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The London Magazine - - NEWS - Lana As­four and Matthew Scott

Gars­ing­ton Opera at Worm­s­ley, Sum­mer 2017

Ge­orge Frid­eric Handel, Semele Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, Le nozze di Fi­garo Gioachino Rossini, Il turco in Italia There was much to cel­e­brate about Gars­ing­ton 2017 and, de­spite a few ar­eas where the di­rec­tion fell flat, the fes­ti­val more than ful­filled the high ex­pec­ta­tions we have come to have for it. Two pro­duc­tions were re­vivals, Il turco in Italia (from 2011), which was per­haps the high­light of the fes­ti­val, and Le nozze di Fi­garo (from 2005), an ac­ces­si­ble pro­duc­tion that was an ob­vi­ous crowd pleaser.

The fes­ti­val opened with a dar­ing new pro­duc­tion of Handel’s Semele. It is a work for the aes­thetic he­donist and, set against the light beauty of the mu­sic, the darkly tragic end seems shock­ing. Handel’s text comes from Con­greve (with help from Pope), and this dra­matic retelling of the se­duc­tion by Jupiter and death of the mor­tal Semele at the hands of a venge­ful Juno is a mu­si­cal mas­ter­piece. Nev­er­the­less, it is no­to­ri­ously tricky to stage op­erao­ra­to­rio with mod­ern dra­matic ap­peal, and the wide stage of Gars­ing­ton makes the task still more dif­fi­cult. Be­tween the mytho­log­i­cal fan­tasy of the plot and the static na­ture of the set mu­si­cal pieces and arias, there is an in­evitable temp­ta­tion to up­date and in­ject fur­ther dra­matic in­ter­est. An­niliese Miskim­mon at­tempted to bring ex­cite­ment to the show by giv­ing us a great deal of va­ri­ety and a lot of phys­i­cal and vis­ual com­edy.

Semele’s nup­tials at the start was a mud­dled at­tempt to spoof the so­ci­ety wed­ding, with com­i­cally mal­func­tion­ing electrics sig­nalling the di­vine in­ter­ven­tions of Robert Mur­ray’s Jupiter, whose ac­tual ap­pear­ance - in suede shoes - was re­mark­ably un­di­vine. Chris­tine Rice, who sang the role of Juno bril­liantly while be­ing her­self preg­nant, was con­stantly fol­lowed about by a brood of seven chil­dren in a run­ning joke that em­pha­sized her

sta­tus as a jug­gling su­per­mom who would not let her hus­band’s phi­lan­der­ing mar her po­si­tion as queen of the gods. In a later scene, set in a se­ri­ously un­der-bud­get hos­pi­tal ward where things kept go­ing wrong, she was about to give birth. The au­di­ence, clearly buoyed by din­ner, loved the idea of her trans­formed into a ben­e­fits mother with a fiery taste for vengeance, de­spite reg­u­lar in­hala­tions of tran­quil­is­ing gas sup­plied by an ap­pro­pri­ately re­laxed Som­nus.

Much of the com­edy de­rived from the ten­sion be­tween the li­bretto’s pre­cious ethe­re­al­ity and the vis­ual set­ting. When the rest of the gods first ap­pear, they do so as the cheer­ful pi­lot and flight at­ten­dants for a bud­get air­line, all royal blue polyester and gold wings (per­haps too rem­i­nis­cent of cer­tain scenes in the film Catch Me If You Can). Semele, in her plea­sure palace, lay on a plas­tic hos­pi­tal bed (reused for Juno’s labour) sur­rounded by this crew, and it did not look like she could pos­si­bly be en­joy­ing ‘end­less plea­sure, end­less love’ as she dis­carded her outer gar­ments to re­veal a gartered leg. Dra­matic in­ter­est, con­stantly en­gi­neered out of the jux­ta­po­si­tion of high­ly­wrought mu­sic and base com­edy, risked be­com­ing a dis­trac­tion at times. This was one gag af­ter the next, and so much va­ri­ety made the pro­duc­tion rather messy. That said, there were mo­ments of real beauty, such as the scene where the cho­rus in the heav­ens held lighted globes against a back­ground of deep blue space il­lu­mi­nated by the plan­ets. Heidi Sto­ber, mak­ing her UK de­but as Semele, has real star qual­ity. She han­dled Semele’s aria when in love, ‘My­self I Shall Adore’, with a mas­terly teas­ing, capri­cious sex­u­al­ity.

