Tag Archives: Garsington Opera

Photo: Alice Pennefather


Il Turco in Italia, music: Gioachino Rossini libretto: Felice Romani, seen at Wormsley, Garsington Opera,  2 July 2017

It is the vitality of Il Turco in Italia’s overture, with its wonderful plaintive horn solo, that immediately sucks you into Rossini’s masterful satire on the age-old theme of the flighty wife, the cuckolded husband and the exotic lover. For extra spice (and some lovely tenor arias) this dramma buffo adds a second, rather dull boyfriend.

Rossini commissioned Felice Romani to adapt a libretto that was originally composed in 1788 for an opera by the German Franz Seydelmann. Romani’s version was considered to be more libidinous and daring than Mozart’s Così fan tutte which had been staged just before Rossini’s work was premiered at La Scala in August 1814. Its racy reputation and the fact that early on some of the most effective arias and cavatinas were cut  did the work no favours.  In the 20th century it was only revived (but with all the cuts still in place) as late as 1950 in Rome, with Maria Callas in the role of Fiorilla.  Callas recorded the opera four years later and she set the benchmark incredibly high. She more or less owned the role for decades despite the fact that she never got to sing Fiorilla’s most powerful aria. The self-pitying but terrific aria Sqallida vesta a bruna hadn’t been rediscovered when Callas sang the role.

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) makes men go weak around the knees.
Photo:Alice Pennefather

This is a revival of a Garsington Opera’s  2011 production but with the original director in charge it all once more comes alive.

The opera’s stock-characters (some of them wafer-thin) are based on classic commedia dell’arte figures but the often very clever lyrics combined with Rossini’s orchestral brilliance provide the singers with all that is needed to present a believable  performance. In a couple of places the staging is perhaps a tad too cartoonish, but in general director Martin Duncan keeps the silliness in check. It would be easy to deconstruct the plot in postmodern fashion. The meta-theatricality is already  a given in the libretto.

The first act of this production is an absolute delight. The poet Prosdocimo, suffering writer’s block, is in search of some real characters  and a dramatic plot. And really, any characters will do as far as he is concerned, at this point. Prosdocimo is reminiscent of the Don Alfonso character in Così fan tutte. Rossini also briefly quotes Mozart’s opera in the trio Un marito scimunito.  Prosdocimo, who is well characterised by Mark Stone, is elated to instantly be presented with  a first act that has all the hallmarks of a tragic farce with love triangles and philandering popping up in virtually every scene. Initially Prosdocimo just observes the action, but soon he tries to influence the proceedings  to fit his own story. Fiorilla resents being described by the poet as a wayward wife. Her husband Geronio and her lover Narciso are both extremely offended by Prosdocimo when they read how he is going describe them in his play.

the Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang is the only survivor from the previous production and he makes a dashing Selim. This young Turkish prince literally forces his entrance through the Neapolitan backdrop when he docks his yacht in the harbour. He doesn’t even have time to finish his aria Bella Italia before he sets eyes on Fiorilla. Despite being married she is also game and leaves in no doubt what she makes of Selim’s advances.  De Quirijn’s looks the part and can act as well. His voice is perhaps a little underpowered and I would like to hear more tonal variety, but on stage his portrayal of this smooth cad more than makes up for these flaws. Geoffrey Dolton as the deceived Geronio is totally in his element and his comic timing is spotless and the cause of much hilarity. The tragedy is that I actually used to know an Italian who was not unlike his portrayal of this henpecked figure. I think the part was originally written for a baritone-bass and  a bit of dark tonal bluster wouldn’t do the Dolton’s performance any harm.

Selim seems to have Fiorella in his grip, when Geronio enters
Photo:Alice Pennefather

Some of the most effective and funniest scenes in the first act are the duets between Geronino and his capricious wife. Particularly when he catches her red-handed with Selim in his own home In the duet Per piacere alla signora leading into No, mia vito, mio tesoro Fiorilla first wins Geronio back with charm, only to then fly into a mock rage that makes it believable that Geronio will plead on his knees for her to forgive him.  Soon Fiorilla will have her own reasons for jealousy when she finds out that the gypsy  Zaida (Katie Bray) was once Selim’s lover and she is  back on  the scene, having established her fortune-telling business in Naples.  Selim has clearly not forgotten their amorous past. Encouraged by the poet Fiorilla and Zaida come to blows at the end of Act I.

