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Vivaldi on the Lawn

The Garsington Opera adds glory to the English garden.

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By PAULA DEITZ
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If a period opera works successfully in a contemporary setting, it can prove that the work is timeless—as it did in this production directed by David Freeman. When the singers entered in modern track shorts and running shoes, performing various calisthenics, one was instantly reminded that the Olympic Games, set to explode this week in London, have themselves miraculously survived as an athletic tradition originating in 776 b.c., and possibly still with a good amount of intrigue. There was even a little Hare Krishna mixed in with acolytes of Jupiter in saffron robes. And the competitions—boxing, shotput, and track—were all played out on the stage to the lively Vivaldi music. As the competitors circled around the stage in the last contest, the vertical panels at the rear slid open to reveal the runners against the countryside in a slow-motion vignette, with canned crowds roaring in the distance, which added a humorous comment on today’s televised instant replays.

With many of the arias familiar from concert performances, the Vivaldi music was gloriously brisk and fluid as conducted by Laurence Cummings, who also played the harpsichord. In the trouser role of Megacle, the American mezzo-soprano Emily Fons sang with a direct purity and clarity that were particularly affecting in the grief-stricken arias “Misero me! Che veggo?” and “Se cerca, se dice.” And as Aminta, tutor to Licida (here also his trainer), Michael Maniaci, a male soprano, performed his arias with haunting, sustained tones, especially in “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” on the turbulence of love. 

As Licida, countertenor Tim Mead expressed belief in attendant victory in his early aria, “Quel destrier che all’albergo è vicino,” only to realize shameful defeat in his final aria of Act II, “Gemo in un punto e frema.”  

Dressed, respectively, in the quasi-classical garb of princess and shepherdess, mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove as Aristea and soprano Ruby Hughes as Argene played their scenes together with a
harmonious compatibility derived from their shared views on the seeming fragility of their roles as women in this present society (though, eventually, their strengths win out). Their back-to-back arias in Act I, “È troppo spietato” (Aristea) and “Più non si trovano” (Argene), on the constancy and lack of it in love, made an artful blend. Baritone Riccardo Novaro as King Clistene, in business suit, was a stately presence throughout, monitoring the events that led up to the finale at day’s end, when his power over the games ceased, thus saving Licida—all of which transpired in accordance with Aristotle’s classical unities of action, place, and time.

Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review.

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