Orphée et Eurydice (1774), 14 September 2015

Orphée et Eurydice (1774 Paris version)
Gluck/Moline (after Calzabigi)

Royal Opera House

Orphée – Juan Diego Flórez
Amour – Amanda Forsythe
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe

Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists

Conductor – John Eliot Gardiner
Directors – Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames
Designer – Conor Murphy
Lighting designer – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Hofesh Shechter

Eyebrows have been raised at the “Royal Opera billing” of this production, given the ad hoc chorus, dancers and orchestra. The Royal Opera House, however, is still clearly a producing house, and if extending the company to include adjunct performing groups means that the repertory is broadened and the number of performances maintained or increased, that is surely for the good.

Of greater concern, is that the raison d’être of this production seems as much to be concordance both with Hofest (a month-long season of Hofesh Shechter’s work across several London venues) and with the Royal Opera’s Orpheus theme during 2015, rather than any serious attempt to rectify the lack of productions of a composer who was central to the historical development of opera as a genre from the late eighteenth century onwards. Gluck’s tercentenary in 2014 went uncelebrated by any major British company; Bampton, Buxton and the Royal Northern College of Music managed short runs of three operas out of the thirty-nine which survive complete.

Further, although Orfeo ed Euridice in its original Italian 1762 version (last seen at the Royal Opera in 1991) was the groundbreaking work of “reform opera” that first moved the dramatic possibilities of the genre out of the straitjacket of opera seria and the recitative/da capo aria conventions, and even though the 1774 revision presented here was in some ways a more fully worked version of Gluck and Calzabigi’s new approach, there are arguments that Alceste (only seen at the Royal Opera in 1981), Armide (never performed by the Royal Opera), and both Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride (just the latter seen at the Royal Opera, in 2007) are all musically superior. Dramatically too, in the case of those last three works, which were the examples used by Hoffmann, von Mosel and others as the models to be followed for the creation of German romantic opera. If Gluck’s operas are worth performing for their own sake, and quite obviously they are, it doesn’t seem much to ask that a major national company chooses more carefully which one to stage.

Perhaps this would all matter less if this production had been anything close to a success, rather than a collage of different aesthetics with very limited dramatic appeal. The orchestra was placed across the width of the mid-stage, on a platform that was raised and lowered at different points, other wide platforms behind and above them were raised, lowered and angled, the upper platform colander-like allowing beams of light to shine through decoratively – but all with no clear narrative consistency or dramatic effect. At least someone had found the oil can to stop the squeaking that has often been heard here from scenery. The dance company was on-stage almost constantly, mingling with the chorus and duplicating the action; for the final, long, 20 minutes of the evening they took over events with repetitious, enervating movement – yes it’s ballet music that in any case destabilises the drama considerably, but it was the clearest evidence that the dance choreography throughout wasn’t integral to the presentation of the dramatic logic, but a parallel response to surface detail in the narrative and the music.

The story, characters – and singers – were all rather lost in the melee, and the limited attention to their direction led in the worst case to laughter in the upper part of the theatre at Euridice’s perfunctory death. Juan Diego Flórez has recorded the role of Orphée in French and was clearly secure with the high writing and passagework as would be expected from his Italian bel canto background. The tone doesn’t appeal to all, and some of his phrasing sounded too deliberate. Lucy Crowe managed excellent ornamentation and some vocally dramatic involvement with the character, but was swamped by the staging. Amanda Forsythe made the best impression, not through the clichéd gold lamé suit she was given, but with strong line and purposeful phrasing. My French neighbour was dédaigneuse about the quality of diction from all the singers.

The playing also achieved mixed results. Ignoring the barrage of sforzandi that is Gardiner’s trademark, whilst at times there was depth of tone in full passages and sensitivity in quieter sections, too often the phrasing felt routine and the sound thinned alarmingly.

For once, this intellectually unchallenging mix of spectacle met with general approval from the Royal Opera audience, at least judging by the welcome absence of booing. But neither as a dramatic investigation of a profound myth, nor as a tribute to one of the few composers who changed music decisively, could it be considered a significant theatrical achievement.

