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

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear