The enthusiastic response by audiences to If Opera’s 2022 season has demonstrated there is clearly an appetite for this repertory ensemble approach by the ambitious rebranded company, formerly Iford Arts.
Taking place in the grounds of Belcombe Court no doubt added to the overall enjoyment of the festival experience. But the hearty responses to the performances were more than deserved by the blossoming talent presented in this idyllic gardens setting.
Part of the enjoyment of the festival and this company’s philosophy is that audiences who attend more than one of the offerings can see some of the singers in different roles, and enjoy the singers also perform arias in the gardens before the shows. Other members of the ensemble come and sit on the grassy knolls by the ornate pond, listening to their colleagues and give them lots of support – all adding to the pleasure of the day and encapsulating the ethos of this festival.
The staged operas performed at Belcombe Court were Puccini’s La rondine and a double bill of Donizetti’s Rita and Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna. The festival also included a concert performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a family show The Man in the Moon. My visit took in the two staged performances.
Meinir Wyn Roberts
The story of La rondine begins with a cocktail party where a romantic poet Punier compares Magda, the mistress of a rich older banker, to a swallow (La rondine) that seeks genuine love. The slightly jaded Magda remembers when she was younger dancing at a café and falling in love with a stranger. She failed to act on her emotions and nothing happened. When a handsome young man, Ruggero, appears at the party he asks the bright young things there how to discovering the true Paris. Magda is driven to give in to her yearning to relive her youth and joins him in the same café that she had that brief encounter. Only this time she does go off with Ruggero and sets up a love nest away from Paris, on the Riviera.
However, being a good country boy Ruggero seeks his mother’s blessing to marry and look forward to having children with Magda. This reality bursts the bubble of their romantic idyll, and she tells him she cannot be his wife as she has too much “baggage”. He is heartbroken as she returns to her former life. Meanwhile the actually rather worldly poet has had a fling with Magda’s fiesty maid Lisette, promising to make her a star. When the bubble of this dream is also burst by the negative respone of audiences, she too decides to go back to her earlier life with Magda. The swallow flies north back to Paris.
Ryan Vaughan Davies and Lorena Paz Nieto
Directed by Bruno Ravella, the production spotlights the distinctiveness/ modernity of the Puccini work with the heroine of sorts, Magda, returning to her real world after that brief affair that is more a nostalgic reliving of a romantic episode from her younger days. A delightful Meinir Wyn Roberts captures this almost other-worldly aspect of the relationship, balancing idealistic passion with darker introspection. The Welsh soprano gives us some thrilling singing particularly the emotional crescendos. Joseph Buckmaster’s innocent boy from the country Ruggero believes this is the real thing, dependent of course on his mother’s approval. He sings with an Italianate flair and acts with puppy dog longing.
This airy-fairy hearts and flowers contrasts with the (surprisingly) restrained and sympathetic portrayal of Magda’s down to earth “patron” Rambaldo from Philip Smith. There is also the contrast between Magda and Ruggero and the other romantic pairing, the cheeky maid Lisette and florid poet Prunier. Lorena Paz Nieto’s sparkling singing and Ryan Vaughan Davies’ effervescent performance brings much genuine humour and charm to the show.
Joseph Buckmaster and Meinir Wyn Roberts
Bruno Ravella’s direction is clear and crisp, working with the constraints of the enclosed space that similarly limits Flavio Graff’s semi Art Deco designs which must allow for speedy changes of setting, Magda’s Paris house, Bullier’s ball and the south of France villa. Video projections by Luna Panetta are used partly for some of this scene setting, but mainly to explore the psychology of Magda as she looks to the past and reacts to the reality of her situation.
The Bristol Ensemble conducted by Oliver Gooch is quite a revelation with a searing performance of Puccini’s score, packed with a plethora of musical genres, waltz, foxtrot and charictaristic soaring arias and duets. There are times when Gooch threatens to overwhelm the audience with a wall of sound in the small enclosed space, but balance and a sympathetic relationship with the singers are largely maintained.
In contrast the smaller number of musicians conducted by a sprightly Olivia Clarke for Rita and Il segreto di Susanna, along with the simpler setting of the comedy dramas, particularly suited the performance space. Flavio Graff uses the set design elements as in La rondine for Bettina John’s stage and costume designs in the witty double bill.
The far-fetched tale of Rita, adroitly sung and acted by Natasha Page, who has escaped an abusive husband, sung by a vivacious Kieran Rayner, and married a man she can in turn dominate, an impressively voiced Jack Dolan, raises eyebrows with so much domestic violence at its core, even if all is resolved. Do we laugh or do we wince? In truth it must be plenty of laughs with a little guilt.
The second opera is the fun Il segreto di Susanna. By hiding her secret, that she loves a cigarette, Susanna brings out not only her husband’s jealousy in assuming she has a lover who makes their home smell of tobacco, but also a droll take of Covid with an obsession with cleanliness. Katherine McIndoe as Susanna and her Tik Tok Chorus Jessica Hope, Clover Kayne and Lara Maree Muller, along with the non-singing role of the servant acted by Christopher Gillet, are gloriously conspiratorial joie de vivre ensemble. The foil is the wonderfully OCD Conte Gil from a captivating Philip Smith who puts his all into a very physical performance. Plenty of laughs all around and a throughly enjoyable show.
After this accomplished season the future looks blooming bright and certainly intriguing for the next adventures from If Opera as it charts its own route ahead in the challenging climate for live performance.
Main image: Ryan Vaughan Davies and Meinir Wyn Roberts