Saturday 5 April 2014

Pure Magic! L'Ormindo at the Globe

Harry Nicoll in L'Ormindo © Stephen Cummiskey
Harry Nicoll in L'Ormindo
© Stephen Cummiskey
The Royal Opera House's latest collaboration is on rather a smaller scale than usual. Cavalli's L'Ormindo is being performed in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe, a reconstruction of an English 17th century indoor theatre. Both theatre and opera are of roughly the same date, Cavalli's opera was premiered in Venice in 1644. However, as Kasper Holten admits in the programme they are cheating somewhat as Cavalli's operas were performed in proscenium arched commercial theatres in Venice. But the theatre is a wonderful space, a chance to hear a genuinely intimate performance of a baroque opera in a candle-lit space. We went along on 4 April 2014 see and hear for ourselves.

Directed by Kasper Holten, designed by Anja Vang Kragh with Christian Curnyn conducting the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company, the production had an interesting combination of modernist and period backgrounds. Holten, directing his first baroque opera, was highly sympathetic to Cavalli's work, creating a very pacy performance which thankfully did not try to make the piece something that it wasn't. L'Ormindo was chosen because of its humorous and theatrical plot, and this was a very funny and very theatrical production.

Holten used the whole theatre, with the gods being lowered from the ceiling  and various people popping up through the trap in the floor, people shouted from balconies, eavesdropped from the circle and clambered over the audience. In fact, Holten got the actors to use the audience shamelessly, there was no sense of the traditional fourth wall, and the singers talked to the audience, involved them and even sat on knees. I have nothing but admiration for the singers, having to perform their craft with us audience members inches away from them. We were sitting at the side of the stage, close enough to almost be part of the action.

There was, of course, no set as the theatre itself is the set. Kragh's costumes were richly imaginative. The Gods who open each act were dressed in a style which had far more modern references, whilst the main characters in the opera had rich 17th century inspired costumes full of gilt and glitter. The candles made a strong feature of every scene, reflecting the emotional atmosphere. In the moving scene in which Ormindo and his lover Erisbe are dying, all the candles were snuffed out.

The plot is the usual daft confection, but one done with wit and enjoyment. Ormindo (Samuel Boden) and Amidas (Ed Lyon) are both in love with Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell) and she cannot decide between them. She is already married to the elderly King Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent). Amidas has abandonned his previous lover Sicle (Joelle Harvey), she travels in disguise to fetch him back. Being Venetian baroque opera, everyone has a comic servant, so that Amidas has a page, Nerillus (James Laing) who is young and just getting to grips with sex. Sicle has a nurse Eryka (Harry Nicoll) and the two of them dress up as gypsies to tell fortunes to provoke Amidas into returning to Sicle. Erisbe has a lady in waiting Mirinda (Rachel Kelly). Everyone is obsessed with sex, made all the more funny by the fact that the very candid Eryka is played by a man. (17th century opera is full of sex obsessed middle-aged ladies played by men).

Cavalli's music is not always particularly memorable, and during the opera you could hear his over reliance on a few musical tropes which cropped up repeatedly. But the score is highly effective and the performers kept it moving, whilst allowing pause for the more serious moments. The death scene I mentioned earlier is one of the great moments, and this was profoundly moving.

Ed Lyon, Samuel Boden, Rachel Kelly, Susanna Hurrell in L'Ormindo © Stephen Cummiskey
Ed Lyon, Samuel Boden, Rachel Kelly, Susanna Hurrell in L'Ormindo
© Stephen Cummiskey
Samuel Boden was delight as Ormindo, singing with a finely free high tenor which seemed made for the role. He seemed to have the ability to sustain effortlessly the high-lying line with freedom and fluidity. Ed Lyon made a nice contrast as Amidas, with a slightly darker more dramatic style whilst fluently stylish in the ornamental passages. Both spent much of the first act without their shirts, to rather pleasing effect.

Susanna Hurrell brought great charm and stage presence to Erisbe, making the journey from pleasure loving sex-kitten to the more profound death scene. Her companion, Mirinda, was finely sung by Rachel Kelly again with a sly sexual obsession. Joelle Harvey's Sicle got to be a gypsy and a ghost before managing to retain her man. Harvey clearly had great fun with the role and its various personae. She was supported by the perfectly wonderful Harry Nicoll. With his white make-up, outrageously over the top costume and strong stage presence, Nicoll's Eryka seemed to be rather channelling Bette Bourne (which is not bad starting point for such comic cross-dressing roles). He made the character very funny and sympathetic without ever being over done.

Graeme Broadbent was very funny but still sympathetic as the elderly King Ariadenus. Ashley Riches was Osman, a role which only appears in the last act but which is instrumental in resolving the plot. Looking very dramatic in black and using his height to full effect, Riches made a striking presence with a finely flexibly baritone voice to match. James Laing showed a wonderful gift for comedy as the page Nerillus who gradually discovers the delights and perils of love.

The singers doubled as the gods, so we were welcomed by Susanna Hurrell's Music, and subsequent acts included Ashley Riches Destiny (dressed rather as Papageno for some reason), Joelly Harvey's delightfully American Lady Luck and James Laing blind, ballet-dancer dressed Love.

Christian Curnyn and the eight members of the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company were in the balcony above the stage which must have led to co-ordination problems in rehearsal but none were apparent at the performance. We had a poised and polished performance with some lovely bravura flourishes.

Holten's production was an object lesson in how to make baroque opera work for a modern audience, whilst remaining sympathetic to the original, with historically informed but dramatically vivid singing.The performance was also great theatrical fun too; pure magic!

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