Royal Opera House, Shakespeare's Globe
Cavalli's Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London
© Stephen Cummiskey 2014
Back in 1970, the extraordinary vision of actor/director Sam Wanamaker launched the idea of recreating the Globe Theatre close to the original Thames-side site where Shakespeare himself had worked around 1600. Finally realized and inaugurated in 1997 — sadly, four years after Wanamaker's death — the resulting open-to-the-elements venue now provides the closest approach to the experience of attending everyday Elizabethan and Jacobean theater that contemporary audiences are likely to encounter.
But entirely indoor performances were also possible four hundred years ago, and from the first, Wanamaker intended to include on the site a second auditorium in which modern audiences could enjoy plays and other entertainments during the winter months, or without having to brave inclement weather at other times of the year. Aptly named for the instigator of this ambitious project, the resulting Sam Wanamaker Playhouse — based on surviving sixteenth-century designs that are perhaps close to the overall plan of the Blackfriars Theatre, erected in 1566 on the opposite bank of the Thames — opened in January 2014 with Webster's morose tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. Soon after this initial production, Shakespeare's Globe (as the venue is officially known), working in alliance with the Royal Opera, staged the first opera to be presented in the new theater — Cavalli's Ormindo (seen March 25).
The Playhouse seats 340 people on three levels, some on benches in the pit, others on two horseshoe-shaped galleries on higher levels. The stage thrusts forward into the auditorium, which is entirely lit by candles. A musicians' gallery above the stage contained, on this occasion, just eight instrumentalists, including conductor Christian Curnyn; a few more could probably be fitted in, though this particular ensemble — consisting of two violins, two violas, bass violin, harp, harpsichord, and one player switching back and forth between theorbo and guitar — closely approximates what Venetian theaters would generally have used in the mid-seventeenth century. The acoustic of this all-wooden venue proved excellent.
L'Ormindo (1644) — the seventh opera by Cavalli, Monteverdi's pupil and his successor as the leading light of the newly instituted public opera houses of Venice — was an interesting choice in itself. Its librettist was the impresario Giovanni Faustini, who wrote eleven texts for the composer. Back in 1967, Glyndebourne staged the piece as realized — very differently from the Royal Opera version — by Baroque specialist Raymond Leppard, whose then-new initiative at the Sussex opera house turned out to be of historic importance. Here Curnyn, a Baroque specialist of a younger generation conducted Peter Foster's edition of the score, which sticks far more closely to the sounds and scale of the original production, inasmuch as current musicological research can recover them. L'Ormindo was, however, sung in a new English translation by Christopher Cowell.
That in itself proved useful, given the characteristic complexity of the Baroque plot, set in ancient North Africa, in and around what is now the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Young foreign princes Ormindo and Amida are both in love with Erisbe — unfortunately so, as she is the young bride of the elderly King Hariadano of Mauretania; only the belated discovery that Ormindo is, in fact, Hariadano's son leads to a happy conclusion, in which the king relinquishes his rights to Erisbe in favor of his offspring.
Cavalli's score blends short arias with recitative and includes many passages falling into the category of arioso somewhere in between. A lively and mostly young cast made the most of their vocal and dramatic opportunities as offered in this production by Kasper Holten, the Royal Opera's director of opera, who was astute in moving backward and forward between the serious and the comic elements that characterize the plot and Venetian opera as a whole; particularly notable were the interventions of the elderly nurse Eryka, as personified by veteran tenor Harry Nicoll in what is another distinctive feature of the local tradition.
Also making their mark were tenor Samuel Boden as a determined Ormindo, soprano Susanna Hurrell as a lyrical Erisbe (and doubling as Music in the Prologue), tenor Ed Lyon as a volatile Amida, soprano Joélle Harvey as the latter's rejected lover Sicle (doubling as Fortuna — or, as here, Lady Luck) and doughty bass Graeme Broadbent as the initially angry but finally placated King Hariadano. Anja Vang Kragh designed the colorful costumes and minimal sets that gave such a strong and definitely Moorish feel to the stylish show — though on this occasion the venue was the star.
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