Viva Vivaldi — Garsington Opera 2011

The most recent offering is his
La Verit‡ in cimento (Truth put to the test) and Garsington have a hit
on their hands if the first two performances are anything to go by. The plot is
absurd, convoluted and comes down to the effect of one decision, years ago, to
switch two babies (and therefore their inheritance) which in turn drives this
drama of human love, greed and cold-blooded power seeking. The characters are a
dysfunctional royal family whose ruling Sultan is a well-meaning tyrant who
makes that one big decision but then lives to regret it as his extended family
start to tear each other’s throats out when they learn of the deception
as the boys come of age.


This is high-baroque opera, written by the canny Red Priest in 1720, and it
is interesting to note that like his near-contemporary Handel, Vivaldi finds
the moral (and immoral) dilemmas of the ruling classes of the utmost interest
and worthy of his finest musical expression — after all they were his
paymasters and themselves much concerned with the problems of succession,
inheritance and political marriage. Unlike Handel however, the Venetian
composer doesn’t tend to investigate his character’s deepest
emotional conflicts with an extensive series of formal arias in classic da
form — his music is lighter, fleeter and less
organised. And yes, let’s face it, less memorable. However,
there are some stand-out moments in this charming and melodic score which
reveal some very un-Handel -like trios and ensemble numbers which seem to
prefigure an altogether different genre of opera writing still very much on the

As the machinations of this sumptuously-dressed family unfold (much fur,
leather and silk worn by all in a clever mix of styles) there is little action
per se other than inside each character’s head — so all
credit to director David Freeman for making the most of a delightfully
outrÈ set designed by Duncan Hayler which offers us an icy palace of
glass, metal and white fur rugs with a gleaming, huge white tree dominating as
a centre piece. The tree, whose two main branches sweep to the far sides of the
stage, presumably symbolises the two warring factions of the two sons and their
respective mothers (Sultana Rustena and Mistress Damira) but it also acts as a
refuge, love-nest, and lair with its varying levels of platforms and steps.
This is clever use of space, and together with the rear and side exits this
configuration helps the story zip along as effectively and wittily as does the
music from the pit below, directed (and, it would sometimes seem, driven almost
physically) by a bobbing, sweeping and multi-tasking Laurence Cummings.


With all the emphasis on the emotions and thoughts of the characters and
little physical action or change of location, it is obviously supremely
important to have the right bunch of performers and once again Garsington must
be congratulated on getting it right. The casting splits into two near-equal
halves of the three older generation characters of Sultan, his Sultana, and his
long-established Mistress and the three main young characters of his two sons
and a visiting Princess who they both (naturally) fall for. Paul Nilon, Jean
Rigby and Diana Montague fulfil those elder roles with enormous energy,
musicianship and effortless virtuosity: Nilon’s flexible and expressive
tenor and stagecraft are as good as ever as the Sultan, Jean Rigby’s
(Sultana Rustena) dark mezzo soprano lends itself to her character’s
emotional highs and lows (she has a gorgeous slow aria of despair “Fragil
fior”, with recorder obbligato, that drew deserved applause), and Diana
Montague (Damira, mezzo soprano) was stunning in her portrayal of the wronged
Mistress who plans revenge — elegant and fluent coloratura mixed with
effortless long-lined phrasing which mirrored her equally elegant couture
gowns. These seasoned performers were the musical core of the production,
holding everything together with an easy command of the idiom.


Flying higher above them, musically at least, were the younger generation of
singers and characters and here the casting was almost as sure-footed. The
young soprano Ida Falk Winland (winner of the Song Prize in the 2008 Ferrier
competition) divides her time between her native Sweden and the UK at the
moment and has an attractive voice with both a bit of weight to it and an
obvious facility for Vivaldi’s ornate lines. She was often singing with
either one or both of her “suitors”, the two half-brother princes
who, in this production (unlike in the original of 1720, )are sung by
countertenors Yaniv d’Or and James Laing, and as it often the way with
this voice type the soprano out-sang both in terms of sheer volume. This did
tend to unbalance the music somewhat which was a shame as there is a terrific
trio for the three which could have been stunning, and perhaps needed a little
adjustment on the part of the young Swede for the greater good of the ensemble
sound. Yaniv d’Or, ( Melindo), who is not well known in this country,
sang and acted with commitment and verve but his voice is not one that
immediately attracts. James Laing (Zelim) has a sweet tone, more even and
polished than his stage-brother, and I liked his easy top and legato in his
more reflective arias. Two non-speaking roles of butler and gardener (the
latter oddly placed throughout at the side of the stage busily tying and
untying bunches of herbs and flowers — your guess is as good as mine) are
uncredited in the programme book.


This might not be world-class opera seria (or buffo) but
it is fun, it’s musically fleet-footed and charming , it’s
cleverly-produced and directed, and the singers are well-cast and attractive:
what more does one need for a high-summer’s evening entertainment in the
lush green of an English rural estate? Here’s to Garsington’s next
exposÈ of Vivaldi’s “lost” operas — they are setting
themselves a high standard.

Sue Loder

Next performances: 25th, 29th June and 1st, 4th, July. Garsington (at
Wormsley), Oxfordshire, UK.

image_description=Antonio Vivaldi: La verit‡ in cimento [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera Festival 2011]
product_title=Antonio Vivaldi: La verit‡ in cimento
product_by=Click here for cast and other production information.
product_id=All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera Festival 2011