Monday 16 August 2021

From RVW in the woods to Adina's wellness spa: Waterperry Opera Festival 2021

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Thando Mjandana, Alison Langer - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Thando Mjandana, Alison Langer - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)

Donizetti L'elisir d'amore; Alison Langer, Thando Mjandana, Oskar McCarthy, Darwin Prakash, dir: Dan Ayling, cond: Bertie Baigent; Waterperry Opera Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Donizetti's comedy relocated to 1950s America in a youthfully energetic account with more serious undertones

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Darwin Prakash - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Darwin Prakash
Waterperry Opera Festival (Photo Marc Brenner)
Waterperry Opera Festival was quick off the mark last year, reworking plans for 2020 and creating a mini festival which included a semi-staging of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at a time when the UK seemed to be devoid of live, full-scale opera [see my review]. That performance was staged on the lawn in front of Waterperry house, but the festival also included other events in Waterperry Gardens.

For 2021, the festival has expanded on this model. There is Jonathan Dove's Ariel in the formal garden, a family friendly staging of Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel in the woods, Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, two dramatised song cycles in the woods Lili Boulanger's Clarières dans le Ciel and RVW's On Wenlock Edge, plus showcases for the festival's young artists. And on the lawn in front of Waterperry House, a staging of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. And besides the music, the festival offers the lovely gardens, tea and cake on the lawn and the possibility of picnicking in the formal gardens during the long dinner interval.

We went along to Waterperry Opera Festival on Sunday 15 August 2021 and in the afternoon caught RVW's On Wenlock Edge performed in the woods by tenor Ted Black and instrumental ensemble (Gabi Jones, William McGahan, Lucas Levin, Samuel Ng, Krystal Tunnicliffe), directed by Emma Doherty, and in the evening Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, directed by Dan Ayling and designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita. Bertie Baigent conducted the 11 piece festival orchestra, with Alison Langer as Adina, Thando Mjandana as Nemorino, Oskar McCarthy as Dulcamara, Darwin Prakash as Belcore and Daniella Sicari as Gianetta.

The opera was sung in the English version by Kelley Rourke (librettist, translator and resident dramaturg at Washington National Opera and The Glimmerglass Festival) which was originally created for Sir Jonathan Miller's 2010 production of the opera for English National Opera and set in the American Mid-West of the 1950s.

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Thando Mjandana - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Thando Mjandana
Waterperry Opera Festival (Photo Marc Brenner)
Ayling and Jabares-Pita had re-located the action to a spa retreat in Saratoga Springs in 1950. Thus Adina (Alison Langer) runs the spa, with Nemorina (Thando Mjandana) as the janitor, Belcore (Darwin Parkash) as an airman stationed nearby and Dulcamara (Oskar McCarthy) as a quack doctor. In fact, the opera's plot can work in a number of locations as it really only needs suitable societal structures to make the plot work, and Ayling's production took full advantage of the facade of Waterperry House.

This was a busy and highly active staging and Ayling worked his performers hard. Rather than simply using the 'stage area', Ayling brought the performance into the auditorium, almost treating the front rows of the audience as visitors to the spa. Whilst this sometimes had a tricky effect on musical ensemble, the result was engagingly involving and an imaginative way of using the space available rather than trying to pretend we were in a theatre. Prakash's Belcore arrived on a noisy period motorbike (actually on Parisian plates), whilst McCarthy's Dulcamara entered via a period Russian truck. 

Whether deliberate, or no, the 1950s American setting and the casting (a white Adina, black Nemorino and Indian Belcore) also brought an interesting element of miscegenation to the plot [I should point out that this was simply our perception, and was in no way the intention of the production].

Langer made a striking Adina, giving her a strong personality perhaps almost brash (which fitted with the setting), yet bringing a deftness to the vocal line which made it a joy to listen to. This self-confident Adina took some time to realise that she was in love with Nemorino, but their crucial scene towards the end of Act Two was strongly done. South African tenor Thando Mjandana made an appealing Nemorino, ensuring that the character's lack of confidence simply came from his menial position. 

There is still the problem accepting the character's dimness at believing in Dulcamara, but perhaps more problematic is the underlying cruelty of the plot (in fact both Donizetti's popular comedies have a strong element of cruelty to them). It was Mjandana's finely judged performance which took the edge of this, and his winning way with Donizetti's beautiful lines.

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Alison Langer - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Alison Langer
Waterperry Opera Festival(Photo Marc Brenner)
Dulcamara is normally taken by an elder statesman figure, but Oskar McCarthy brought a delightfully oily sense of character, a youthful physicality and a vivid use of physical theatre to the role. Perhaps there was the occasional tendency to make up for vocal gravitas with too much physical mugging, but this was an engaging and vivid performance with a creditably musical approach to Donizetti's music (and a deft way with the patter).

Darwin Prakash made Belcore rather stronger and darker than sometimes happens, he was still hilariously self-important but Prakash gave an edge to it as well. There was a robust feel to his approach to the music, giving this Belcore a strong edge and brashnesss which worked well. Daniela Sicari (who performed Dove's Ariel earlier in the afternoon) gave Gianetta a strong personality and made you regret that Donizetti and his librettist did not give the character more to do.

The hard-working chorus gave a vivid account of the music and engaging with the production concept with a will. Bertie Baigent drew strongly coloured playing from his small ensemble, though the production's use of space made Baigent's traffic policeman role difficult.

Returning to Kelley Rourke's version of the libretto after a gap of 10 years, I have to confess that I found that some of the Americanisms in it rather jarred. Whilst Rourke has used great wit and dexterity in fitting the new idiom to the music, I did not find that music and words sat easily together and wished that the company had chosen a more classic, neutral English translation.

This was a youthful and vividly coloured account of Donizetti's opera, yet one which took the characters seriously and did not attempt to create comedy by sending them up. As Dan Ayling writes in his introduction in the programme book, the opera is perhaps more complex than we sometimes consider. 

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Oscar McCarthy - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Oscar McCarthy - Waterperry Opera Festival 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)

In the afternoon we were treated to a staging of RVW's song-cycle On Wenlock, performed in a woodland glade. RVW's 1909 sequence of settings of poems by A.E. Housman is not an obvious candidate for staging, and presenting the work out of doors certainly presented challenges. Yet, it has to be confessed that when Ted Black sang about the wind in the woods, both were real not imagined. There was no acoustic shell, just a two-storey structure, so that the acoustics were not entirely sympathetic. All credit to the six performers for still managing to produce such a sympathetic account of the music despite significant acoustic challenges.

The results removed a little of the music's Ravel inspired polish and gave a more rugged feel to it, and the balance often seemed to favour the instruments thus making the work more chamber music than voice accompanied by quintet. The piano was real (rather than electric), enterprisingly shipped to the woods for the performances. The staging set Black's protagonist at home reading in his pyjamas, clearly remembering past traumas, so that 'Is my team ploughing' was more of an interior dialogue than a drama between two characters. Gradually, he disintegrated, and retired to the woods, firstly going up onto the upper platform and then, at the end, atmospherically following Gabi Jones' first violin into the woods.

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