Garsington Opera built its reputation on operatic rarities and baroque in particular. David Freeman has directed all three productions of Vivaldi’s operas here, with baroque specialist Laurence Cummings conducting. “We did L’Incoronazione de Dario, from Vivaldi’s early period, La Verit‡ in cimento (see review) last year, and now L’Olimpiade, from much later. This is probably the finest – we’ve saved best for last”. Though, hopefully there will be more Vivaldi at Garsington Opera at Wormsley. “Vivaldi said he wrote around 70 operas, though some may have been pastiches. We don’t have them all, but there are over 20 that can be done”. “Vivaldi was an extraordinary person, with bright red hair. He was a priest and ran his own opera company where he did everything, composer, producer, music director. His orchestra was all-female, which at the time was very unusual, and the stories around him are lurid” says Freeman.
“L’Olimpiade is an Oedipus Rex story says Freeman. An athlete called Megacles competes in the Olympics. The prize is the hand of the princess Aristea. Megacles and Aristea love each other but he’s won under the name of Licidas, his friend, who is in turn loved by Argene. When the King hears about the deception, he banishes Licidas, who then is drawn into a plot to assassinate the King. But Licidas turns out to be the king’s own son, supposedly killed at birth because of a prophecy that he’ll grow up to kill his father. In Vivaldi’s version, the plot resolves with the right pairs of lovers reunited, and Licidas becomes prince. “It seems very complicated”, Freeman adds, “until you see it, and then it all makes sense. A bit like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night”.
Freeman has directed a lot of Shakespeare, including Twelfth Night. Indeed, he’s a complete man of the theatre, with huge and varied experience. He directed Prokofiev The Fiery Angel at the Royal Opera House, the Kirov and San Francisco, the premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. He was associated with names like Peter Brook, and founded The Opera Factory which was closely associated with The English National Opera in its “powerhouse” days. He’s also directed mainstream spectacles like Madama Butterfly and Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall. He’s worked in film, too, and is directing a multimedia Handel Messiah in Copenhagen next year.
Garsington Opera at Wormsley [Photo: Richard Davies]
Thus it was an education to watch him direct a rehearsal of L’Olimpiade. They were doing a scene where Aristea (Rosa Bove) learns that she’s to be married to a stranger. Bove is embracing a toy lamb. The King Clistene (Riccardo Novaro) enters and quietly removes the toy sheep. “She has to grow up now and be married” says Freeman. Novaro deposits the lamb behind a rock, out of Bove’s sight. It’s a small gesture, lasting under a minute, but Freeman shows how it expresses the King’s purposeful nature. “Don’t look at the lamb” Freeman tells Novaro. Clistene isn’t interested in sheep but in his daughter and her coming of age.
At Garsington Opera at Wormlsey, real sheep roam the fields, but inside the auditorium, life size models of sheep move across the stage, pulled on wires. Of course it’s artifice. This is theatre, not nature, and Argene (Ruby Hughes) is a noblewoman, pretending to be a shepherdess as part of her strategy to win Licidas. In a bare rehearsal room, and out of context, it’s even less naturalistic, but Freeman tells the cast that the feelings in the opera are real. They have to play the scene seriously, or the irony is lost. “The audience will only find it funny if we take it completely seriously”. Some great comedians, he adds later, are very serious people: comedy throws tragedy into high relief.
“L’Olimpiade’s an Oedipus story, it’s a curse, but when Lycidas comes to kill his father he can’t bring himself to do it. It’s a tragedy but ends up as comic. We have to laugh at the most serious things. It’s extraordinary that the one thing we can rely on in life is that we’re going to die, but it’s the one thing we can’t avoid”.
“L’Olimpiade is a comedy, but a comedy for serious characters, not light”, Freeman adds. “It’s a very dramatic and vigorous comedy. People try and commit suicide. It reminds me of Chikamatsu, who created those kabuki double suicide tragedies But in Vivaldi they don’t it follow through”. “What you have to do is make the recitatives work, which is true of Mozart, too. They work like dialogues in a play. You’ve got to play with great clarity. Good singers and actors of course know their text but the hard thing is that you have to learn everyone else’s text so you can react to it”. Characters make drama, whether in a play or in an opera. “An opera without drama is a very long evening indeed”.
David Freeman directing Rosa Bove in rehearsals for Vivaldi
In L’Olimpiade, Freeman says there is some “absolutely beautiful music and it’s genuinely touching too. It’s not just pretty tunes. The music cuts pretty deep, even if the plot’s a concoction”. L’ Olimpiade is based on a text by Metastasio which was also used in other operas. Audiences would have had printed texts available, though not sheet music which was expensive to copy, so the plots would not have been wholly unfamiliar. “So there wasn’t the same close relationship between text and music that you get in Mozart or even in Monteverdi”. Contemporary audiences might have enjoyed these operas much in the way that popular modern shows string together good tunes around a storyline.
“Another thing about Vivaldi”, says Freeman, “is that we tend to think of baroque as Handel. They were almost direct contemporaries, Vivaldi (1678-1741), Handel (1685-1759). But Handel was a German composer writing in Italian for an English audience, so naturally he didn’t go in for very complicated plots but for rather sublime situations. Vivaldi is different. He’s a Venetian writing for Italians, even in the Venetian dialect, for Venetian audiences, who could understand . So he was able to do a lot more, with text, with comic wit, a lot more madness. So there are more arias, even if they’re shorter, and lots more recitative. So in comparison with Handel who can seem quite noble, Vivaldi might seem more scrappy, but that’s what makes Vivaldi lively”.
Garsington Opera’s new premises at Wormsley were designed to combine the countryside setting with good acoustics. “I love the way it seems to float in the open field”, says Freeman, “it’s surreal”. This works particularly well for baroque scale works. Freeman directed A Winter’s Tale one of the first plays to be mounted in the Globe theatre in London, a reconstruction of Shakepeare’s original theatre. “People said that it proved the primacy of Shakespeare’s text, all you need is text. But I thought the opposite. I thought the Globe setting revitalized everything. In a normal theatre, if a pigeon flies in, the audience worries, will it die, or get electrocuted? They get distracted from the play. But in the Globe, if a bird flies in, it’s natural, it’s just doing what birds do. And the atmosphere at Wormsley rubs off on the operas too. I think it’s a triumph”.
For more information, please see the Garsington Opera at Wormsley site. (includes cast and production shots)
product_title=Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade At Garsington Opera
product_by=An Interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: David Freeman