Three simple things to wish for, in the opera discourse. 1/3

Probably almost everyone with a social media feed that includes any of the UK’s publicly-funded opera companies has been aware of the Inside Opera event on 10th May, a live webcast covering activity and events in seven opera companies across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The main intent was to help encourage new, younger audiences to experience their first live opera, by de-mystifying what is involved in producing an opera in a theatre, and showing the passion and commitment that performing artists, theatre crews, and opera workers bring to this art form. The mystery to regular opera goers is why anyone should find attending an opera performance difficult or challenging, even when it is for the first time in one’s life.

But you don’t need me to remind you that, in the UK at least, the general level of discourse about opera, and classical music, is appallingly uninformed and limited, and would be considered a national disgrace if it were similarly the case for discussions about books, sport or politics. Worse, many people – not just lazy journalists and broadcasters, but also lazy philistines and puritans – have an absurd level of prejudice against opera, fed by unquestioned myths they assert repeatedly and incessantly. A paraphrase of the response given by the Royal Opera’s Kasper Holten, when asked during Inside Opera about rivalry with English National Opera down the road, is: “it’s not opera company versus opera company, but opera companies versus the world”. Hardly surprising that newcomers are put off even a first attempt to visit a performance.

Inside Opera won’t have revolutionised things in just 4 hours, but it gave opera the feel of excitement that surrounds other live, national events. If this collaboration between the seven companies can be repeated and extended – and broadcast on freeview television rather than as a webcast – then maybe some people will be drawn into making a more informed and less harmful contribution to the discussions.

What are some basic essentials for a better discourse about opera? Three simple things are my preoccupation: ticket prices, production type, music theory. The first two dominate most current discussions and drive out any more pertinent artistic and critical contributions, the absence of the last is the elephant in the room. There are many ways to change a discourse, but I worry that we will never make any progress without a concerted and unflinching effort to address all three things.

1. Ticket costs

I rarely swear in public, but when anyone who has never been to an opera performance starts to tell me authoritatively about “opera tickets costing a lot” they end up regretting it, at length. Friendships have been lost, crockery smashed, airplanes diverted; I haven’t yet started wars or invaded the offenders’ homelands, but if I had access to the UN Security Council, its members would right now be debating how best to apply sanctions to anyone repeating this myth.

The worst recent example, from Simon Kelner, a former editor-in-chief of the Independent, in a pointless article about fine dining and celebrities, may not have been aimed just at ticket prices, but wins every prize for ‘the gratuitous use of the word “opera” in a non-related context’. On re-reading the article, the stupidity of the penultimate sentence still brings the neighbours knocking on the door to check if all’s well, given the shouting and screaming triggered by its offensiveness.

Just as stupid, was the remark in Catherine Bennett’s incomprehensible response to the BBC announcement in March 2014 of plans for increased arts coverage that, the Royal Opera House is “subsidised but stratospherically inaccessible”. The facts are otherwise, but why bother with such detail when you merely want to insult?

The BBC itself is sadly not free from this sort of nonsense, but given the immense decline in its editorial and cultural standards imposed by malign political influence from the 1980s onwards, one has low expectations that are frequently met. You’re probably only too familiar with the bizarre opening remarks from Sarah Montague which set the tone for the whole HARDtalk embarrassment: thankfully, many leading opera professionals complained publicly about the inaccuracies. And tweeting in a personal capacity, Sangita Myska, a prominent BBC news and current affairs journalist, recently asserted that “many of our arts venues are still too expensive … for ordinary folk”.

Patronising, as well as wrong.

The repetition of such ignorance is both pernicious and pervasive: in a discussion, ok, row, on the Katherine Jenkins affair [the elite don’t want you to hear opera, but I’m happy to charge £99 a ticket to sing for you at an ‘exclusive’ concert], a person kept insisting to me that, cheap opera tickets literally (and I use that word deliberately, as this was the other person’s clear meaning) do not exist, because the London-dwelling middle classes buy them all. Baffling logic, and never mind that on the very same day the English National Opera website clearly showed the existence and availability of £5 tickets for performances of The Thebans; according to that other person, these do not “exist”. Schrödinger’s cat would be falling out of its box with laughter.

