tracery of the screen, and in the colour of the entire stage. Mark Baldwin, Rambert’s artistic director, directed and choreographed, and chose to position the three glorious vocal soloists, Sarah Tynan, James Gilchrist and Neal Davies, in the arches of the screen. They, like the orchestra and chorus, were un-costumed, their placing and dress a broad hint that this was more a dance- than a musical event.
At first this seemed odd. The words of Haydn’s oratorio, sung in English, are full of suggestions for – at least mime, if not dance. There is the creation of the whales and fish in the sea, the eagles and other birds of the air, and the creepy-crawlies of the earth. Baldwin on the whole resisted the mimetic temptation these present; though there was plenty of Peter Sellars’-type hand-jive, the movements did not seem to be conveying any semaphore messages. More elusive, at first, was the eclectic choreography. Those who appreciate the work of Mark Morris (I do) had an easier time of it. In the first few minutes, the barefoot dancers moved from recognisably classical pliés, jetés, entrechats, fouettés and arabesques to an alarming pas de deux demonstration of break-dancing, and later, a couple of bars of what I took to be an hommage to the Twist dance-craze of the early 1960s. Costumed in gender-concealing leotards, it seemed as though female dancers were lifting other ballerinas and performing soaring leaps, while the Adam and Eve moment seemed to feature more Adams and Adams than Eves. But who knows? It was all so rapid and so wholly enjoyable.
One critic has said more than 50 dancers were employed –I counted 31 at the curtain call. As the Wormsley stage is so wide, I found it difficult to take in everything going on without repeatedly swivelling my head – it was, at the very least, a three-ring event. But the exuberant display of virtuosity was stunning. Every one of the dancers, including the Rambert students, seemed to have the extension of virtual creatures – never have so many legs touched so many ears or soared above so many heads. I especially noted the smallest boy in the corps de ballet, who was deservedly given several solos, with pointed toes reaching for the sky – the dancers weren’t named, but surely he’s Wayne Sleep in the making. It was breath-taking, and the only thing to do was to abandon your cultural prejudices, musical expectations of oratorio, and worries about what it all meant, and sit back and enjoy these exhilarating performances. The unexpected absence of dancers during part 3 between Adam and Eve’s duet in Eden and the sublime finale had the effect of making us concentrate in the interlude on the excellence of the soloists and of the chorus, who, thanks to the “temporary” auditorium’s acoustic, seemed to surround us. This was a brave and wholly successful experiment.
On its small stage in the Cotswolds, Longborough Festival Opera has performed Janáček before – The Cunning Little Vixen. Heart-rending though that piece can be, it doesn’t present the challenge of Jenůfa, billed accurately enough in the programme as “an unsentimental tale of infanticide…and redemption.” Though it’s often said to be one of the first operas written in prose, it was sung in English, and the libretto has its own poetry, even in translation. The orchestra does at least half the working of the acting, setting the tone and mood, so that the flourish of the harp, or the sudden intrusion of the tympani, soothes, jangles or jolts. But keeping the dark drama from turning into melodrama is the job of the principal singers, and in the performance I saw they acted their hearts out without pinning them on their sleeves.
Richard Studer directed, and also designed the tactful permanent set of the water mill, which works beautifully with Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting, so that, during the scenes set in the house and bedroom, you almost don’t notice the water wheel that otherwise dominates the stage. It’s one of those subtle, but great stagings, where the simplicity of the set and props serves only to highlight the splendour of the acting, led by Lee Bisset, whose warm, rich but powerful Longborough Sieglinde is matched by her Jenůfa, an opera she’s had in her repertory for some time – having originally sung Karolka. Her performance is magnificent – as is Gaynor Keeble’s as the Kostelnička, for she stands ramrod straight and hurls her words at us, without a hint of shouting. It helps that the orchestra, conducted with passion by Jonathan Lyness, is under cover à la Bayreuth, but that the house is so small that fff is achievable without the Bayreuth bark. Laca is sung by Daniel Norman, who convinced me in the final act that he really was a reformed character who would never again harm Jenůfa. I have to admit that Andrew Rees’ Števa seemed a touch mature to have faced conscription, but he was in fine voice and fettle. The director has chosen to costume the cast in generic Eastern European post-War garb, rather than the elaborate period costumes that set Moravia apart from its neighbours (and which he describes in his programme essay). It is not as drab as it sounds, and the essential class distinctions are respected by the costumes. (The honour/shame plot only works because we see the difference between the property-owning Buryjas and the peasants who work at the mill and crash the wedding party.)
This is not only a musical occasion of a high order, it is also lyric theatre at its moving best. I managed to have a word with Martin Graham, with his wife, Lizzie, the founder of LFO, and I asked him if his famous love for Wagner wasn’t, perhaps, matched by his affection for Janáček. The intense light in his eyes answered my question.