Macbeth, Styles/Huffman, Glyndebourne/ROH, 9 September 2015

Macbeth

Luke Styles, Shakespeare (adapted by Ted Huffman)
Glyndebourne at Linbury Studio Theatre, 9 September 2015

Duncan/Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant/First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox/Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff/Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s son – Xavier Murtagh

Director – Ted Huffman
Designer – Kitty Callister
Lighting Designer – David Manion

members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Jeremy Bines

Lucky the opera composer of today, able to set classic drama (Shakespeare obviously, in this case) free from pressure to conform with musical conventions or expectations. Whilst Luke Styles and librettist Ted Huffman might have been limited in terms of duration and scale by the Glyndebourne chamber opera circumstances for which the opera was commissioned, there’s no obvious musical hinderance to their use of any form or mode of expression compared to many historic attempts.

The precedents, after all, are hardly enouraging: the C19th number-opera form comes close to destroying any musico-dramatic individuality in Verdi’s Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest both engendered settings as contrived and artificial as any C19th archetype; and, post-expressionist in the wrong way, Reimann’s Lear bores the audience by mistaking sonic violence for dramatic intensity.

For this new work, premiered in 2015 at the Glyndbourne Festival and receiving its London premiere with a single sold-out performance, Styles has taken the approach of a loose mix of accompanied recitative and arioso, arguably a better framework with its Monteverdian precedent than any other historic musico-formal approach.

The music has his typically sparse instrumental groupings and themes which are more fragmentary than aphoristic, all welded into a coherent, easy to grasp musical structure. Take for example the careful use of timbres and textures for dramatic exposition (flute and harp duet for Lady Macbeth, the a cappella wordless chorus under Macbeth’s soliloquies, a descending scale for an assassination motif). Throughout the 75 minute work, there is a contrast in moods that is not just a Pavlovian reaction to narrative events; the choice of a simple held chord deepens the emotional focus at key moments, better than any outpouring through predictable decoration.

Examples of Styles’ previous works such as Shades of Forward and Bellagio by Water will give some idea of the sounds of Macbeth, as does the extract from a previous Glyndebourne opera, Darkness – Waking Shadow.

The staging consisted of green grassy matting and a handful of furniture props; the orchestra was located at the rear of the stage, providing ideal balance; and subtitles, not always needed with the quality of diction many of the singers achieved, projected in large letters on the rear wall (similar to the excellent subtitles for Hindemith’s Ein Landarzt at the GSMD in June 2015. A gentle nod to alienation had singers sitting at the sides of the stage, even when not taking “crowd” roles. In keeping with some recent stagings of Shakespeare, the cast (young and and mostly recent members of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus) was all male; though with no attempt in the female roles at femininity other than in the external guise – quite different in approach from the “authentic” all-male cast for Twelth Night at the Globe and also from modern readings such as Propeller Theatre Company’s production of Henry V.

Huffman had shortened the play by excluding the witches, which placed a stark focus on human flaws and greed as explanations for the tragedy. More puzzlingly, and causing some confusion in the audience around me, Malcolm’s final words in the play after Macbeth’s death were reset for Macbeth to sing, being hailed as King of Scotland himself. The music here switched genre into an Adams-y set of major chord arpeggios, but given that the remainder of the play had been adapted “straight” there seemed no particular logic for this altered ending.

Ed Ballard was thoroughly secure through the vocal range of his large title role, conveying a brooding menace by careful shading of the voice rather than any histrionics. John Mackenzie-Lavansch set a mood of authority from the start as Duncan, making one wish that the librettist had kept him alive too. Aidan Coburn bravely eschewed the use of head voice for the high-lying role of Lady Macbeth; while the tone coarsened slightly, it was dramatically consistent with the staging. Jeremy Bines and the small group of players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were superlative in maintaing the pace and balance.

If there’s a slight lack of enthusiasm, it’s that even with the shortening of the play, too much felt crammed in to allow the music room to breath and develop. As such, the music often seemed held in check and yet stretched slightly thin. Both the composer and librettist have talked about this current work being an initial version for a full-length opera and maybe the extra length would do more justice to their creative talents.

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.

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.