L'incoronazione di Dario, Garsington Opera, Oxford

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The Independent Culture

As Garsington Opera begins its search for a new home, another quest begins: an awfully big Vivaldi adventure. Why are the Red Priest's stage works so neglected?

The UK premiere of one – L'incoronazione di Dario – offers one or two clues. Beautifully prepared from a new critical edition of the score, the conductor/harpsichordist Laurence Cummings is a compelling advocate, pitching us into Vivaldi's bristling introduction with all the scintillation and surprise of a fifth season in the offing. There are tremulously dramatic, theorbo-led recitatives, and at least two fabulous numbers to give Handel pause for thought. So where's the rub?

The vocal writing, perhaps. Its "instrumental" character seems, on occasions, to function almost independently from the words, its fanciful turns and outlandish leaps suggesting that it might be happier under the fingers than around the vocal cords. There are difficulties that impress more than they express.

L'incoronazione di Dario is one of several operas fashioned from the same libretto (Adriano Morselli) and loosely inspired by events surrounding the succession to the throne of Ancient Persia. It presents the classic operatic escalation of sibling rivalry and monstrous duplicity. David Freeman's knockabout staging (inexplicably adopting a 1950s tilt from designer Dan Potra) taps amusingly into the absurdities. Early in the proceedings, a duel between two would-be suitors degenerates into a right royal punch-up involving the entire company.

The heap of bodies left in its wake is our first indication that the coronation of Dario might not be a foregone conclusion after all. But who has designs on whom without saying so is where the fun really begins.

The daughters of the former Emperor, Ciro, have their own agenda. The eldest and rightful heir Statira (the charming Renata Pokupic) is unaware of her tutor Niceno's interest in her, and in a deftly comic singing lesson, the ever more elaborate embellishments of the accompanying cellist grow in direct proportion to Niceno's lust.

All the while, Dario (the brave and ever musical Paul Nilon) is wondering how he has managed to slip so precipitously from eligible frontrunner to monster raving loony. His rage climaxes in a burst of slapstick as he repeatedly leaves the stage to smash things, and finally takes off, sword drawn, into the gardens, returning with sword-cut flowers for his seemingly reluctant bride-to-be.

Freeman and Cummings certainly succeed in energising their performers, though Wendy Dawn Thompson, as Statira's wickedly ambitious sister Argene, is out of sorts in the coloratura and can only fall back on her natural stage presence. The sweet-voiced Sophie Bevan (Alinda) gets the evening's most bitter-sweet number, while Nicholas Watts (Oronte), the object of her desire, voices his vain hopes in a harmonically subversive romance that shows exactly what Vivaldi was capable of.

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