David Freeman’s production is the British premiere of Vivaldi’s 1720 work. Although Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was written in 1728 as an antidote to the Italian opera sweeping London, this one never made it here. So is it worth the almost three-hundred year wait? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ for Freeman’s production is as striking to the eye as the ear, thanks to his collaboration with designer Duncan Hayler.
The opera is part of Europe’s early eighteenth-century craze for all things Turkish/Indian, but Freeman has relocated Sultan Mamud’s court to what looks more like the equally exotic court or estate of a modern Russian Mafioso oligarch. So Mamud’s wife, sons and the heiress from the state – or estate – next door, for whose love the sons are rivals, are dressed in wonderfully over-the-top furs, velvets and pearls in ice white, silver and jet black. The effect is at once stark and luxurious. Even the luxuriant manes of his flamboyant son Melindo and glamorous heiress Rosane are shiny black. Rosane is drop-dead gorgeous in minidress, stockings and boots, one white, one black under ermine-trimmed ivory robe with sweeping train. Only Damira, the fiery favourite whose son, Melindo, Mamud has swapped at birth with Zelim, his son by his Sultana Rustena (yes, it’s that sort of plot …), is all in angry red.
The setting for the revelations, altercations and power struggles that Vivaldi further dramatises with his ornate and stately music, is an airy white and silver greenhouse, which perfectly complements the ‘floating pavilion’ of Garsington’s new auditorium. Here, even the tree around which it's built is draped in white and the plant fronds are silver. All this suggests a gorgeous sterility, where a gardener (one of three ‘mute’ house staff) constantly tinkers with his potted plants, perhaps experimenting with grafting, just as Mamud has done to disastrous effect.
The stage pictures are never less than beautiful, for Freeman is past-master at creating tableaux, notably a love triangle on a platform up that tree. But even though all three women sweep across the stage in those high-end gowns and robes, the action is curiously static.
Still that does allow these six fine singers to exploit the opportunities Vivaldi provides for bravura performance, so I’m not just singing the set and costumes. The beauty of Ida Falk Winland’s coloratura rings thrillingly through the helpful acoustic as her Rosane vacillates between her two suitors. Both James Laing’s Zelim and Yaniv d’Or’s Melindo (roles originally sung by women for economic reasons) are counter tenors, but strikingly different in timbre. Laing’s thoughtful, empathetic Zelim has a round clear purity suited to his melancholy, while D’Or’s Melindo, armed and dangerous (he pulls a gun on his rival), is huskier, harsher, more suited to his ruthless streak.
Similarly Vivaldi provides two fine mezzos, Jean Rigby (Rustena) and Diana Montague (Damira), with different challenges to relish. Melindo is clearly his mother’s son, for Damira is all fire and fury from her first entrance. Rustena is more mournful, her music more minor key. She gets a fine chance to shine, accompanied and complemented by Ian Wilson’s recorder. Paul Nilon’s Mamud seizes his chances, though Vivaldi gives his best to the sopranos and counter tenors.
And to the orchestra (Conductor Laurence Cummings). Vivaldi's glorious palette makes the recitative as colourful as the arias. Paula Chateauneuf’s theorbo and Joseph McHardy’s harpsichord in particular create an authentic texture. In Act III Vivaldi tantalisingly anticipates The Four Seasons (written 1723). All this compensates for a convoluted plot that ends with a bit of a damp squib.