The fortune-teller Zaida (Katie Bray) probably knows from the start that she will get her man. Photo:Alice Pennefather

It gets even better in the second act as Selim offers to buy Fiorilla from Geromio, who is horrified.  The poet is willing to stir a bit more by organising a masked ball and he tells Geronio that Selim plans to abduct Fiorilla. But if Geronio turns up dressed like Selim he can foil the plot. But at the party confusion reigns because Narciso has also come dressed as the Turk and he ends up with the trophy, Fiorilla. Selim gets Zaida. This means that Geronio ends up with nobody.  This again necessitates the poet’s intervention and Gernonio throws Fiorilla out of the house and tells her to go back to the hovel where she came from in Sorrento. I know, very confusing, but the point is that Rossini was a master of musically illustrating “chaos without casuality” (to quote the Viennese critic Karl Kraus).

Fiorilla gets to sing her heartbreaking aria Squallida veste e bruna (the one that Callas never got to sing). It is hard for Geronio and the audience, and the poet, not to melt. Geronio takes her back, Selim sails back home with his first love and we have a happy ending.

She is a headturner, that Fiorilla.
Photo: Alice Pennefather

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) is a headturner when she spins her 1950s pleated red skirt in the first act. Tynan has as much vivid colour in her voice as her dress is scarlet in the second act. On top of that she handles appoggiaturas and embellishments with such ease and firmness that it is no wonder that she is irresistible to all men in this opera. Tynan could be a little bit more sharp-tongued ( Cecilia Bartoli and Callas are worth a listen) but she deserves to be seen even more in this country.

Martin Duncan sets the opera in 1950s Italy and well travelled moviegoers will instantly recognise Federico Fellini’s world. The set by Francis O’Connor is uncomplicated and effective.

Rossini was an excellent choral writer (listen to his Stabat Mater) and the  22-year old here already proves his mastery of the genre. The Garsington Opera Chorus – picked from the latest crop of conservatory graduates and students – is young and eager to please. They get to play gypsies, Turks, sailors and masked partygoers. They are remarkably confident and entertaining for being relatively inexperienced.  I am sure chorus master Susanna Stranders deserves a huge credit for this.

The opera was a bit of a rush job (as most of Rossini’s works seem to have been) and the rather disappointing finale he apparently left in the hands of an assistent. The secco recitatives of the poet are also not from the master’s hand, as is not the rather pointless aria by Albazar. Mark Stone handles the slightly irritating writer role with aplomb. Katie Bray as Zaida is fiery and you can understand that Selim in the end prefers her to Fiorilla.

Conductor David Parry is an expert in this field and he clearly has brought out the best in most of the singers. The playing of the overture I found strangely muted ( and therefore a bit un-Rossini like) but thereafter the orchestra picked up and added sparkle and humour wherever it was required. As always with Rossini there is ample lyrical brilliance in the orchestration, but on the evidence of this amusing work it is not bleeding obvious that he soon would be going on to compose one of the absolute masterpieces of the opera buffa genre, Il barbieri di Siviglia.

This was a very enjoyable evening helped by the stunning weather. The Garsington Opera auditorium is an architectural marvel, inspired by Japanese architecture. When the weather is good (and it always seems to be when I visit) you can let the sun in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. This provided the whole first act of the opera some lovely natural lighting that one couldn’t possibly replicate with stage lights.

I also think the picnic setting with the lake, the lush forests, the rolling hills, the deer park, the gardens and  the cricket pitch is the perfect advertisement for English country house opera at its glorious best.




Highly relevant Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten’s last opera, seen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23 June 2015

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten Garsington Opera at Wormsley Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Benjamin Britten composed Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s much admired novella, knowing that he didn’t have long to live. He prioritised composing the opera over the need to undergo open-heart surgery.

In the spring of 1973 he finished Death in Venice and only then admitted himself to hospital. After the operation he was still too unwell to attend the opening night. The pressure that Britten put himself under to finish the work is quite revealing and relevant to the interpretation of the work. Did he have something to get off his chest?

Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice (1971) I saw as a young adult. Particularly Dirk Bogarde playing the novelist Gustav von Aschenbach made a lasting impression. The director’s marvelous use of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony inspired me to explore Gustav Mahler’s music and I am grateful to Visconti for that. I found out that Thomas Mann had based some traits of the Aschenbach character on Mahler, who he had once met. Mann learnt of Mahler’s death while working on his novella in Venice in June 1911 and it greatly saddened him. Britten was also a great admirer of Mahler’s music.

But when I revisited Visconti’s film a decade ago I found it sentimental, slow and morally quite hard to stomach. I was not familiar with Britten’s opera, but to say that I was apprehensive about seeing an opera on the same subject is an understatement. Luckily Garsington Opera persuaded me to experience their splendid new production. Now I know that Britten together with his librettist Myfanwy Piper composed an adaptation of the novel that intellectually is much more satisfying than Visconti’s film.

Benjamin Britten was still recovering from heart surgery and a stroke when Death in Venice had its world premiere in June 1973. Britten’s assistant Steuart Bedford was given his international break. Bedford proceeded to conduct the first recording of the work as well with Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, for whom the role was created, in the lead. Bedford is alive and well and now musically in charge of Garsington Opera’s new production. I can’t think of anyone else who is better suited for the job.

William Dazeley (Elderly Fop), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Gustav von Aschenbach – Paul Nilon – The Traveller – William Dazeley © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Some of the members  of the Garsington Opera Orchestra have been performing together for some 20 years but they only get together for  three months a year. They certainly don’t sound like a temporary band and they need to be on their toes for Britten’s work. The score is quite tricky with exotic rhythms and dodecaphony thrown in for good measure. I know, the restraint is deliberate but in my ears various bits seem a touch too ‘under orchestrated’.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there is only one passage with an orchestral tutti and the fragmentation doesn’t always seem to serve a real purpose.

Sreuart Bedford has total confidence in the work, paces it calmly, adds fluency and holds it all together, while at the same time guiding some of the less experienced singers and dancers.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Garsington Opera at Wormsley  photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The libretto is quite faithful to Mann’s surprisingly complex novella. Gustav von Aschenbach ( Paul Nilon) suffers writer’s block and decides to visit La Serenissima where surely the inspiration will start to flow. On board a ship to Venice the ageing novelist meets a simpering, extremely irritating fop who fancies strapping young men. At the end we discover that we have seen a mirror image of von Aschenbach’s fate. He will become a foppish figure himself.

As soon as Aschenbach arrives in Venice messengers of Death begin to pop up everywhere. The sinister gondolier who takes Gustav to the Venice Lido surely is Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Then there is the hotel manager, the hotel barber and various other ill-boding and even menacing characters that are all performed by one and the same bass-baritone. At Garsington these roles were taken by the excellent and versatile William Dazeley.

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Chris Agius Darmanin (Jaschiu) credit Clive Barda
Lighting Designer Bruno Poet Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

A young Polish family staying at the same grand hotel fascinates Von Aschenbach. Very soon he realises that he has become infatuated with the teenaged son, Tadizio. In the novel and the opera Tadizio very much embodies the Greek ideal of beauty. Perhaps he is also Hermes, the God who guides the recently deceased to the afterlife. The contrast between Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects, or in other words measure and harmony set against unbridled passion and excess, is what also made Britten tick. Aschenbach’s dream sees Apollo and Dionysos battling it out to win the writer’s soul and the (unhealthy) sexual tension is not held back in this production. Aschenbach thinks he is self-disciplined and in control, but Dionysus (William Dazeley ) stirs his uncontrollable feelings and obsession with Tadizio.

In the book Tadizio never speaks and in the opera he also remains mute. Britten’s brilliant move is to turn the Polish family into dancers. To stress the boy’s ‘otherness’ he is often accompanied by pitched percussion instruments and quite taut music which contrasts with von Aschenbach’s more dynamic and diverse accompaniment . For the beach games and children’s play Britten creates an exotic sound reminiscent of the Balinese gamelan.

