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In this age of distorted and virtual reality, authenticity is the holy grail. Our craving for experiences that are one-off, live and elusive has shaped the cultural and culinary landscape, from pub operas to pop-up restaurants.
At times, the trend has spawned falsehoods of its own (the longer the queue, the more cramped the seating, the greater the risk of splinters in your backside – so hipster logic goes – the richer and more “real” the encounter), but it has also inspired some daring and creative new initiatives.
One of the latest and most convincing of these is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a new performance space within the Shakespeare’s Globe complex, and its current production of Francesco Cavalli’s 1644 opera L’Ormindo, the first in a diverse programme of musical performances, has highlighted the venue’s huge potential.
Small-scale and intimate, the SWP is modelled on mid-17th-century theatres, with an oak interior – and suitably uncomfortable seating – candle lighting and stage machinery of the period. It’s a perfect fit for Cavalli’s comic romp, first performed at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, and this co-production with the Royal Opera, directed by Kasper Holten, is a complete delight.
The story, which is too convoluted to concern us here, centres on a courtly love quadrangle set in the north African city of Anfa. A cast of talented young singers demonstrate great resourcefulness: Samuel Boden’s earnest and puck-like Ormindo contrasts nicely with Susanna Hurrell’s ditsy Erisbe, while Ed Lyon makes a charismatic Amidas and Rachel Kelly is engaging and sweet-toned as the maid, Mirinda.
The SWP acoustics are on the dry side, stripping some lustre from the voices, but this hardly counts as a drawback when the singers’ physicality is so immediate. There is certainly no need for surtitles here. Christian Curnyn – positioned in a minstrels’ gallery, along with seven instrumentalists from the orchestra of the Early Opera Company – directs from the harpsichord with verve and sensitivity.
The dozens of beeswax candles, which add a painterly dimension to the sets and shimmer against costumes flecked with metallic thread, are already something of a USP for the SWP.
Of course, historically informed performance is not new to Shakespeare’s Globe, or indeed to practitioners of early music – the trend towards period instruments and performing styles flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think that spirit, which came to the music scene first, very much informed the Globe and the SWP, so it feels like a natural marriage,” says Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. He talks of the “terrible crushing” of opera by modern directors, and of using the past as a way to challenge present dogma.
“You can see that with this opera, the energy is back with the singer and the composer and the audience, and that’s where the excitement happens,” he says.
At its most extreme, historically informed performance can be just as reductive. But the wit and irreverence of Holten’s production (“blind” Cupid appears in a sugar-pink tutu holding a white cane) and Curnyn’s innate musicality mean that this L’Ormindo is a far cry from museum re-enactment.
Leading opera houses have made an effort with early opera – Glyndebourne staged L’Ormindo in 1967, Cavalli’s 1651 opera La Calisto was performed at Covent Garden in 2008, and English National Opera has featured the work of Monteverdi – but many of these theatres are far from well-suited to the repertoire’s smaller sound.
This first series of candlelit concerts at the SWP will continue with Andreas Scholl singing music for a Jacobean court, and a recital by renowned Catalan viol player Jordi Savall, and Dromgoole hopes that the partnership with the Royal Opera will become a yearly fixture.
It is surely only a matter of time before music of the 17th century – a period long celebrated for its plays – is given its due recognition.
Until April 12 shakespearesglobe.com