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.