The fleeting summer Iford Arts opera productions (fleeting because I can’t get enough of them) are certainly not for the masses, they’re for those in the know with a penchant for discovering and spotting new talent rather than paying an arm and leg for stars already catapulted and possibly past their prime, with due opera house crowds, extortionate seat prices and queues for the bar.
That’s not to say the experience comes cheap, but then, it really is an experience, complete with quirky country hospitality, a grade-listed tumbling hillside garden overlooking the curvaceous Wiltshire plains in which you can picnic ahead of each performance, and more intimate, frankly inspired productions than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the planet. Budget restrictions mean imagination is essential and they don’t go short of that here. The team behind the festival, which has won renown despite the many challenges, transpose an intoxicating atmosphere over the entire proceedings fired by passion rather than brazen commerciality, and that’s darn refreshing these days. Just remember, ‘Mum’s the word’.
Following on from their first 2018 production Candide, the cloudless, brilliant azure sky above the pale stone of Iford Manor near Bath last Saturday, coupled with a Mediterranean temperature you would expect to find during midday in Italy rather than evening in England, was a more than fitting setting for Iford Arts’ new production of Handel’s Partenope (meaning ‘virgin’ in Greek), framed around the much admired Queen of Naples who is search of a consort and has several potential suitors lined up including Armindo, Prince of Rhodes (Tom Scott-Cowell), and shortly Emilio (the exceptional Spanish tenor Jorge Navarro-Colarado) from neighbouring Cumae who assembles a force on Partenope’s borders and seeks a marital alliance – a rather aggressive way of seducing someone I think you’ll agree.
The usually cool cloisters found the audience suitably hot under the collar, aided by water and cool flannels (the first time I’ve ever been offered such a thing at an opera festival) yet the effervescent music of Handel’s masterpiece, first performed in London in 1730 and often considered the best libretto he ever set, was the perfect antidote. Sublimely melodic and humorous, countertenor and Handel aficionado Alexander Simpson in his Versace-style shirt, snug white jeans and loafers, never failed to produce a smile as Arsace, the suitor who has cruelly overthrown his lover Rosmira (Beth Margaret Taylor) in order to court the flirtatious Queen Partenope (Galina Averina).
Rosmira, however, cunningly seeks revenge and, posing as the male Eurimene gains access to the court and offers ‘his’ services to the Queen with the intention of preventing a match between the pair. Arsace is overwhelmed by the newcomer’s resemblance to his former love Rosmira, a revelation she eventually confesses to but swears him to keep secret by claiming it the only way she will forgive him for his treachery and disloyalty. Both Simpson and Taylor (the two truly outstanding performers) are members of Iford Arts New Generation Artists Programme 2018, while this production draws on the expertise of conductor and harpsichordist Christoper Bucknall, founder of 17th and 18th century music ensemble Contraband, who led the authentic orchestra featuring the impressive and rarely seen theorbo lute (Alex McCartney).
The thrills and trills of the unusually short arias and trademark Handel recitative were meanwhile enhanced by Christopher Cowell’s excellent characterisation, energetic direction and witty interpretation, alongside flamboyant Italianate costumes and a Neopolitan palazzo set by Holly Pigott. It never ceases to amaze me how the cloisters can lend itself to any imaginable setting from Scotland and Paris to the Wild West, whilst making the audience feel almost voyeuristic on peering through the columns to view the action. Sung in English, regardless of the language, every Handel opera could be said to be something of an olympic games in terms of technicality and the cast were under phenomenal strain given the weather conditions and a humid, non-air-conditioned venue, yet they showed no sign of fluster, with each singer delivering both impeccable acting and vocals.
I mean, what more could you ask for when Partenope features cross dressing, a battle and a fencing duel, along with romantic misunderstandings and altercations galore? It’s a true 18th century tease. Baritone Brendan Collins as Partenope’s aide-de-camp Ormonte is brilliantly witty, not least when addressing the crowd directly. The aria “Too Hot to Handle” (or should it be Handel?), was just one of several other unanimous chuckles of delight given by an appreciative audience, somehow managing to fan themselves and applaud between scenes.
Loyal fans of Iford Arts are waiting with baited breath for the team to announce where future seasons will be held, for Iford Manor, which is sadly relinquishing its mantle as the star of the show, is going to take some beating. That said, Iford Arts is bigger than the sum of its parts and anyone who had the foresight to think of staging an opera festival in such a unique, characterful space will undoubtedly find a spot beyond our wildest dreams and fitting of Handel, Verdi, Mozart and all the opera greats put together.
The Iford Arts production of Partenope continues at Iford Manor on 3 & 4 July 2018. Running time 3 hours including an interval. Production images by Mitzi de Margary Photography. Future opera productions this season include Madame Butterfly on select dates from 21 July and 4 August 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.