Seemingly, it is beyond the ken of many intelligent commentators and public figures to understand that tickets for operas have a range of prices, rather than just an upper value. I prefer always to talk about the “entry price” for an event, i.e. the minimum cost for which one can be present. Yes one can pay more, and consequently may well have a better experience of the event – which is for a different discussion – but there is no requirement to do so for entry.

Let’s look at some numbers. I have taken a current (or the most recent/next forthcoming) production at each of the seven opera companies participating in Inside Opera. A comparison is made with the entry price to other arts and music venues, cultural, heritage and tourist sites, sporting events, and a night on the town; all but two are current or near-future ticket prices. It’s not a perfect survey – but then those maligning the cost of opera tickets have never been the least bit bothered about accuracy, or facts, at all.

Rolling Stones, O2 Arena (2012) £90
“Clubs and drugs” night out, east/south London £60
The Libertines, BST Hyde Park £55
Lovebox 1-day ticket, Victoria Park £55
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo £49
FA Cup Final 17 May, Wembley Stadium £45
One Direction, Wembley Stadium £43
Chelsea Football Club, home match £41
Singin’ in the Rain, Grand Opera House Belfast £36.50
Buckingham Palace, state rooms, mews and gallery £35.75
London Eye, Southbank £26.55
The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre £25
The view from the Shard, Southwark £24.95
London Comedy Store, Picadilly £23.50
London Zoo, Regent’s Park £23
Tower of London, City of London £20.90
Wicked, Kings Theatre Glasgow £20
Godzilla, Odeon Leicester Square £18.50
Macbeth, Northern Ireland Opera, Grand Opera House Belfast (Feb 2014) £18
Vikings, British Museum £16.50
Matisse, Tate Modern £16.30
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Gielgud Theatre £15
King Lear, National Theatre £15
La Bohème, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre £15
War Horse, Wales Millennium Centre £15
West Side Story, Leeds Grand Theatre £15
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew £15
Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Barbican Gallery £14.50
Veronese, National Gallery £14
Italian Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum £13.50
Madama Butterfly, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow £11
Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire £10
Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre £10 (or a generous £5 for those under 30)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall Southbank Centre £10
The Thebans, English National Opera, Coliseum £10
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth Hall Southbank Centre £9
Tosca, Royal Opera, ROH Covent Garden £9

The entry prices for the opera performances are grouped mostly at the bottom of the list. The cheapest end. Along with the classical music concerts. The entry price for nearly everything else is more expensive.

You can see why I am angry.

Of course, these entry prices don’t include travel to the event’s location, a programme, victuals, the comparative events and venues are London-centric, often there are booking fees involved – though the marginal costs apply just as much to the non-opera ticket costs in the list as to the operas. But equally, some of the opera entry prices listed can be reduced in cost through subscription schemes, concessions, and other offers. I’m not claiming this is a comprehensive survey or has a definitive price-parity methodology. I have plenty of ideas to extend the study, and would welcome any constructive suggestions to improve these comparisons.

One objection to that list would be that events/venues with single-price point tickets are mixed with those which offer a range of ticket prices above the entry cost. For example, it only costs £35.75 to visit Buckingham Palace, whereas some stalls seats for Tosca at the Royal Opera House cost £195. That still doesn’t disprove the basic point, that the entry cost to opera is cheaper than for most rival events and venues.

Obviously, some people can afford to pay more than the entry price, and do; those stalls tickets at the Royal Opera are frequently sold out. As already mentioned, the correctness of allowing such a price differential is an argument for elsewhere. But still, as Kasper Holten reminds us in his response to Catherine Bennett’s misrepresentation of ticket prices, 50% of tickets at the Royal Opera House are sold at £55 or less. And if we are talking about the top-end costs, let’s revisit the multi-price point items on the list:

Rolling Stones, O2 Arena (2012) £375
Tosca, Royal Opera, ROH Covent Garden £195
One Direction, Wembley Stadium £149
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo £135
FA Cup Final 17 May, Wembley Stadium £115
The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre £115
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Gielgud Theatre £85
Madama Butterfly, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow £74
Wicked, Kings Theatre Glasgow £72.50
The Thebans, English National Opera, Coliseum £60
War Horse, Wales Millennium Centre £60
King Lear, National Theatre £50
La Bohème, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre £49.50
Singin’ in the Rain, Grand Opera House Belfast £49.50
West Side Story, Leeds Grand Theatre £46
Macbeth, Northern Ireland Opera, Grand Opera House Belfast (Feb 2014) £40
Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre £40
Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire £33

So, with the exception of a few seats at the Royal Opera, you can see that the cost of a top-price opera ticket is still less than or comparable to that of top-price tickets at most other events, which are also frequently sold-out.

