l’Ospedale – The Hospital of Incurable Madness
Wilton’s Music Hall, 10 November 2015
There are many operas that would appear to be taking place in a mental asylum, but the setting of the 17th-century ‘dramma burlesco’, l’Ospedale really is just that. It is based on a libretto by Antonio Abati and is set to music by an unknown seventeenth-century composer. As Naomi Matsumoto (who researched and prepared the score) explains in her programme essay, there are possible connections to the Hapsburg Court of the Holy Roman Emperor where an entertainment called l’Hospitale de’Pazzi is known to have been performed in 1667. Given its later history and famed inhabitants, Vienna does seem a rather apt location for the first performance – as was the delightful and historic surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall for this, the first staged performance for centuries.
The production, given by the six singers and six instrumentalists (playing theorbo, baroque guitar, viola da gamba, violone, and 2 harpsichords) of the enterprising Solomon’s Knot baroque collective under their musical director, James Halliday (with stage director James Hurley and designer Rachel Szmukler), has been developed over the past two years from a series of workshops projects, including a two week residency at Aldeburgh Music Open Space in October 2014. The partnership with Wilton’s Music Hall was apt. In surroundings probably best described as shabby-chic, Wilton’s air of graceful dereliction gave a splendid introduction to the scenes that we were about to witness, set in depressing present day state hospital, with the inevitable non-functional vending machine.
Surrounded on three sides by the audience, four disturbed patients act out their own neuroses and vie for the attention of a doctor who, with the assistance of one of the hospital staff (one of whose lines was “stay away from doctors if you want to stay healthy”), comes up with a variety of ‘cures’ for their ailments. Their maladies are reflected in their names, and include a love sick woman, a confused courtier, a fool and one with ‘a pain in his wallet’. Although clearly intended to reflect the treatment of the troubled mind in the mid 17th century, there were inevitable reflections on today’s complex health service. The broadcast Prologue and Epilogue were from a fictional speech in the House of Commons by a slimy Secretary of State for Health.
Sung in the original Italian, with surtitles which might have missed a lot of the complex humour and pun-ridden text, this was a very clever staging, immersing the audience in the world of the characters. The music was a delight, with lots of consort pieces and moments of high drama. Two inserted madrigals by Gesualdo (who else?) added a further, and suitably intense, musical contribution. The instruments, sited on Wilton’s high stage amongst piles of orange refuse sacks, gave very convincing realisations of what I assume was a rather minimal score, with much left to individual continuo improvisation. I particularly liked the rhythmic punch given by the plucked violone and the melodic contribution of the viola da gamba.
The singing, and acting, was outstanding, both as soloists and in the many choruses. Notably amongst the patients, on account of their particularly extended ‘mad scenes’, were Rebecca Moon as the lovesick Innamorato and Michal Czerniawski as the Art Brut artist Matto. Thomas Herford as Cortigiano (a jaded city worker whose spectacular entry was worth the visit on its own), Nicholas Merryweather as the impoverished Povero (whose wife had ‘cleared him out’) and Jonathan Sells as the doctor who turned out to be as troubled as his patients, all equally excelled. Lucy Page was the cynical hospital worker, appearing first as an embittered cleaner and then as a nurse.
Whether you go with an interest in the health service, as complex now as it was in the 17th century, or for a short (60’) burst of exceptional music, this is a show well worth experiencing. It continues on selected dates until 21 November, sometimes with two shows each evening. More information here.