A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

All the sounds of an English summer can be heard at Garsington Opera’s
Wormsley home. An ideal, or idealised, vision of the season, perhaps; after
all, umbrellas, midges, wasps and “rain stopped play” are just as likely to
cloud the blue skies and rural ventures. But, with a public health
emergency knocking the bails flying from the wickets of the creative
industries’ spring 2020 season, for a short while back in March it seemed
that wistful reminiscences and wishful dreaming might be all that was in
store for culture-lovers and festival-goers during summer 2020.

Thankfully, theatre-makers, festival curators and individual performers
have proved resourceful and innovative, whatever the challenges they face
and as dark clouds gather on the cultural horizon. Garsington Opera have
continued the conversation with their audiences, and

Garsington Opera at Home

has extended that audience, through free-to-view screenings of favourite
past productions – full-length operas and ‘Isolated Arias’ – and new
musical performances; Music for the Eyes – a new documentary
series, looking at opera alongside visual art and literature to draw new
connections between genres; and, 20-minute Motivation Monday
singing and moving ‘workouts’.

Garsington Opera’s

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion
, a live concert streamed from Wormsley on Sunday 5th July was a
perfect combination of nostalgia and optimism. Six singers, Garsington’s
Artistic Director Dougie Boyd, members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and
actor Samuel West reminded listeners of what we are all missing this
summer, and at the same time provided uplifting hope for and anticipation
of next year’s summer opera season – and the renewal of the UK’s cultural
life more generally.

Where else to begin but with Mozart? Garsington’s 2017 highly acclaimed
production of

Le nozze di Figaro

– itself a ‘recreation’ of John Cox’s esteemed 2005 production which was
the last performed at Garsington Manor, in 2010, before the company’s move
to Wormsley – has been made freely available to watch via

Opera Vision

until 25th September. 2017’s Figaro, Joshua Bloom, may not have
reunited with his former fellow cast members, but he was joined by a
stellar cast of young and experienced voices, Soraya Mafi (Susanna),
Roderick Williams (Count), Brindley Sherratt (Bartolo), Nardus Williams
(Marcellina) and Sam Furness (Curzio). And, they made a dynamic and
balanced sextet in Act 3’s ‘Riconosci in questo amplesso’, in which Figaro,
in Wildean fashion, discovers unexpectedly that he has a mother after all,
and a father, and delights at his unexpected reunion with his progenitors.

The six singers were raised on a gentle curve behind eleven musicians from
the Philharmonia Orchestra spaciously spread across the bare Pavilion
stage. Dougie Boyd got musical proceedings underway with characteristic
immediacy and clarity, instantly transporting us into the heart of the
unravelling knots of comic confusion. Bloom (who had been scheduled to sing
Rocco in Garsington’s ill-fated 2020 Fidelio) sounded
even more richly sonorous than I remember from 2017; Mafi segued with
brilliant musical and dramatic slickness through Susanna’s rapidly
fluctuating emotions, from excited confidence, to blazing fury, to relieved
elation; Nardus Williams’ soprano glowed with the glossy shine of a
mother’s joy at rediscovering her long-lost offspring; Sherratt’s Bartolo
was plumped up with smugness; while Roderick Williams’ Count and Sam
Furness’s Curzio glowered with frustration and impotence.

Scenes of the garden beyond the glass-walled Pavilion reminded us that the
listeners were ‘elsewhere’ but that didn’t prevent the singers also
transporting themselves to ‘another world’ – one of 18th-century
intrigue and tender ironies. One thing was clear: you might take the
audience out of the opera house, but you can’t take the performer out of
the opera singer.

Strolling beneath the flower-bedecked trellis arches of Wormsley’s tranquil
gardens, Samuel West reminded us of Mozart’s ambition, as voiced by Peter
Shaffer in his play Amadeus, to write an opera finale
lasting half an hour, in which “a quartet becomes a quintet becomes a
sextet. On and on, wider and wider, all sounds multiplying and rising
together – and then together making something entirely new.”

Naturally, back inside the Pavilion more Figaro followed. First,
Mafi’s Susanna and Williams’ Countess plotted and penned an invitation to
the Count that would be his undoing (‘Sull’aria’), the intriguers sounding
both thrilled at the anticipated outcomes of their deception and as
transported by their rapturously intertwining voices as listeners at home.
The reduced instrumental forces gave additional prominence to the lovely
woodwind playing of the Philharmonia members, the oboe and bassoon
elegantly joining the outbursts of delight.

