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Garsington Opera

In Review Garsington Fidelio hdl 2 920
Katherine Broderick as Leonore and Toby Spence as Florestan, with Douglas Boyd conducting Garsington Opera's production of Fidelio
Photo by Johan Persson

DURING THE PRESENT PANDEMIC, many of the UK’s opera companies have stayed active by offering programs either online or, more recently, on some sort of outdoor stage. In August, Glyndebourne presented an al fresco English-language production of Offenbach’s one-act operetta Mesdames de la Halle, staged by artistic director Stephen Langridge, conducted by music director Robin Ticciati, and starring local resident Danielle de Niese. (Mesdames de la Halle was not available to review.) The Grange Festival responded with a new, immersive, site-specific work created by Sinéad O’Neill, performed in separate locations outside the theatre itself and incorporating opera, choral music, speech and contemporary dance: the Grange show included artistic director (and countertenor) Michael Chance singing a few minutes of John Tavener. A small annual festival of new work seems to have been the first to accomplish a performance inside a theatre when Tête-à-Tête Opera launched Hans Vercauteren’s Rain – “Sarah" at the tiny Cockpit in Marylebone on September 8. 

Next Garsington offered a reduced version of Beethoven’s only opera, billed as Fidelio in Concert, in a run of five performances beginning on September 12. In its regular venue, which seats 600, Garsington allowed an audience of 190; the live chorus numbered no more than five, and the orchestra (members of the Philharmonia) just fourteen. This was not merely a concert but an effective semi-staging with the principals each occupying their own squares of light in front of the musicians, though (perforce) with little discernible interaction.

In Review Garsington Fidelio hdl 920
Andrew Foster-Williams as Pizarro, Katherine Broderick as Leonore, Stephen Richardson as Rocco and Toby Spence as Florestan, with Douglas Boyd conducting
Photo by Johan Persson

Lighting designer Peter Mumford, who has considerable experience of such things (including Opera North’s similar visually augmented concert Ring), provided discrete direction that worked well in the circumstances, aided by his own background film. Made for an earlier realization of the piece in Paris—in which Garsington forces took part—this often presented static imagery of prison buildings. None of the spoken dialogue was heard: even the sections of melodrama (speech over music), though played by the musicians, were shorn of text. 

The cast was generally strong, with Katherine Broderick’s powerful Leonore marred only by a somewhat raw edge to the top of her voice. Toby Spence brought intelligence and resource to Florestan in an interpretation that demonstrated a canny ability to negotiate some notoriously difficult writing with aplomb. Andrew Foster-Williams made a venomous Pizarro, though seemed to tire as the intermissionless evening went on. Stephen Richardson embodied the ambivalence of the jailer Rocco in a performance that was cleverly acted both vocally and physically. Galina Averina brought personality to Marzelline and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths appropriate unease to the awkward Jaquino; Richard Burkhard delivered Don Fernando with ample lyrical tone.

The least successful moment was the Prisoners’s Chorus, recorded earlier on Zoom by a substantial male chorus who were not quite together, and whose otherwise effective screen appearance was not always neatly dovetailed with the live orchestra. That apart, conductor Douglas Boyd, Garsington’s artistic director, seemed absolutely in his element, emphatically conveying the heights and depths of the score even in reduced form. —George Hall 

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