The trouble with opera is it is just too nutso. I mean, honestly. A member of the royal family, a queen no less, pursued by not one but two soldiers, and totally up for it, while another princess dresses up as a gypsy and chases her man across the desert in the company of cross dressers. Meanwhile the king has — shock — a love child and — horrors — a not entirely unreasonable tanty over his wife’s infidelity. Come on, it’d never happen in real life. Well, not much of it. Not the gypsy bit. Cross dressers maybe. Illegitimate children, yes, fine, we’re all grown-ups here. And threesomes? Well, no accounting for taste. But definitely not the gypsy bit.
Just three weeks till Christmas and L’Ormindo definitely has shades of the good old English Panto. There’s the pantomime dame, a luscious Kanen Breen, wriggling and giggling like Kenneth Williams on acid. There’s the bumptious maid who tries her damnedest to sabotage the orchestra’s playing. There’s even a fair bit of thigh slapping, not to mention women dressed as men, men dressed as women and a man who sounds like a woman. And on top of all that, there is the Hockney-meets-school-nativity-play sea of sand dunes, in and out of which the various characters gambol.
I hope Pinchgut won’t be offended if I say this production veers between the sublime and the ridiculous. It’s not a work with the comely musical architecture of, say, Idomeneo or Juditha Triumphans. In fact, it is arguably only just an opera. Agreed, practically every word is sung (or whooped or wailed) but for much of the night the words are what propels the action, rather than the music. The lengthy recitatives take some getting used to if you approach them like, say, a Mozart or Handel opera, where they are usually a quick plot update on the way to an aria. In L’Ormindo recit is the norm and arias are the exception, which brings challenges for both audience and singers. For the audience, there is the choice of whether to try and follow the action by flitting between surtitles, libretto and stage. And for singers, there is the challenge of maintaining the pace and detailed drama of the fast-moving action when the solo breaks are few and far between.
The L’Ormindo cast handled it well. I’m not going to formally hand out medals here – I was at L’Ormindo as a Pinchgut fan, not a critic. But I did love seeing everyone on stage digging deep into their bag of onstage tricks, and coming up with some gorgeous surprises. Many people have seen Kanen Breen hamming it up, but Anna Fraser, in the role of Mirinda, was a revelation, and Richard Andersen’s portrayal of the totally dumped-on king was a lovely thing, and a great recommendation for his first Figaro next year.
As for the music, I’m not convinced I’d rush out and buy Cavalli’s Greatest Hits on the strength of this work, but if I did, I would insist on it being performed by the Orchestra of the Antipodes, conducted by Erin Helyard. Musically, the orchestral interludes and overtures were the highlights, full of knowing stylistic idiosyncracies and plain old beauty. I may be a sucker for the soppy bits, but the change in gear, dramatically and musically, for the double death scene was a stunner. Like all good operas, Cavalli makes a meal out of the dying — to the point where one of my operabuddies had a big think bubble over her head saying “Just get on with it and die…” but for me the long lingering descent into oblivion was peculiarly moving.
Back to the orchestra. This was Erin Helyard’s first time conducting a Pinchgut production. Until now he’s always been there in the wings preparing the score and playing continuo. It was quite a debut. He looks a bit like Voldemort from behind, all bony skull and twitching limbs (although I assure you he looks perfectly normal and human from the front and talks without a hint of sybillants). But the performance he draws from the orchestra — and remember, with all that action and recit. this must be no easy piece to put together — is wonderfully nuanced, alive, glowing. I imagine it will be recorded for CD, and I will be first in line to recommend this band’s performance.
It is hard to believe that this is Pinchgut’s eighth production – a real example of sheer determination over practicality. But thank goodness for that. The Arts needs companies like Pinchgut — and not only to prove the impossible isn’t. Also to be passionate about what they do and damn good too.