The Magic Flute, Wormsley Estate, Buckinghamshire
Go Traviata, Hackney Wick, London
When Garsington packed the removal van it took Mozart, Rossini and Vivaldi. But there is scope for more surprising music now
Sunday 05 June 2011
Just 15 miles separate Garsington Manor from the verdant parkland of the Wormsley Estate, yet Robin Snell's Japanese-influenced opera pavilion is a world away from the village fete atmosphere of Garsington Opera's former home.
Sleek, spacious and flooded with light, the 600-seat glass, steel and timber structure has a broad, deep stage and a pristine acoustic. But if the 21-year-old opera company is to do justice to its £1.7m investment, it will have to alter its artistic planning to suit. With a theatre like this, something braver and wilder than this season's cosy trio of Mozart, Rossini and Vivaldi operas is needed.
Olivia Fuchs's production of The Magic Flute straddles Garsington's before and after, making full use of the new space while retaining something of the intimacy of the old tented canopy. Umbrellas – or parasols – feature heavily as the low-slung disc that dominates Niki Turner's set shifts from the turmeric sunshine of Sarastro's domain to the mackerel-skin moonlight of the Queen of the Night. The monster that overwhelms Tamino is a scudding bolt of scarlet silk, Pamina's prison a bathtub full of rose-petals. With design accents borrowed from American Beauty and Ghost World, and a bicycle-riding Papageno in a dayglo kilt and ginger Mohican, there's little visual coherence. The hippie-trippy aspect struck me as a lazy analogue – Papageno as a pothead, rather than the everyman of Schikaneder's Vienna. But the relationships are wittily detailed between and within each group of good, bad and ambiguous characters.
From the leather-clad Ladies to the pyjama-clad Boys, the ensemble singing is superb. William Berger's fidgety Papageno and Robert Murray's laddish Tamino spar agreeably, while Sophie Bevan's Pamina has warmth, spirit and beauty. Kim Sheehan's Queen and Evan Boyer's Sarastro register well, as do Iain Paton's Monastatos, Ruth Jenkins's Papagena and the vibrant young chorus. Every word of Jeremy Sams' translation is crisp, and though conductor Martin André seemed often to revise his tempi mid-number, the orchestral playing is clear and characterful. It's (high) standard stuff for Garsington in an exceptional new theatre. Now bring on the Strauss, the Janacek, the Massenet, the Puccini.
Go Opera's debut production takes the pop-up principle to a bleak industrial estate in east London with Go Traviata, an 85-minute version of Verdi's tragedy. The model is sub fusc immersive, the venue a secret known only to ticket-holders. Hackney, the programme notes tell us, is "the most rich ground in London for neo-colonial fetishistic ruin banter". Hmm. As a veteran of Graham Vick's work with the Birmingham Opera Company, I was excited by the possibility of "allowing the intensities of La traviata and Hackney Wick to interact". But the night workers at the Mr Meat and Chicken warehouse opposite kept a rueful distance from Violetta's salon.
For a site-specific production launched on a blast of revolutionary aspiration, Rosalind Parker's staging is remarkably conventional. The look is monochrome May Ball, with a hint of urban grit from the wire framework that lines the warehouse walls. Video projections aside, there's little sense of Hackney in Go Traviata and even less of the demi-monde. Condensing the score into 85 minutes is easy. Establishing the characters when there's no space for acting between arias is harder. No sooner has Violetta sung her manifesto of hedonism than up pops Alfredo in riding gear, with a bucolic video backdrop for his Act II aria, closely followed by Germont, towering over the A12. I must have missed the bit where Alfredo and Violetta fall in love. As to the fatal tuberculosis, Violetta is so busy singing that she has no time to cough until she coughs her last.
With the exception of Elinor Jane Moran's bright, engaging Annina, Go Traviata is Joanna Weeks' show. She sings the title role with a handsome tone and impeccable technique but has little support in navigating Violetta's journey from hard-nosed gaity to reckless passion and self-abnegation. A stylish character tenor, Alistair Digges's Alfredo signals distress by bouncing on his feet and flapping his arms, while James Hancock's Germont growls and blusters alarmingly. Their sketchiness may have been deliberate, part of Violetta's feverish imagining, but I doubt it. Directing from the piano with a spindly violin obbligato, Michael Waldren maintains pulse and purpose. The simplest moments are the strongest, though too many of Verdi's shades of grey – the bitterness, the pragmatism – are lost in the editing. There's promise here. But Go Opera needs to work harder if it wants to be more than a friends-and-family project.
'The Magic Flute' (01865 361636) to 5 Jul; 'Go Traviata' (goopera.co.uk) to Sat
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