IFORD Manor near Bradford on Avon may well be the most beautiful setting for “garden opera” but it is also the smallest, with performances in a cloister that seats about 100 around a tiny acting space.
So it’s not surprising that Jeff Clarke, founder and artistic director of Opera della Luna, said a resounding NO, twice, to suggestions that he stage Donizetti’s La Fille Du Regiment at the annual summer festival.
Thank goodness for persistence.
On the third asking, he went away and thought how it might be accomplished, and the result is a rip-roaring, revelatory triumph.
The regiment, in Mr Clarke’s wonderfully witty new translation, is a Californian biker gang, complete with patches, odd codes of honour and chopper handlebars with functioning headlights.
Marie has been brought up by the gang since she was abandoned as a baby, but now she’s fallen in love with a Hispanic border-crosser, and the guys don’t like it, one bit.
This version is totally thought through, with socialite Marsha Berkenfield in glamorous dresses, and Marie moving from biker chic to preppy frocks.
The tiny stage is full of great big beardy men hung about with chains and leather and denim, and the sound of their singing is astounding.
As with all Opera della Luna’s productions, the acting is as important as the singing if Jeff’s scintillating ideas are to be pulled off, and this group does it wonderfully.
Daughter of the Regiment is an impossibility without a singer of exceptional power, variety and flexibility to sing the role of Marie, and in Australian soprano Suzanne Shakespeare the company has found the perfect performer, stepping into the famous shoes of La Stupenda with much more wit and acting ability and with no diminution of vocal excellence.
The set by Nigel Howard converts the parched desert, replete with cactus, into an elegant music room, with panache.
The orchestra, conducted by Toby Purser, brings all the rhythm and humour of the music. The only thing I missed was that throaty roar of the much-sung-about Harley Davidsons, perhaps taking the audience out into the night. But then Donizetti didn’t write that, did he.
If you believe the claim that opera is stuffy and elitist, this will change your mind forever. If you think you like your opera straight and traditional, this will emblazon a new perspective.
There are a few seats still available for this production, which continues on 8th, 10th, 12th, 15th, 17th and 19th July. Please don’t miss it. GP-W