Britten also incorporated the sounds distinct to Venice. He took note of the popular songs and calls of the gondoliers and incorporated them in the score. During the boat trip a scrubbing brush is deployed very effectively on the snare drum to mimic a ship’s steam engine. There are many similar instances.

When a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice people start to leave but von Aschenbach chooses to stay so he can follow the Polish family around the city. The weather is sultry and his dreams become feverish and obsessive. After a rejuvenation make-over at the barber’s he looks like a fool. Tadizio for the first time acknowledges him but at the same time laughs at him. It all ends in tragedy. Or does it? Some people would argue that the ‘sick’ von Aschenbach gets what he deserves for being a pervert.

Britten  identified himself with von Aschenbach in many different respects. There are too many pompous Greek mythology references that perhaps try to present a more respectable, Hellenistic angle on paedophilia. But after the Jimmy Savile scandal and the avalanche of sex abuse trials we have a less forgiving view on these issues than people had 40 years ago.

Britten was without a doubt attracted to underage boys and his behavior at times showed a paedophilic inclination. There is no suggestion that he ever overstepped the mark and none of the boys (nor their parents) that he liked to host at home ever complained. It seems that Britten managed to successfully repress his sexual inclinations in that respect. Could it be that Britten’s insistence on finishing off his adaptation of Mann’s novella before undergoing the heart surgery was his way of dealing with sexual desires that he morally felt uncomfortable with? In a way Death in Venice, with all the moral questions it asks, is today even more relevant than 40 years ago.

Visconti’s film made Björn Andrésen ( in the role of Tadizio) quite famous and he was much admired for his blond and blue-eyed, cool Scandinavian looks. Celestin Boutin who gets to dance the same part in the opera is not bad looking either and he has a nicely toned body. Just like the other dancers he is clearly not a minor. Boutin has just completed his studies at Ellison Ballet in New York and here he gets to show off in many solos. Boutin doesn’t possess natural grace, but he compensates with muscular flexibility and athletic poise.

For female singers there isn’t an awful lot to do in this opera but the choir gets to mill around a fair bit. The staging is straightforward and economical. There is nothing wrong with that (except for the backdrop of the Venetian sky, which I find unconvincing). I loved the large white voile(?) curtains that can be pulled across the stage to create shadowy figures, secrecy and successfully evokes the rippling effect of lapping waves or the arrival of the dusty scirocco wind.

Paul Nilon as Gustav von Aschebach is without a doubt the star of the show. His characterization is excellent and he really inhabits the role, revealing new layers in scene after scene. The many recitatives are inspired by 17th century technique where the rhythmic profile is not determined. The singer is given quite a lot of freedom and Nilon nails it. The high lying lyrical lines pose no problem and his deep colouring is also very solid.

Finally I would like to thank the sun for making an appearance. Yes, the natural light really adds a special ‘summery feel’ to the staging, something that never could be achieved in an ordinary theatre. Venice was Britten’s second (after Suffolk) favourite place and there are moments when the serene magic of that city seems to radiate across the stage.


Patrons in evening dress strolling and picnicking GARSINGTON OPERA at Wormsley © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL



Every year over a period of seven weeks Garsington Opera at Wormsley park (just off the M40 between Oxford and High Wycombe) stages four different operas. The whole costly operation is run completely with the help of private funding and donations by foundations.

Garsington Opera’s Pavillion at Wormsley Park (owned by the Getty family) was designed by architect Robin Snell and is worth a visit in itself. The construction is very clever and was surprisingly ‘cheap’ to build ( £1.8 million in 2010). Incredibly the auditorium can be put up and pulled down in a matter of weeks, but It has remained in place since it was first built. The Pavillion does have a Japanese feel to a it (particularly seen from  afar) with huge transparent fabric wall panels that welcome the natural summer ambience and provide natural light for the staging. In the unlikely event that you get bored during a performance, the garden views  visible from the auditorium offer a splendid alternative. The long interval gives you ample opportunity to picnic and explore the parkland setting with a rose arbour,  cricket pitch, lake, island pavilion and roaming deer.

Stressed fabric sails enhance the acoustic and the orchestra pit is placed in the  ha-ha which would go some way to explain the finely balanced sound.