IN the week when the beloved Harold Peto Cloister at Iford Manor was dismantled to make way for builders to reinforce the failing foundations, Iford Arts opened the flaps on its geodesic dome in the magnificent gardens of Belcombe Court at Bradford on Avon and welcomed audiences to Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore.
After 25 years, it was a wrench for Iford Arts (and the many loyal supporters) to move from the Manor, and a risk to try to relocate from somewhere uniquely beautiful.
When artistic director Judy Eglington announced that Belcombe Court, home of film director and producer Paul Weiland and his wife Caroline, had been offered as a temporary home for the festival, the relief and excitement were tempered with practical concerns. Without the cloister, where could the performances be held?
The solution came in the form of a geodesic dome, made in the UAE. Singers rehearsed in London while the dome was erected close to the railway line between Avoncliff and Bradford on Avon. Fingers were crossed.
The choice of Donizetti’s comic opera, whisked across the Atlantic by director James Hurley to a central California setting, allowed the dome to become part of the action. With an audience doubled in size from that accomodated by the tiny Iford cloister, but still surrounding the action, designer Holly Pigott used the central post to hoist her orange – this Adina runs a desert orange stall.
Poor, dopey, lovelorn Nemorino is moping around again, trying to profess his love for his boss, but totally lacking in self esteem. Adina is flighty, bored and cruel in the relentless heat. When a bombastic soldier appears on the scene, demanding adulation, she’s a bit taken in.
Enter Doctor Dulcamara, a pedlar of snake oil solutions, and he can trump up a copy of Tristan and Yseult’s love potion as fast as a cheetah.
This terrific cast was led by Claire Lees as a perfectly pert Adina, playing the mountebank Dulcamara but caught by her own heart. Tenor Robert Lewis, still studying at the Guildhall, shows from the start that he is as fine an actor as a singer, and he makes the often wet Nemorino into the sort of boy the audience will want to protect. Not so Matthew Durkan’s preposterously preening Belcore, whose come-uppance was well overdue.
The vastly experienced and hilarious Andrew Shore was a late addition to the company, and he filled not so much his boots but his wonderful hat.
With eight more fine singers on stage, and the Chroma Orchestra made up this time of 16 musicians, under the baton of Oliver Gooch, there was more than enough sound and spectacle to delight the packed ranks of audience. At times there is still a balance to be struck between the not-too-intrusive sounds of the trains and the volume of the brass.
The extraordinary “secret” grounds of Belcombe Court, rarely open to the public, revealed even more delights as the light faded.
Quo vadis Iford Arts in 2020? It remains to be seen, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable, very well sung and beautifully visualised first year on the road.