The 2013 Garsington Opera season opened its third year at its new home on the Wormsley Estate with a propitious omen: for once, the weather was balmy and the beautiful steel and glass structure that encloses the performance space was comfortably warm throughout. After a few words of onstage welcome from Garsington's chairman and from incoming artistic director Douglas Boyd (who paid a handsome tribute to the work done over the last seven years by his predecessor, Anthony Whitworth-Jones), the first few familiar C major chords rose from the Garsington Orchestra pit and we were under way once again.
Entführung is a difficult Singspiel to pull off and has long been so for twentieth and twenty-first century audiences alike. Edward Dent described it as a "jumble of incompatible styles" and claimed that the libretto of Entführung was the worst that Mozart ever had to set to music! The Garsington solution was to allow director Daniel Slater to create a modern scenario with its own dialogue, based loosely on Stephanie the Younger's work, but actually very much of our times. Pasha Selim becomes a Russian oligarch in exile from Moscow, holding his female captives Konstanze and Blonde in a luxury penthouse suite and showering them with designer goodies. Belmonte becomes a wandering Yank, who has to personate an Italian football (soccer) coach to come to Selim's attention: the latter (of course) owns a football club and his team are in the finals of the Champion's League. Pedrillo becomes a cockney wide boy, Konstanze a very Spanish captive and Blonde a very Swedish handmaiden. Osmin is the oligarch's chief of security, half the chorus are dark suited security guards in dark glasses (Osmin's men) and the other half brightly-clad football fans with bells, whistles and hooters. It is engagingly fun, zany and amateurish all at the same time.
Does it work? In parts. Some of the new dialogue is dreadful, some quite funny, but it moves at pace and we get there in the end. 'Denial' becomes a river in Egypt and Pedrillo's rhyming slang does not always work, but the basic motors of the plot--a rescue opera, and a double date, nearly foiled by a villain--all whirr along nicely. I have only one major complaint about Slater's adaptation: at the end of the third act, Selim enters in triumph shouting "We won" (his team has won the Champion's League in extra time) and that becomes the sole motivation for his decision to let his captives free. Surely Mozart's message of compassion and enlightenment could find better expression in a modern idiom, even if it is all simply a bit of a laugh?
Musically, standards were quite high. The orchestra sounded a bit thin to start with, its string tone undernourished, but got better and better as the evening progressed. There was some lovely woodwind playing and very hushed, sensitive accompanying in the quieter, minor key arias. Conductor William Lacey acquitted himself well and paced the score deftly, often bringing a smile to the music and to the face.
I was not certain about the Belmonte of Norman Reinhardt to start with. His tenor sound is big and beefy, and he attacks every line--no hint of the strangulated sound that sometimes afflicts the tenor voice. As the evening progressed I warmed to him more, but I still missed a sense of joined-up melodic line and dynamic contrast. I shall reserve final judgement until I hear him again, which I hope to before long.
Both girls were instant hits however, attractively costumed and with winning voices. Rebecca Nelsen as Konstanze played the role as a highly volatile, demanding Spanish miss, well aware of her attractiveness to the opposite sex and highly unpredictable throughout (including her outbursts in Spanish dialogue, un-surtitled and as mystifying to the rest of the cast as to the audience!) Her voice is bright, rich and her sense of both melodic and coloratura line terrific. This was an excellent singing performance from start to finish. Susanna Andersson as Blonde was in perfect contrast--smaller, perfectly formed, in hot pants and with a saucy Swedish way with the housework (including a virtuoso cake-making session throughout her first aria--which brought the house down). Andersson has a bright soubrette sound, all the top notes available (apart from one tiny mishap) and a very engaging stage personality. I enjoyed her musicality and her stage performance enormously.
Mark Wilde as Pedrillo had the difficult task of establishing the director's new idiom, driving the narrative along and keeping us amused as he did so. His voice is on the light side but he came absolutely into his own in the ensemble passages, which were outstanding: there were moments as I watched and listened to these four attractive young performers that I began to perceive Entführung as a better work than it is often given credit for! But overall, this Pedrillo came across as a versatile and engaging actor singer.
If I save the best until last, it is because the Osmin of Matthew Rose was every bit as good as the performance I had been expecting, and a bit better than that. Rose commands the stage when he is in full voice, and the part gives him wonderful opportunities to demonstrate just what a fine bass voice he has: warm and vibrant in the upper, baritonal register, steely and incisive in those wonderful low lying passages that characterize Osmin so effectively. Rose also has the knack of making the delivery of sung, dense text sound so natural and easy--his articulation is superb. This was a performance to treasure.
I still came away a bit baffled by some of the (new) in-jokes. It must have been a deliberate decision not to have surtitles for spoken passages of Swedish, Spanish, German--but it would have helped to know what was being said. And thinking of text delivery, a word of praise to Aaron Neil in the spoken role of Selim: he was clear, dignified, calm and assured throughout, and always a pleasure to see onstage. If only he could find a more uplifting reason to bestow his clemency at the end.
So, lots of quirky features, a few rough and ready moments, but in the course of the evening, some joyful music-making as well and a few real musical highlights. Garsington Opera has got off to a lively and stimulating start.
Photos: Johan Persson