Next, aerial shots of the gardens invited us to imagine the nocturnal
bowers amid which Susanna, disguised as the Countess, sets out to trick
Figaro who, recognising her, effects his own double-deception, while the
Count’s pompous self-righteousness prevents him from seeing what is going
on before his eyes. Despite the lack of theatrical context or
accoutrements, Mafi, Bloom and Roderick Williams (‘Pace pace mio dolce
tesoro’) conveyed the complexities of the dramatic cat’s cradle and both
the strains and delights of the shenanigans, before Mafi’s light,
spring-fresh rendition of Susanna’s enraptured anticipation of love’s
fulfilment (‘Deh vieni’) drew sympathetic duetting from the Philharmonia
woodwind and spread a beam of magic through our imagined garden.

Back to the topiary-hedged garden paths, to hear West read from an
unaddressed love letter written by Ludwig van Beethoven, dated 6 th July 1806 – 214 years to the date of the writing of this
review, and a fitting introducing to ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’, the Act 1
quartet from Fidelio in which love craved for, hoped for and
anticipated unites Leonore (Nardus Williams), Marzelline (Mafi), Rocco
(Bloom) and Jaquino (Furness)

The small string forces presented an almost impossibly gentle and heavenly
introduction, and the heart-pulse of the double bass deepened its throb
with the entry of the voices, the women sweet and pure, Bloom evincing a
lovely warm maturity, and Furness’s Jaquino strong and ardent. Boyd
sculpted the counterpoint and textures with pinpoint clarity, expertly
shaping the intensifying emotions.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin brough richer Romantic urgency.
Roderick Williams demonstrated characteristic dramatic and musical insight
in ‘Kogda by zhizn’’, the recitative conveying his appreciation of the
troubled Onegin’s precariousness and uncertainty, complemented by clarinet
delicacies. A lovely cello solo led in an aria of focused lyrical
articulateness. I have occasionally commented that Williams’ baritone is a
little ‘light’, but here he balanced elegance with surges of rich fullness.
And, in all the arias from Onegin, I appreciated, for the first
time, just how frequently Tchaikovsky employs the clarinet’s silkiness, and
registral and timbral expanse, to complement the emotional landscape of his
characters. Boyd’s flexible handling of tempo conveyed both self-reflection
and insistent resolve.

In ‘Kuda, Kuda’ – in which Lensky reflects on his love for Olga as he
awaits the duel with his former friend, now rival, Onegin – Sam Furness
drifted dreamily in Romantic self-absorption then, enrichening his vocal
colours and summoning a lovely firm tone, pushed forward with conviction.
What a wonderful contrast between the floating head-voice with which
Furness asked, “Will you ever shed a tear over my grave and think, ‘He
loved me’?”, and the powerful surge of sound from Lensky’s soul, “Olga I
loved you: to you I devoted the sad dawn of my stormy life.”

The final ‘musical word’ came from Brindley Sherratt who relished every
ounce of joy in ‘Lyubvi vse vozrasty’, in which Prince Gremlin touches
Onegin’s heart and conscience with his account of an old man’s joy at
finding unexpected love. “Love is a blessing at any age” shimmered tenderly
like a petal tremulous with the weight of raindrops, evoking a sense of
overflowing wonder. Such openness and vulnerability contrasted with moments
of firm authority, of the sort that makes Sherratt such a brilliant
Sarastro and Claggart.

West left us with a final quotation from Amadeus. When Shaffer’s
Salieri insists that God has chosen him to be his voice on earth, as is
evident in Salieri’s exquisite music, Mozart offers his own understanding
of his ‘role’: to make a sound entirely new. “I bet that’s how God hears
music. Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become
an unending music, unimaginable to us.” West might have continued, for
Mozart explains: “That’s our job … we composers. To combine the inner minds
of him and him and her and her – the thoughts of chamber maids and court
composers – and turn the audience into God.”

The String Sextet which opens

Richard Strauss’s Capriccio

– which Boyd conducted at Garsington in 2018 – suggested that Shaffer’s
fictional Mozart was correct. The music is never silent: though it is
sometimes unheard, it is always within us.

Claire Seymour

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion
will be available here,
with no registration required, for six months.

Garsington Opera’s

2021 season

celebrates its 10th anniversary at Wormsley.

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion

Soraya Mafi (soprano), Nardus Williams (soprano), Sam Furness (tenor),
Roderick Williams (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass), Brindley Sherratt
(bass), Samuel West (actor), Douglas Boyd (conductor), Members of the
Philharmonia Orchestra.

product_title=UNMUTE: A Musical Renuion – Soraya Mafi (soprano), Nardus Williams (soprano), Sam Furness (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass), Brindley Sherratt (bass), Samuel West (actor), Douglas Boyd (conductor), Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra (live broadcast, Sunday 5th July 2020)
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Garsington Opera at Wormsley