L’Ormindo, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, March 2014

The last time the Royal Opera House put on a Cavalli opera was in autumn 2008 with an elaborate post-modern take on La Calisto. This time the emphasis is on authenticity, and the star of the show is the new small and intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a candlelit auditorium recently attached to the Globe Theatre.

All images ©Globe/ Stephen Cumminskey

All images © Globe/ Stephen Cumminskey

One might think that candles would eliminate the opportunity of dimming and raising the lighting, but towards the end when the lovers Ormindo and Erisbe lie down to die after ingesting poison, two of the performers go round extinguishing most of the more than seventy candles, omitting only two of the candelabra that have been drawn high up to the roof. When all turns out well — the poison was merely a sleeping draught — the candles are relit, giving a wonderful solemnity and joy to these moments.

Even with the candles fully lit, the raising and lowering of the candelabra, operated from backstage via pulleys, allows alterations to the stage lighting that help give the feel of a seventeenth century production, as does the descent of goddesses from doors that open in the beautifully painted ceiling. This opera, first produced in 1644 at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, which opened seven years earlier as the first public opera house, is typical of its time, involving kings, queens, love intrigues and the intervention of mythical forces.

Two young princes, Ormindo and Amidas, comrades in arms but rivals in love, pursue the lovely Erisbe, unhappily married to old king Ariadenus. Amidas in turn is pursued by his ex-lover Sicle helped by her nurse (a tenor role), both disguised as gypsy fortune-tellers. Their intervention succeeds in reuniting the ex-lovers, so Erisbe chooses Ormindo, and they escape by ship. Destiny causes the ship, here represented as a charming model, to return to port with the lovers, whom the king condemns to death. The catalyst for the happy ending is a letter informing him that Ormindo is his own son. All rather contrived to be sure, but musically a delight, and Kasper Holten’s excellent production does it to perfection, helped by Anja Vang Kragh’s glorious costumes. With Christian Curnyn directing five string players from the harpsichord, all in costume and playing from above the stage, the truly beautiful singing and wonderful acoustics did the rest.

The mainly young cast fitted their roles to perfection, Samuel Boden and Ed Lyon particularly notable for their fine virility in the alto and tenor roles of Ormindo and Amidas, and Joélle Harvey and Susanna Hurrell wonderfully expressive in the soprano roles of Princess Sicle and Erisbe, contrasting well with the deep bass of Graeme Broadbent as the King. Excellent diction from the whole cast, allowing us a clear understanding of the fine translation by Christopher Cowell, without surtitles that would in any case not fit in this theatre.

The acoustic knocks the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio into a cocked hat, and I look forward to more baroque opera in this delightful space.

Performances continue until April 12, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on April 5 — for details click here and here.

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