If you want to start lecturing me about the ethics of a publicly-funded institution such as the Royal Opera charging some high ticket prices, then we can also address the hidden public funding of football clubs and match fixtures – millions of pounds over many years, only recently reduced by the clubs taking on the payment for the police costs required to stop match attendees from fighting each other (and assaulting bystanders) in the streets. And you can tell me which you think is the more justifiable use of public money. I’m fairly sure that the football club shareholders have not paid back the policing cost for prior years out of their profits. In any case, the correct argument about public subsidy is actually that if some opera ticket prices are too high, then the subsidy is simply far too low.

The item missing from the list is the cost of a season ticket to a Premiership football club. It appears that at the local club the top-price season tickets require a commitment in advance for four years, at £5,000 per annum – a £20,000 upfront payment. The average cost per match may work out at £150 or so, but how many “ordinary folk” can afford that size of upfront payment for a non-essential activity? In football-specific discussions there is obviously concern and outrage at those high prices, but the prices are not used as an everyday figure of hate in common discourse as are those very few tickets at the Royal Opera.

If the uninformed and the ignorant continue to peddle misinformation and hatred about opera ticket costs, then they should be met with well-deserved contempt and shouted down.

Next up:

2. Regie rules.
3. The joys of harmony.

A double pain to suffer, first in act and then in telling

In just over four weeks from today, English National Opera stages the world premiere production of The Thebans, with music by Julian Anderson and a libretto by Frank McGuinness. It’s based on the primordial trilogy by Sophocles, retelling the events not just of the familiar Oedipus Rex, but also of the other two subsequent plays, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Theater Bonn is the co-producer, and the opera is an ENO commission. The cast are all ENO stalwarts with international careers, there is a major role for the excellent ENO chorus, ENO’s music director Edward Gardner is conducting – and the occasion also marks the ENO debut as director for Pierre Audi.

In 1982 Audi founded the Almeida Theatre in Islington, turning a previously derelict building into a highly regarded Fringe venue with as much focus on contemporary music and opera as theatre. The list of works performed there during his eight-year tenure is as enormous as the range of ensembles and individuals from around the world who gave those performances. Starting from Audi’s vision, the theatre’s artistic integrity has remained intact through its subsequent four directors, and London audiences and the business (both operatic and theatrical) owe Audi a substantial debt of gratitude. Audi moved in 1990 to the Artistic Directorship of De Nationale Opera of the Netherlands, running the company and continuing to direct a broad range of operas in Amsterdam and around the continent.

Anderson is a highly respected British composer, a key figure both in the teaching of composition (at the Royal College of Music, Harvard University, and currently Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and in the Composer Residences established by a number of ensembles/venues (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wigmore Hall), with some 50 works performed, and several released on CD.

McGuinness is a distinguished Irish playwright and poet, his twenty-two plays staged variously by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and others. If anything he is more famous for his modern language adaptations of ‘classic’ plays by Brecht, Chekhov, Euripides, Ibsen, Lorca, Seneca, and Sophocles – his spoken version of Oedipus Rex was staged at London’s National Theatre in 2008, with Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins in the lead roles.

Bringing together this pedigree of creative artistry for what will, in all likelihood, be a very fine production of Anderson’s first opera, is exactly what a national opera company should be doing; the work has a strong chance of becoming part of the repertory.

It’s going to be a disaster, though, for ENO itself.

