OPERA / Living the charmed life: Nick Kimberley on Haydn and Mozart in the garden at Garsington

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The Independent Culture
WHEN it comes to criticism, opera in the garden at Garsington Manor is almost hors concours. Twilight birdsong augments, even obliterates, ensemble; a passing bus diverts the eye; the dinner interval seems as important as the opera. And while suffering for art has a long tradition, shivering in formal dress as the evening draws on may not be the right kind of suffering. Only a curmudgeon would call it anything but 'charming'. But is charm enough?

Whoever chose Haydn's L'infedelta delusa (Infidelity outsmarted) to open the season clearly thought so. Haydn opera is a Garsington speciality, a welcome opportunity to broaden our knowledge of this surprisingly obscure segment of operatic history. In synopsis, the plot might be from Mozart and Da Ponte's bottom drawer: moneyed father tries to marry off daughter to wealthy landowner; daughter prefers impecunious alternative, whose sister - cross-dressing Vespina - rather fancies the rejected rich man.

All very generic, and handled with many nice touches in a staging by Anthony Besch that makes judicious use of the house and gardens in its mise-en-scene. Yet the staging is unassertive, perhaps inevitably, given that a large part of the audience is following the action by reading the libretto, not by looking at the stage (no surtitles here).

The opera itself is thin but sweet gruel. When resolution comes - as it has to - it is all too pat. We have laughed at the pretensions of those with money but no taste: we have empathised with unhappy women; and then - presto] - order is restored, every threat removed. That is the problem when opera is merely charming. On a chilly first night, the only vocal grace came from Claire Daniels as Vespina - sung with comic flair - and Patricia Rozario. Wasfi Kani conducted the Guildhall String Ensemble with an idiomatic sense of classical style.

And so to the real thing, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, the last of this year's Garsington operas. Given that Figaro is domestic comedy, it is perverse that Michael McCaffery's production (designed by Martin Sutherland) should opt to obscure Garsington's entirely appropriate architecture behind a deliberately artless screen. More challenging - and, yes, more charming - to make it a Garsington show rather than something portable for an impecunious touring company, which Garsington is not.

McCaffery at least gave his energetic singers plenty of comic business to work with. Simon Butteriss's Julian Clary-fied Don Basilio was touched with comic genius, and deserved to be sung in English. As Bartolo, Jonathan Veira again served notice that he is a buffo actor of genuine Pavarotti charm; while Steven Page's Figaro, aggressively sung and acted, looked ready for a fight: but where do you find one on a night like this? The open-air acoustic did strange, often beguiling, things to the period instruments - particularly the winds - of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Stephen Barlow's pacing was judicious rather than exhilarating, although the mournful tempo he set for 'Porgi amor' did no favours to Susan Chilcott's Countess.

Evening dress, champagne picnics, opera in the original language: the Garsington project is essentially nostalgic, an attempt to free opera from the modern hurly-burly, to renew its clubby exclusivity. The trouble is, it works.

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