Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Arts, 23 June 2018
Since 1995, Iford Arts have been promoting the summer opera season in the magnificent Peto Gardens of Iford Manor, just south of Bradford-upon-Avon. The manor was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. Peto created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classically-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor, with terraces littered with architectural bits and bobs, including a recreation of an Italianate cloister. The cloister is turned into an intimate opera venue, with the hillside gardens providing a spectacular setting for pre-opera picnics and mid-opera biscuits. Sadly, this year is the last year that Iford Manor will be hosting Iford Arts and Opera at Iford, and the search is on for a new venue for them to continue to build their impressive Young Arts and Education Outreach programmes and to continue providing high standard opera in the Bath hinterlands. This year they presented three operas, Candide, Madam Butterfly, and Handel’s Partenope, alongside other events.
Handel’s Partenope is an entertaining venture into cross-dressing, sexual and political intrigue, disguise, and, in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, humour and sexual goings-on. Partenope is Queen of Naples. She has three princely admirers: Arsace, Armindo, Eurimene (a newcomer), and later, Emilio, heading an invading army, bent on a marriage alliance or war. Soon after the opera opens, Partenope’s favourite, Arsace, notices the striking similarity between the curious ‘Armenian’ Prince Eurimene to his former lover, Rosmira, not realising that it is indeed her, but disguised as a man. As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a woman and ultimately only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for any pervs in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira. It was first performed in February 1730, in the King’s Theatre.
Opera at Iford is a challenge for directors, conductor, instrumentalists, and singers. It is a tiny space, with a (usually covered) fountain in the middle, and surrounded on all four sides by the audience, many within touching distance. Years of being pressured into projecting your voice to the back row of an opera house come to nothing here, but character portrayal, acting ability, and vocal sensitivity are paramount. To varying degrees, these aspects were demonstrated brilliantly in this production, directed by Christopher Cowell to designs by Holly Pigott, with Christopher Bucknall conducting the period instrument orchestra Contraband, led by Kinga Ujszászi.
The role of Partenope was sung by Russian soprano Galina Averina, clad in an extraordinary array of costumes in her portrayal of the flighty temptress who plays games with her suitors. Excellently acted, my only quibble was her persistent and uncontrolled vibrato, pulsing at about semiquaver speed, that affected vocal runs and what would otherwise have been some very good ornaments. I particularly liked the rich mezzo voice of Glaswegian Beth Margaret Taylor, singing the role of Rosmira/Eurimene. Although not without vibrato, she was able to control it when needed, and her acting was one of the highlights of the production.
More vibrato came from countertenors Alexander Simpson and Jorge Navarro Colorado as Arsace and Armindo. I was a bit puzzled about the casting of these two roles. Arsace, Partenope’s current favourite, is supposed to be the brash and confident one, with Armindo as shy and retiring, although physically and vocally, it seemed to be the other way round. Their acting made it obvious who was who, but it didn’t help to clad the slender Arsace in the sort of theatrically flamboyant shirt that made his comment about what a nice young man Eurimene was all too telling. But that wasn’t the direction the plot was heading in, as he eventually realises that Eurimene is actually Rosmira. Jorge Navarro Colorado acted the role of the diffident Emilio very well. Tom Scott-Cowell was an imposing Armindo, particularly fearsome in the battle scene. Brendan Collins sang small role of Ormonte, Partenope’s aide, his sonorous bass voice adding some vocal heft.
Despite my concerns about vibrato, the singing was strong and technically well done. Casts in these Iford operas are generally youngish and, having been unfortunately encouraged during their conservatory years to force the operatic voices, have not had the time or experience to learn how to control their voices in a way that is more suitable for early music singing.
The space for the orchestra is very limited, so considerably kudos must go to the instrumentalists and to conductor/harpsichord continuo Christopher Bucknall for keeping things together. Although slightly reduced from the original instrumental specification, this was a sizeable orchestra, playing in less than ideal conditions.
Production photos below: Mitzi de Margary