The first night at the Coliseum will struggle to manage a fifty percent audience capacity, and a considerable number of those present will doubtless fall into the category of “friends, family, academic and professional colleagues” some of whom may, and nothing wrong with this, be entering on complementary tickets. Looking at the quantity of unsold tickets in each of the seating areas, for each of the subsequent six performances, a basic estimate is that achieving fifteen percent capacity for the run as a whole is barely feasible. Some of the seats marked as “taken” are in conspicuous formations and locations, which suggests they are merely reserved for potential discount sales through agencies – which may not sell them at all.

I’m not as familiar with the detailed costs of producing an opera at this scale as I would like, but a large financial loss from the venture seems a reasonable outcome to assume. A positive critical reaction to the work itself or the production is never guaranteed. Worse is the reputational damage and the effect on staff morale, as the large auditorium yawns vacant night after night.

It’s not just during the run that ENO will suffer, but again later during official and unofficial reviews of the year: the pressure for much greater transparency about the company accounts to lay bare the scale of the loss, the questions about the commercial wisdom of staging the premiere opera from a composer who, despite his many achievements, is not that familiar even to a general concert-going public, the demands to re-justify every aspect of the decision making behind the work’s commission and scheduling – there are some potentially dire consequences.

The title of this post is an un-famous quote, widely attributed to Oedipus Rex but in fact from Oedipus at Colonus; the intent more clearly understood as: “I don’t want to suffer that pain a second time, … [the] first time when I went through it and then now when I’m telling you about it.”

You can see the relevance to this discussion, though you might be wondering what concern all this to me. Quite simply, the need for frequent world premieres of contemporary music is one strongly held belief of mine, and another is that the provision of opera in London and Britain needs to be reinforced not pulled apart. Although I have no personal connection with any of this, I sincerely want this premiere to be a success in every way.

So, I have three tactical suggestions for English National Opera, which may not seem appealing or practical – but sometimes the best way to manage a crisis is to celebrate it.

First, go on the attack.

John Berry (ENO’s Artistic Director), Gardner, and Audi should tell everyone they can find in the media how worried they are about the low sales figures, what the potential impact these small audiences will have on the future provision of opera in London is, and show the full confidence they have that the production will be an artistic success.

They should draw attention to the climate of fear they (and other opera companies) have to work in, where lazy journalism (BBC HardTalk, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post, BBCRadio 4, for example) repeats cliches long out of date about opera tickets being expensive, the music elite not wanting people to hear or see opera, modern music being difficult to understand, opera being socially exclusive, and so on. Explain how hard it is to get the message across to the public that ticket prices for The Thebans start at £5 and anyone of any sort is welcome to buy one, no need to dress up as one of the orchestra or singers etc, because there is so much uninformed prejudice.

Second, ask the marketing department to work overtime.

The impression is that The Thebans is being marketed just as “another opera in the season”, and nothing feels special about it or the premiere. Many theatre-goers will be familiar with McGuinness and his plays or adaptations, but my guess is they simply don’t know he has written the libretto for this opera – surely some of them would be curious to see what it is about.

Years ago, ENO released CDs as introductions to new operas before their premieres; I have those for The Silver Tassie and From Morning to Midnight on my desk right now. They contain extracts from the music and commentary from the creative teams. Not completely exciting, but at least there was an effort to help willing listeners familiarise themselves with a brand new opera. Can the marketing team at ENO not use modern media to release short extracts from the opera to raise interest? A plot summary in conjunction with an audio musical guide to the whole work, or a simple trailer? Or are they happy to wait until the critics, hopefully, do their work for them and audiences feel confident to go based on a very short newspaper review of the first night?

Third, make the tickets free.

Yes, free. This suggestion was already being drafted when news from the Royal Opera’s 2014-15 season, with an opening night given over to students paying from £1 to £25 for tickets, scooped the idea. But why not copy that, or go a step further if contractually permissible. The production is going to make a loss anyway, so turn it into a popular success instead by getting a much larger audience. Sure, making some arrangements for those who have already bought tickets might be slightly complex, though a simple credit voucher usable for other ENO productions would suffice, with a replacement ticket for those booked for The Thebans in the Balcony or Upper Circle to move to the Stalls or Dress Circle. But if Berry, Gardner, Audi and the whole of ENO finish their interviews and comment articles by saying that, because they are so concerned to overcome the widespread prejudice about the cost and social exclusivity of opera, and to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to see this exciting new production, they are throwing the doors open to anyone who wants to walk in and try it, that would certainly take people by surprise.

