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Don Giovanni (6/2/12), L'Olimpiade (6/3/12)

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
Garsington Opera

Last season, following twenty-one years at its original location at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, Garsington Opera moved a few miles down the road to take up residence at Wormsley, a large estate in Buckinghamshire owned by Mark Getty. There, a prize-winning steel-and-glass pavilion designed by Robin Snell was set up, seating 500 and nicely meeting the needs of both opera company and audience. This season's festival opened with a new Don Giovanni and went on to offer a rarity in the shape of Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade

Don Giovanni (June 2) was directed by Daniel Slater, a regular visitor to the festival over the last decade, whose previous Garsington successes have included a magically nostalgic view of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream that ended the revels at the previous address in 2010. On this occasion, however, Mozart's dark and complex comedy defeated him.

His designer Leslie Travers created a multi-level modern structure for the unit set, enclosing various smaller rooms that may have represented separate apartments in a complex, or perhaps a hotel with a notably absent staff. Either way, the rooms' exact purposes were left vague, as was the question of whose property they were; the characters seemed to regard them almost as communal space. 

Following the overture — part of a spirited musical performance under Douglas Boyd's baton — Donna Anna and Don Giovanni duly appeared, engaged in a sexual role-play game in which she handcuffed him to a table. Far from being an unknown assailant escaping the woman he has just attempted to rape, Giovanni appeared here rather as the victim of Anna's predatory advances. It was an odd entrance for a character who registered throughout the show as more passive than active, a curiously secondary member of the group. Despite Grant Doyle's good looks and handsome baritone, he remained a protagonist who felt oddly sidelined in what is nominally his opera.

Elsewhere, other individual moments were strangely interpreted. When Zerlina invites Masetto to hit her in her aria "Batti, batti," no one actually expects him to do so; the point is her cleverness in deflecting his anger. But here Callum Thorpe struck Mary Bevan hard in the face, her resulting scar remaining visible for the rest of the opera. 

The graveyard scene took place in a morgue, where Leporello read the inscription on the Commendatore's statue from a card attached to the leg of a covered corpse lying on a trolley. In the scene in which Giovanni is dragged down to hell, the Commendatore returned as if still alive, to be once again stabbed by Giovanni and apparently killed a second time. Giovanni, meanwhile, ended up as a patient in a mental institution, sitting in a wheelchair and finally sedated by injection. None of Slater's changes seemed to make much individual sense, and collectively they offered a far less exciting or interesting scenario than the one traditionally played.

Despite the lackluster dramatic scheme, there was some impressive singing. Joshua Bloom's rich, vital bass-baritone helped him leapfrog Doyle to take center stage; his catalogue aria was one of the evening's best visual moments, the list of his master's conquests pouring forth from a printer in one apparently endless sheet of paper. Delivered with keen textual perception and distinctive musical motivation, Sophie Bevan's Elvira also registered strongly; to avoid one of the opera's fabled structural problems, "Mi tradì" was moved to a position immediately following Leporello's printout solo. Natasha Jouhl's Donna Anna was also purposefully sung, her bold and individual soprano cutting through with tensile strength. As Ottavio, sweet-toned Mexican tenor Jesus Leon lost "Dalla sua pace" but made a special moment of "Il mio tesoro," his liquid line skilfully encompassing the lengthy phrases and florid writing. Brutish behavior aside, Callum Thorpe's Masetto made a strong impression with his vigorous bass, while Bevan's real-life sister Mary offered a Zerlina of personality and emphatic vocal character. Despite such efforts, alas, the evening as a whole registered as less than the sum of its parts.

Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade worked better. Unveiled in Venice in 1734, the second of innumerable versions of Metastasio's 1733 libretto set during the eighteenth century and even into the early nineteenth, this opera seria goes through the usual amorous complications against a background of an ancient Olympic event. Having prepared their ground with two other Vivaldi titles in previous seasons, the Garsington brain trust must have been annoyed that their winning card of staging the U.K. premiere of the piece in the year when London hosts the Olympic Games was trumped. Another, more recently planned version of the piece beat them to that particular title: the period-instrument group La Serenissima gave the opera in concert in London on May 19 before staging it in Bath on May 30. Garsington followed four nights later and was at least able to claim the U.K. premiere of a new critical edition of the score. 

L'Olimpiade is one of those pieces whose plots are far harder to follow when read in synopsis than when intelligently staged — as it was here by David Freeman. David Roger's set, which prominently featured several larger-than-life Greek figures by sculptor Nick Elphick, offered a contemporary setting and managed to include a creditable boxing match plus an Olympic-style sprint in and around the theater, the latter accompanied by someone's Vivaldian version of Vangelis's memorable theme from the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.

The plot's setup may be stated briefly: Aristea, daughter of King Clistene, is to be the prize for the winner of the Olympic contest. Licida, prince of Crete, persuades his friend Megacle (a better athlete) to enter under his name, and the two swap identities. After numerous complications and amazing discoveries, plus an apparent suicide, an attempted assassination and a human sacrifice stopped only just in time, Megacle (having won the contest while disguised as Licida) is eventually granted Aristea's hand — which is just as well, as Licida has turned out to be her long-lost brother. 

Every singer in the production made a good vocal showing in music requiring considerable technical virtuosity, but whose chief interest regularly lies in Vivaldi's imaginative orchestral accompaniments, suavely carried off here under the baton of Baroque specialist Laurence Cummings. Rosa Bove simpered appealingly as Aristea. Tim Mead's silvery countertenor embodied strength and determination as Licida. Emily Fons easily suggested Megacle's physical maleness, and her fluent mezzo conquered all difficulties en route to ultimate success. Male soprano Michael Maniaci excelled throughout his wide register as Licida's tutor Aminta, while William Berger's beefy tenor provided solid support as Alcandro, wise adviser to Riccardo Novaro's understandably confused King Clistene. spacer

GEORGE HALL

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