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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times