Celebrate the crisis, make the opera premiere an event that people talk about because they were actually present, and show up the mainstream media for their ignorance and laziness.

But do something, don’t just continue as always until it is too late to do anything at all.

Cavalli resumed

Baroque opera is in mini-season these weeks in London, with staged productions of Handel’s Ariodante, Arianna in Creta, Rodelinda, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and concert performances of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and Jommelli’s La Didone (presumably a version of his Didone abbandonata).

Late-baroque opera, of course, from the 1700s roughly; though with English Touring Opera’s production of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone last October and a Wigmore Hall concert of various arias and music from several of his operas, given by L’Arpeggiata last Friday, there has also been opportunity to gain better acquaintance with the composer who was central in several ways to the Venetian mid-baroque of the 1600s, a century earlier.

Tuesday this week saw a further, significant contribution to our live experience of Cavalli’s operas (more correctly, dramma in musica), with the opening night of L’Ormindo (1644); a co-production by Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Opera, with instrumentalists from The Early Opera Company, staged in the new/old Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Bankside. This appears to be the first London production of the opera, which – apart from the first revival of the work in modern times at Glyndebourne in 1967 – has been performed just in the USA and Australia.

Ormindo is very much a work of its time and place, just as Cavalli was central to Venetian Opera in its formative years.

The premiere in 1644 at Teatro San Cassiano in Venice was given by the company Accademia per recitar l’Opera, which Cavalli had founded with fellow musicians from the church of San Marco. Cavalli himself was the managing impresario of this theatre from 1639 to 1644, though contracts were not exclusive and Cavalli had operas staged at three other Venetian theatres during this period, as well as several more staged at the San Cassiano after he relinquished his leading role there.

Giovanni Faustini’s libretto was one of twelve he wrote for Cavalli’s operas, five of these performed at Teatro San Cassiano. Faustini also collaborated with other Venetian composers during this period, and some of his libretteti for Cavalli were actually used for new operas some years later by other composers, as was the practice at this time.

Ormindo indeed was reworked by Cavalli in his 1655 opera Erismena, with a libretto by Aurelio Aureli; the prison scene music in Ormindo was copied almost literally across to that later work, and the rest of the opera follows the plot of the earlier work closely. Aureli then wrote another libretto based on Ormindo, for Le Fortune di Rodope e Damira with music by Pietro Ziani.

Operas were clearly not considered as individual, fixed artistic creations, but as temporary entertainments drawn from a stock of plot elements and visual images which would be familiar to the audiences year after year.

The characters in Ormindo of the nurse (sung by a high male voice), the page and the female confidante, are found in many of Cavalli’s other operas and in those of his 17th century Venetian contemporaries. The buffo servant role is missing from Ormindo – to his credit, Faustini gave the character of Osman a more essential and serious pivotal role in the plot.

The first dramma in musica staged in Venice was Andromeda (music by Francesco Mannelli and libretto by Benedetto Ferrari), which opened the Teatro San Cassiano in 1637. This took advantage of all the stage machinery and production mechanics which had been developed in other locations in Italy during the previous eighty years and came together here in a new form of the spectacular.

Andromeda opens with a seascape, with rocks lit by starlight, and the singer of the prologue in a cloud circling across the sky. Then Neptune’s chariot enters and Mercury flies across, before the scene changes quickly to a flowering woodland with snow on mountains in the distance. A magician rises through a trap in the stage floor, the sky opens for immortals to descend, a palace appears out of nowhere. Not for nothing did the French later insist on an operatic convention that any fantastic devices should have a clear relevance to the plot, which forced Rameau to rewrite Dardanus in the 1740s to exclude a random sea monster.

By the time the Teatro Novissimo opened in 1641 as the fourth Venetian opera theatre, the stage mechanics and effects could be considered to have overwhelmed the music. The second production of 1642 at this theatre was Bellerofonte, with a libretto by Vincenzo Nolfi, music by Francesco Sacrati – and machines by Giacomo Torelli, nicknamed the “great magician”. Engravings of the set designs show ten different settings for the opera, each competing to be the most decorative and realistic. Ormindo was clearly part of this entertainment trend, though its five settings seem restrained by comparison.

Venice itself as both a location and a political force featured in several operas from this period. The opportunity for seascapes obviously met the audience demand for spectacular scenic performances. Bellerofonte, of course, included a harbour scene with the Venetian fleet drawn up by the quay, satisfying both the visualists and the nationalists. La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore, with a libretto by Giovanni Busenello and music by Cavalli, drew on Venice’s mythic origins and used those to exalt the city’s “present glories” of which one was the opera house, used self-referentially to proclaim those glories.

Busenello’s view of opera and the theatre was shared by other authors, among them Faustini – whose Ormindo also portrays Venice on stage. The setting of the prologue represents Piazza San Marco, “the most conspicuous part of the city of Venice”, and the protagonist is Armonia, who summarises the familiar myth of ‘La Serenissima” in new operatic terms:

“It has been five years already that I have shone on you from gilded stages and illuminated my glories; your immortal Muses and divine swans adorn my tresses with new garlands. I, who as a child trod the stages of Athens in jewelled buskins, I, who when Greece was conquered and tamed by the victors of Rome saw no splendour or magnificence equal to yours, Most Serene and immortal Virgin.”

“Five years” of course since harmony (music) first appeared on the Venetian stage. Quite properly, the translation made for the current Playhouse production of Ormindo reworks the prologue to describe the new theatre on Bankside and address directly the present-day audience: one of many thoughtful directorial decisions that have made this production so successful.

Cavalli is known for certain to have written thirty-three operas, though the music for six has been lost. Nine more operas were previously attributed to him by some commentators, but the music for those is also lost and the likelihood is that the libretti were set by other composers rather than Cavalli.

Putting Ormindo in modern performance and recording context, five of Cavalli’s twenty-seven surviving operas are currently available in DVD recordings of live productions (Calisto, Didone, Ercole Amante, Giasone, La Virtu de Strali D’amore); of those five, Calisto, Didone and Giasone also have one or more other audio recordings, and Calisto and Giasone also have current or recent stage productions.

A further five operas are available just in audio recordings: Ormindo, Artemisia, Xerse, Gli Amori d’Apollo e di Dafne ( on the Naxos label, with a large modern symphony orchestra), and Rosinda.

An additional four operas have been staged during the past fifteen months: Doriclea, Egisto, Elena and Eliogabolo; with Elena touring to several opera houses in France.

Along with Calisto (DVD/CD), probably the most familiar of Cavalli’s works to modern audiences and with four stagings in 2014, Giasone (DVD/CD, two stagings in 2013), and Didone (DVD/CD), Ormindo is well represented here, with three different audio recordings currently available, though no apparent DVD recording of any staged production. Tricky as filming in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be – not least preserving the effect of the beeswax candle lighting – one hopes most sincerely that the Royal Opera production of L’Ormindo could be captured for a much larger audience and posterity.

Fourteen operas performed or recorded out of twenty-seven is a remarkably good tally, though obviously these few instances of live performance hardly place Cavalli’s operas in the same league as opportunities to see certain 19th century Italian operas.

Why Cavalli, though, and what instead of his many contemporaries, who also produced new dramma in musica for the dozen Venetian opera houses yearly for most of the years from 1637 until 1702, when Gasparini began developing the form into the more familiar late-baroque opera.

Precious few examples of the music of the other composers survive. No opera scores were compiled from the instrumental parts or published, as the works were only very rarely revived after their first run of a few performances. Knowledge of the works comes more from the libretti, which were published and frequently re-used in part for new operas, and from engravings of the set designs for the productions.

The survival of Cavalli’s opera scores is mainly due to his wealth and business sense, which led near the end of his life to him paying for the music of his operas to be recopied and bound, and, considering them a legacy in both senses, making provision in his will for them to be passed to pupils and colleagues. Given the beauties of the current run of L’Ormindo, those lucky enough to see it can be grateful for his foresight.


L’Ormindo continues at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 April 2014, though is sold out.

Next on in London, is La Calisto at Hampstead Garden Opera from 25 April – 4 May 2014.

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.