L’Ormindo: a tale of two theatres

Opening night for the Royal Opera/Early Opera Company production of Francesco Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. It’s exciting. A great cast, lively conductor, thoughtful director, and a rare chance to see an opera from the Venetian mid-baroque – though with 12 of Cavalli’s surviving 27 operas available on DVD, CD or in live performance around Europe and the USA during the past 15 months, perhaps not that rare.

The venue is new: opened in 2014, and part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on London’s south bank, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse effectively recreates the interior of a late-Elizabethan/Jacobean indoor theatre. The larger Globe theatre, which opened next door nearly 17 years ago as a similar recreation of an outdoor Elizabethan theatre, has proved valuable for Shakespeare, the history plays in particular. The Playhouse has already started well with its exploration of Jacobean drama, and this theatrical archeology is worthwhile even if only for bringing the wealth of plays from the early 1600s to modern audiences.

Sadly, there’s some fanciful marketing from the ‘Globe’. It’s already been drawn to the attention of the Royal Opera, who were unaware, that billing the performers as “singers and musicians” (rather than “singers and instrumentalists”) is a annoyingly incorrect. That parlance makes some sense for spoken plays, where the actors sing the odd song but are not primarily trained as musicians. Given that the cast of L’Ormindo are highly-trained musicians, and the majority of the audience will have crossed the river from Royal Opera House, the idiom seems merely insulting.

Worse, the marketing team have made up a new version of theatre history with the bizarre assertion that the Venetian Teatro San Cassiano, where L’Ormindo was first staged in 1644, is “a perfect match in time and scale” for the Playhouse, which “will provide a rare experience of Baroque opera, and a level of authenticity that promises to be richly revealing”.

“Rare experience” is apposite, as Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres were not built to stage mid-seventeenth century Venetian operas (or any operas at all), and mid-seventeenth century Venetian operas were not written for a building like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This is certainly the first time that the two have ever met.

The Playhouse doesn’t recreate a specific building from a precise date; its model is the Blackfriars Playhouse built in 1596, the design is taken from later drawings, and the decor copied from extant buildings of the early 1600s. But the aesthetic is very much rooted in the turn of the century.

The layout is a stage thrust from one wall of the theatre into the auditorium, with the audience in two tiers of galleries and the pit, surrounding the stage on three sides. The rear stage wall has an unchanging decoration and three doors for actors to enter from “outside” the building. A few musicians/instrumentalists can be housed on a balcony above the rear stage wall. There is no scenery, other than a few props, and no wings, flies, or proscenium arch. The Playhouse, now as then, has an audience capacity of 340.

The Teatro San Cassiano was built in 1637, not many years after the “original” Playhouse, but Italian theatre design was already on a very different trajectory, and English theatres only adopted the southern style towards the end of the 1600s. The San Cassiano theatre, and the dozen similar theatres built in Venice over two decades from 1637, brought together innovations made by theatres across Italy during the previous 80 years.

The auditorium was positioned in front of the stage, rather than around it. The central parterre floor seating may have sloped down towards the stage for better views, and the galleries had five tiers, three of which were divided into boxes. The instrumentalists were place in a small area directly in front of the stage. The audience capacity was close to 1,000.

The most significant difference to the Jacobean playhouses was the use of a fixed proscenium arch. The Teatro San Cassiano had an arch that was probably 32 feet wide and the stage behind it was roughly 70 feet deep. This could accommodate a front curtain to hide scene changes, with side wings, backcloths, relieves, flies, scenery in grooves on the stage floor to be pulled aside revealing more scenery, and rotating two- or three-sided vertical panels or prisms which could transform the scene in a couple of seconds. All very useful, as the plot of Ormindo takes the action through a city, a garden, a palace, a harbour, a cave and, most notably, a prison – and the audience expectation was generally more focused on the spectacular scenic effects, rather than the singing or the music.

None of this matters necessarily: an opera these days can be performed on a beach, in the back of a pub, transmitted to a cinema or actually in an opera house that would be vaguely familiar to the composer who wrote it. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is beautiful and intriguing by itself, and not an un-sympathetic location for music of the 1600s. The cast, instrumentalists and production team for L’Ormindo will put on a superb show.

Just don’t call the combination a “perfect match in time and scale” or “authentic”: because it is neither, on any level.