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Triumph for Longborough's festival double bill production

THERE was something of an unknown quantity about Longborough Festival Opera’s final production of the 2022 season with its double bill of ancient and modern. But the result was nothing short of sensational.

The performance of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (58377247)
The performance of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis (58377247)

It began with a 35-minute avant-garde music drama called Spell Book, composed by Freya Waley-Cohen from a text by Rebecca Tamás, and concluded with the first known opera by a woman, Francesca Caccini (1587-after 1641), which had its world premiere in Florence in 1625. Caccini’s opera was called La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina). The theme linking both works was the power of women – in this specific context witches, and the spells they can weave – and the effect created on the stage at Longborough was riveting.

The conductor and arranger of these two productions was the multi-talented Yshani Perinpanayagam.

Along with director Jenny Ogilvie, designer April Dalton, lighting designer Jake Wiltshire and a cast of great voices, she managed to create an atmosphere thick with intrigue and uncertainty driven by the power of female sexual liberation. Not to put too fine a point on it, the outcome was sexy, as well as classy.

Providing the instrumental accompaniment for both performances was an excellent chamber ensemble called Chroma, consisting of a flautist, a clarinettist, two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a double bassist.

Spell Book opened with the “Spell for Lilith” sung by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond. In early Jewish folklore and some Babylonian texts, Lilith was the first woman, not Eve. In this story Lilith left the Garden of Eden because she refused to be subservient to Adam. God said: “You can either come back and submit to us, or you can be a demon forever.”

Lilith chose to be a demon, giving her freedom but immortalising her in Western culture as the first archetypal she-demon, and an example of what can happen to disobedient women everywhere (in previous ages, no doubt…).

The song cycle continues with a further five spells – for Sex, Logic, Women’s Books, Joy and Reality – sung (respectively) by mezzo-soprano Annabel Kennedy, Sarah Richmond, soprano Nia Coleman, countertenor Keith Pun and soprano Jessica Robinson.

Waley-Cohen’s scoring makes significant demands on the vocal range of the singers and the talent on display at Longborough gave some indication of how much youthful brilliance there is around us. (The double bill was staged as part of the festival’s regular Emerging Artist programme.)

After the 90-minute dinner interval came the 90-minute opera by Caccini. One can see why this pairing was made, because of the obvious recognition of female power. Alcina – played by mezzo-soprano Lauren Joyanne Morris – is an enchantress who seduces the otherwise faithful Ruggiero (baritone Oskar McCarthy) away from his wife.

Ruggiero remains under Alcina’s spell until he – and the other captives on her island – are released by the virtuous sorceress Melissa (played by the mezzo-soprano Simone Ibbett-Brown.)

The whole production was lush in colour, eroticism and sheer style – as well as mesmerising music. Yet another triumph for Longborough.

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