While Semele felt a pres­sure to amuse with vis­ual jokes, Il turco in Italia was more nat­u­rally en­ter­tain­ing. Set in the world of 1950s Ital­ian kitsch (think Ro­man Hol­i­day and Cin­zano ads), it re­vealed Rossini’s comic opera to be sur­pris­ingly com­plex. At the start, the poet, Pros­docimo, a real pres­ence in the hands of Mark Stone, sat at his type­writer sip­ping cock­tails. As he over­looked the town from his bal­cony, he pon­dered how to cre­ate a dra­matic work from the go­ings-on be­low that was nei­ther ‘too bland’ nor ‘too sen­ti­men­tal’. Into this small-town world of priests, cheat­ing housewives and vis­it­ing gyp­sies crashes Se­lim, the el­e­gant Turk­ish prince, on his play­boy cruise ship - lit­er­ally tear­ing through a gi­ant poster of the Neapoli­tan Riviera. The drama un­folds from this col­li­sion, and the meta-

the­atri­cal qual­i­ties of the piece be­gin to emerge in a way that ap­peals to mod­ern taste.

This pro­duc­tion, con­ducted with panache by David Parry, with many ex­cel­lent per­for­mances, brought out both the comic and touch­ing el­e­ments of the drama and made for an ex­cel­lent even­ing. The only dis­ap­point­ment came in the form of the gypsy cho­rus whose cos­tumes and danc­ing, along­side the skil­ful phys­i­cal per­for­mances of the well-dressed main char­ac­ters, seemed bor­ingly con­ven­tional. The ac­tion re­volves around cuck­olded hus­band Gero­nio, his bomb­shell wife Fio­r­illa, Se­lim him­self, and his ex­iled lover Zaida who now sings with the gyp­sies. Ge­of­frey Dolton cre­ated a su­perb comic char­ac­ter in Gero­nio, torn apart by jeal­ousy and crushed by hu­mil­i­a­tion. At the end of Act I, he sur­prises Se­lim and Fiorella to­gether ‘tak­ing cof­fee’. What en­sues is a very funny scene of farce but one that is also touch­ing, as the jealous hus­band is wrapped tightly around his wife’s fin­ger. Se­lim, mean­while, is de­light­edly be­mused by their per­mis­sive re­la­tion­ship. The slap­stick el­e­ments through­out the pro­duc­tion were ef­fec­tively chore­ographed and won­der­fully en­ter­tain­ing, and Sarah Ty­nan’s Fiorella ex­pressed a mag­net­i­cally flir­ta­tious en­ergy with her beau­ti­fully vi­brat­ing voice and gy­rat­ing hips.

On the open­ing night, it was an­nounced that the fes­ti­val would now make its per­ma­nent home at Worm­s­ley, en­sur­ing that it will be an on­go­ing fix­ture in Bri­tish sum­mer opera. The com­pany moved from its orig­i­nal Ox­ford­shire lo­ca­tion, Gars­ing­ton Manor, once owned by Lady Ot­to­line Mor­rell, to Worm­s­ley Park, the home of Mark Getty, in 2011. The pretty gar­den at Worm­s­ley, with its tall cy­presses and palate of mauves, was de­signed by Pene­lope Hob­house to evoke the beau­ti­ful en­vi­ron­ment at Gars­ing­ton Manor, and was clev­erly brought into the stag­ing of Fi­garo. This was par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive dur­ing the scene in which Cheru­bino es­capes from the Count­ess’s win­dow into the grounds be­low and in the night-time gar­den mishaps of the opera’s fi­nal Act. Worm­s­ley’s ap­peal is very dif­fer­ent from Gars­ing­ton’s charm, but as it is cur­rently man­aged, the com­bi­na­tion of the im­pres­sive site and high qual­ity pro­duc­tions make for a very sat­is­fy­ing even­ing.

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