London's newest venue for opera: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Getty
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Tiny, candlelit and intimate: L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Live opera is as physical as art gets, though you would never know that from sitting in any major opera house.

L'Ormindo
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London SE1

 

Shakespeare’s Globe missed a trick when it launched the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in January with a tragedy, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Tiny, candlelit and almost indecently intimate (any stranger you sit next to at the start of the show certainly won’t be a stranger by the end), this is a space made for comedy. Cavalli’s erotic, anarchic opera L’Ormindo, first performed in 1644, sets the candles dancing with laughter, shimmying around pillars, scrambling through trapdoors, sprawling over benches, and it even has the audience proclaiming this London’s newest, finest venue for early opera.

Live opera is as physical as art gets, though you would never know that from sitting in any major opera house. In the Sam Wana­maker Playhouse, you can feel singers’ breath on your face; you can hear their inhalations as well as their sung exhalations, the scratch as well as the sustained tone of the violins. Some illusions are lost but with them goes a certain artifice that holds you at arm’s length. And unlike London’s many pub-opera venues, this immediacy doesn’t come at the cost of quality or spectacle.

Anja Vang Kragh’s designs set the tone for a show that is witty, gorgeous and just a little over the top. Vivienne Westwood would be proud of Queen Erisbe’s gown – an asymmetrical silk fantasy complete with brocade cushions and a cheeky surprise at the back – while the backdrop for Act II’s cave is all “Here be dragons” excess. There’s an irreverence here that will calm anyone dreading earnest, academic authenticity.

Though it was one of the first operas composed for Venice’s new public theatres in the 1640s, it is unlikely that L’Ormindo ever made it to a Jacobean venue such as this. The director, Kasper Holten, opts to capture a mood rather than slavishly recreate an original performance and the result is joyous and wilfully anachronistic. Having the opera sung in English – easily accommodated by Cavalli’s flexible vocal lines – does away with the pesky issues of surtitles and allows the comedy to flow more naturally. Christopher Cowell’s new translation is a delight; it is witty but not so self-consciously as to intrude.

Set in North Africa, L’Ormindo is a tale of infidelity (Erisbe entangles herself with two lovers, in addition to her elderly husband), revenge and redemption. Cavalli’s original audience would have seen it as a satire on Venice’s indiscretions; 370 years later the tale of a bored young wife, a foolish old husband and a town rife with secrets and temptations still has plenty to say.

It is helped by a young cast, most making their Royal Opera debuts. Susanna Hurrell pouts and poses as the winsome Erisbe, bringing just enough humanity to her to carry the opera’s late sidestep into near-tragedy. She is wooed by two fine tenors – Ed Lyon’s muscular Amidas and Samuel Boden’s lyrical Ormindo. Boden is a high tenor in the true English tradition and a rare talent; facing off against Lyon vocally and winning takes quite some doing. Joélle Harvey (the spurned Sicle) conjures exquisite lines. Her first aria, “Chi mi toglie al die”, was unequalled by anything else all night, though Erisbe’s and Ormindo’s duet in the face of death came close.

More a band than an orchestra, the eight musicians from the Early Opera Company squeezed on to the balcony above the stage, led from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn. After the astonishingly unidiom­atic playing of his orchestra in the English National Opera’s recent Rodelinda – the articulation romantic-smooth and lacking rhythmic bite – it was wonderful to hear Curnyn’s players finding the percussive energy and drive that characterise all his recordings.

It’s impossible to perform this repertoire with a band of authentic size in an opera house. The Royal Opera House’s last attempt at Cavalli (La Calisto in 2008) could barely be heard from the amphitheatre, so to have these exceptional performers – soloists, all – filling the space was an authentic gesture that wasn’t lost.

Cavalli’s music is somewhere between the formal categories of aria and recitative that corset later operas by Handel or even Mozart. Unexpected, endlessly flexible and quick to adapt to sudden shifts of mood or action, it is contemporary opera in all but age. Kasper Holten’s L’Ormindo discovers and celebrates this, transforming a historical production into something strangely and wonderfully new.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage