Ambition has trumped caution and there are great performances to be enjoyed at UK’s summer opera festivals. Two other large-scale and highly romantic opera houses opened over the weekend. Now halfway through the season, the Garsington Opera offers its first staging of Dvořák Rusalka, a production which will be the main operatic event of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. A key factor in Garsington’s high reputation is that he enjoys the Philharmonia orchestra in the pit, and Dvořák’s intoxicating score here vibrates with haunting color under the direction of Douglas Boyd.
The folk tale of the water nymph who longs for human love, only to find that the real world brings rejection and heartache, is open to many interpretations (other productions have offered the rite of passage of a girl to sexual maturity, sex workers luring men to their doom, even the imprisonment of Josef Fritzl and the rape of his daughter).
In Garsington, director Jack Furness is less interventionist, focusing on the chasm that separates the realm of fairies from the world of men. A misty lake, in which water nymphs splash, establishes the enchanted atmosphere of the first, while humans live in a Victorian industrial society, divorced from nature. Seeing a deer’s heart ripped out can turn some stomachs just before the all-important dinner interval.
The cast is good and the main couple is particularly worth the trip to hear. Natalya Romaniw sings Rusalka with unfailing fervor, although sometimes to the detriment of the beauty of the sound. Austro-Australian tenor Gerard Schneider is an advantageous find, embracing both the poetry and the passion of the Prince. With Christine Rice as the mighty witch Ježibaba, Sky Ingram as the foreign princess, and Musa Ngqungwana singing wondrous warnings as the water spirit Vodník, it’s uplifting to hear an opera on this scale in the theater of 600 places from Garsington to Wormsley.
On July 19, then on tour, garsingtonopera.org
The same could be said of Grange Park Opera’s otello. The visceral power of Verdi’s opera could not fail to be thrilling at the newly built Grange Park Opera House at West Horsley Place in Surrey.
Once again the music was in persuasive hands, with conductor Gianluca Marciano pushing the opera forward with momentum and step-by-step speed. Where the strength seemed to be lacking was probably because the acoustics of Grange Park favored the singers (the choir sounded powerful), although The Gascoigne Orchestra could also have benefited from additional string players.
If David Alden’s production has left a lingering impression of deja vu, it’s because he has already directed otello for English National Opera in 2014. It was similar, tense and compelling drama, well-defined characters, a timescale advanced into the 20th century, where Otello and Desdemona’s love is tested in the context of a modern military camp.
Even before the curtain rises, Simon Keenlyside’s Iago is present on the front of the stage. Attract him for otello is one of Grange Park’s aces in the peloton this season and Keenlyside delivers beautifully, singing with strength, style and tremendous command of the lyrics. He brings the character to life from within, as if he is experiencing the drama in the moment. No wonder Verdi thought of calling the opera Iago.
At his side, Gwyn Hughes Jones reaches the heights of Otello with power and intensity, but not always in the Italian way. Between gentleness and dignity, Elizabeth Llewellyn plays a beautifully judged Desdemona, although the vibrato in her voice can be annoying. In the end, Iago doesn’t take flight, as expected. He remains on stage examining the bloodshed he caused – a fitting conclusion for this Iago, who was the driving force from start to finish.
As of July 9, grangeparkopera.co.uk