IN an effort to scupper the reputation of opera as an elitist artform, recent productions have moved towards The Big Idea, in which directors impose their often peculiar interpretations on classic works. This is supposed to attract new and younger audiences.
Here in the south west, audiences are lucky enough to have the most beautiful and atmospheric setting for what is often dismissively called “country house opera”. At Iford Manor near Bradford on Avon, audiences can sit in the gardens that rise from the banks of the River Frome to eat their picnics and then make their way into the tiny Harold Peto designed cloister to enjoy the opera. It’s the most intimate setting imaginable, and weaves its own magic over every performance.
The Iford Festival started in the 1980s, and every year provides operas and promenade musical events.
This year’s festival started with Bruno Ravella’s production of Macbeth, and the idea of staging Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s story of the Scottish Play in the enclosed cloister set the antenna vibrating with anticipation. Christopher Nairn’s dark lighting design, puttering candles reflected in a mirrored roof, and a very careful blackout to the garden around, added to the tense horrors of the story.
And Oliver Gooch’s CHROMA ensemble underlined the power of the cleverly reduced score. At such close quarters it’s hard not to see that Verdi chose some extraordinarily unsuitable music for the story, breaking into jolly little dances to alleviate the threatening gloom.
The scale of the Cloister (one new audience member asked for directions to the auditorium, perhaps using the word literally) means that the singers are exposed to the audience, and acting is perhaps more important than vocal volume. This is a place where subtlety pays off.
Iford’s Lady Macbeth is the Welsh soprano Laura Parfitt, whose voice can fill much, much larger auditoria. Her husband and co-conspirator is another Welsh singer, baritone Eddie Wade. The production gave them little opportunity for character development, and the vital rapport between them was largely missing
The star of the show is bass Barnaby Rea, whose thrilling Banquo electrified his every short moment on stage, and Christopher Turner made the very most of his big Macduff moment.
There is exceptional singing from the chorus, whose individual roles include the witches (dressed as gothic nuns) and the dinner guests. Their contributions were intensely characterised and amplified the fear that surrounded the increasingly paranoid new king.
This is a familiar story that almost tells itself, sung in English, and without the need for directorial intrusion. The pantomimic backward clash of the assassins waiting to murder Banquo and his young son was simply unacceptable, and poor Oliver Brignall’s Malcolm, taking the crown at the end surrounded by grateful Scots, had to threaten them with his broadsword. If this was a Big Idea, I, along with many of the audience, was left askance.
There is much to praise in the performances, but this production, which continues until 18th June, has largely wasted the potential of the cloister. Perhaps a little reduction in volume, and fresh look at characterisation would do the trick.
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