It was in 1989 that the late Leonard Ingrams converted his rather extensive back lawn into a makeshift theatre. The terrace to Garsington Manor proved a natural amphitheatre and now has a purpose-built 500-seater auditorium, protected by a canopy against those English Summer evenings when the weather defies the season.
One of the impressive things about the festival is its exploration of lesser-known repertoire, with British premieres a speciality. Last year, they presented Vivaldi’s L’incoronazione di Dario and this season they will give, alongside productions of two much-loved standards, the British premiere of Bohuslav Martinu’s sunny comedy Mirandolina.
The opera is based on Carlo Goldoni’s 1753 comedy La locandiera (the Mistress of the Inn) and takes its name from the central character, a beautiful innkeeper who rises to the challenge of converting a misogynistic visitor. There could hardly be a better way to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, something London’s opera houses have so far failed to do.
Martinu stays faithful to Goldoni’s play, while creating a lyrical mid-twentieth sound-world that could only have come from him. It has been seen just once before in this corner of the globe: in a production at Wexford on the East Coast of Ireland in 2002. Garsington’s UK premiere production of this delightful work is directed by Martin Duncan and I spoke to him shortly before he launched into rehearsals.
Duncan told me that having Mirandolina land in his lap unexpectedly has been a real pleasure. “I don’t know much Martinu,” he says, “but I find myself responding strongly to the brightness and buoyancy of the music. It’s very clever – not too buffo or knockabout but without any really dark depths. It’s very clever.”
If he is unfamiliar with Martinu’s music, he feels much closer to the source material, Goldoni’s witty and fast-moving comedy: “I was in The Servant of Two Masters (the playwright’s early commedia-dell Arte based farce) early in my career and later directed a musical version of it,” he tells me, “it’s great fun to do.”
He has decided that the opera should be done in its original setting, that of 18th Century Florence (it takes place in a small locanda or inn contemporaneous with the author). “Martinu has already put a modern slant on it, although it’s not pastiche, and it doesn’t require a further remove,” he explains, “so we’ve decided to keep it in period.”
What he has done, though, is adopt an English translation (the composer wrote the libretto himself in Italian, diverting very little from Goldoni’s original script). “I think it’s necessary to do it in English,” says Duncan, “it’s a situation comedy, a comedy of manners if you like, and having the audience craning their necks to read surtitles would be an unneeded distraction. It would be too much of an intellectual exercise having to read and listen at the same time; it wouldn’t be right for this work. And so much of it is physical. Besides, Jeremy Sams is providing a perfect new translation.”
Duncan enthuses about the visual potential of the piece and says he wants this aspect of the production to reflect what you hear in the music. “There’s also plenty of inner truth – the journies the characters go on – without there being any real depth or darkness. All told, it’s perfect for Garsington and we have a marvellous cast of acting singers.”
The Colombian soprano Juanita Lascarro will take on the role of Goldoni’s feisty heroine with Geoffrey Dolton as the crusty Ripafratta, who she seduces and spurns. Martin Andre will conduct all six performances.
Mirandolina is joined in this year’s repertoire by new productions of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio and Rossini’s sparkling comedy based on the Cinderella story La Cenerentola.
John Cox will direct the Beethoven, with Douglas Boyd as conductor and Rebecca von Lipinski as Leonore. The Rossini will be conducted by David Parry and directed by Daniel Slater, with Ezgi Kutlu in the title role.
Garsington Opera runs for just one month during June and July. Fidelio opens on 3 June and La Cenerentola three days later. The premiere performance of Mirandolina takes place on 18 June and booking for all three operas opens on 20 April. The whole season wraps up with a final performance of the Martinu on 5 July. Full details can be found at www.garsingtonopera.org; the box office number is 01865 361636.