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 opera- oratorio 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 highly- wrought 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.

Semele: Heidi Stober (Semele) and Robert Murray (Jupiter). Credit Johan Persson
La nozze di Figaro: Kirsten MacKinnon (Countess). Credit Mark Douet

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.

Lana Asfour’s journalism and essays have appeared in the Times, New Statesman, BBC on- line, Al Jazeera English, OpenDemocracy, Granta, the New York Review of Books blog, Coun- terpunch, Glamour, and others. Before working as a journalist in London and Beirut, she did a doctorate in English and French Literature at Oxford, spending time as a visiting researcher at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and taught at the Open University and Queen Mary, London University. Her book, Laurence Sterne in France (2008) was well reviewed by the TLS and other journals, and she is one of Granta’s “New Voices” in their Emerging Writers series.

Matthew Scott is the reviews editor of The London Magazine.

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