Tuesday, 16 August 2022

‘Secret’ opera was well worth change of shoes

While downloading last—minute directions to the “secret” venue for Saturday evening’s Opera Holloway production of Rossini’s

While downloading last—minute directions to the “secret” venue for Saturday evening’s Opera Holloway production of Rossini’s La Scala di Seta, my eyes were drawn to the tweet “Getting ready for tomorrow’s performance! Just need to move the sheep out of the car park — how many opera companies have this problem?!”

So I quickly exchanged my stilettos for wedges and set off up the winding lanes to Fawley.

What a treat lay in store. In the intimate setting of a barn within the grounds of a private home, the sell—out audience enjoyed this lively production of Rossini’s third comic opera.

Written in 1812 when he was just 20, it is set in Paris and has all the ingredients of a Farsa Comica with secret liaisons, deceptions and misunderstandings all coming to a climax of confusion which happily works its way out to a blissful conclusion.

Staged by this company of young opera singers in collaboration with the charity Opera Prelude, whose aim is “giving young singers a start”, the story took off with a minimum of set but a maximum of joie de vivre.

With a few props and coat stands carefully positioned to hide behind, and a conductor and pianist tucked in a corner instead of a full band in the orchestra pit, all was focused on the drama of the farce.

It concerns the illicit relationship of Giulia and Dorvil, secretly married before the curtain rises. Dorvil visits her room each night by climbing the silken ladder of the title — in this case made of sheets knotted together.

The problem is that Giulia’s tutor Dormont has arranged for her to marry the country lord Blansac, even though he is actually desired by Giulia’s cousin Lucilla.

Following a series of mishaps and confusions, mostly due to the servant Germano, who has drunk all of the wine, misinterpreting the situation, we finally have a happy ending when Giulia and Dorvil confess the truth and Blansac accepts Lucilla.

This was a wonderful opportunity for young talent to blossom. Although the voices in the main are still developing and in some cases the technical challenges of the wide range and highly ornamented writing was apparent, the overall performance was exciting and the beautiful arias rewarding.

Special mention should go to Callie Swarbrick as Giulia who demonstrated real vocal agility with the leaps, runs and trills of the coloratura; also of Shaun Aquilina as Germano for his convincing comic performance of the man servant; and finally to the rich and relaxed tones of Jon Stainsby as Blansac.

There was some very good ensemble singing held well together by musical director Lewis Gaston and by repetiteur Laurie O’Brien, despite the challenges of the venue and the sight lines. The rapid changes in tempi were hit on the nail every time. An honourable mention should go to the page turner, who got a real workout!

At the end of the evening, the audience were in good cheer and we stepped out into the glorious Oxfordshire countryside to make the journey back down the winding lanes to Henley. This will be on my calendar for next year.

For those interested to know more about opera and a chance to support young singers, Opera Prelude offers a programme of recitals and lectures throughout the year.

The next will be an evening of much—loved operatic arias on Thursday, September 10, at 6.30pm at Fawley Court. To book, go to the website at www.operaprelude.com

Mandy Beard

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