Opera : Idomeneo Garsington Manor

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Garsington Manor and its annual opera season have much in their favour, not least the tireless commitment of present owners Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams to establish their open-air productions as a fixture in the opera calendar. Faced with complaints about noise and nuisance from neighbours and the self-imposed pressure of ensuring ever-increasing performance standards, it appears that Garsington Opera is suffering from an identity crisis. The operation has been forced to confine its al fresco offerings within an unsightly curtain wall of tarpaulins, while attempting to deliver Glyndebourne-quality shows on a tight budget. The attraction of hearing opera in Garsington's delightful Italian garden, cast largely with promising young singers, has been considerably diminished with the expansion of the whole enterprise.

The Ingrams's wealthy patrons, including those with a genuine taste for good opera, might be forgiven for wondering whether David Fielding's new production of Idomeneo justified the high ticket prices. Certainly, the miscasting of the title-role and a resulting lack of nobility and gravitas in Idomeneo's scenes cast a cloud over what was generally an efficient if uninspiring presentation of Mozart's serious-minded, often impassioned work.

The US tenor Jon Garrison, usually a rock-steady and intelligent performer, seemed at odds both with the music and with the drama of the hapless Cretan king. His weak delivery of "Fuor del mar", surprisingly deficient in its physical support, recalled to mind Edward Dent's remarks about the failings of "orthodox oratorio singers" in early revivals of Mozartian opera seria: here one wished that Garrison would adopt the orthodox zeal and passion of that almost extinct breed of oratorio tenor, cast off his inhibitions about the technical demands of the music and seize his audience. Likewise, Ryland Davies proved a colourless, unappealing Arbace, taxed and tired by his final-act aria. Of the men on stage, only Nicholas Sears as the High Priest of Neptune sounded in full control, holding the attention despite being dressed in the style of a server at a Safeway delicatessen.

Fielding's telling stage design made use of a succession of sliding backcloths, seen through a large marble porthole and changed by a red-suited mime, the slick presiding spirit of the production. Fielding's approach to stage direction, however, was less simple and neat, informed by a desire to keep his singers on the move until they had something "important" to say. Dignity and presence were restored in fair measure by Jean Rigby, in fine form as a bold, heart-on-sleeve Idamante, and especially by Melanie Diener, whose tender, touching account of Ilia was given without want of vocal weight or colour. Rita Cullis, dressed in shocking pink frock and ginger wig, served up the evening's vocal highlights with a powerful reading of "D'Oreste, d'Aiace" and intensely moving final accompanied recitative. Mozart's score, judiciously cut, was directed with energy and a firm command of dramatic pacing by Steuart Bedford, both as conductor and harpsichordist, matched by alert and clean playing from the admirable Garsington Opera Orchestra.

To 12 July. Info: 01865 361636

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