Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Creation @ Garsington Opera, Wormsley

14 - 17 July 2016

(Photo: Johan Persson)

(Photo: Johan Persson)

Garsington Opera has teamed up with the Rambert Dance Company to stage The Creation and the results are extremely impressive. The latter’s artistic director Mark Baldwin was adamant that Haydn’s music already painted the necessary pictures, and so the dancing could not simply illustrate the text. As a result, the choreography complements the piece primarily by bringing further layers of movement to the music, although this is done in a variety of ways across the evening.

The stage is dominated by Pablo Bronstein’s huge Gothic screen, representing eighteenth century Gothic, but that is entirely in keeping with the moment when the work premiered in 1798. The screen’s natural entrances and arches ensure that things behind it can be seen, enabling the orchestra to sit directly behind it with conductor Douglas Boyd being framed by the central arch. The chorus sit in two galleries made out to look like cathedral choirs and these are visible through the larger side arches. The soloists sit behind the screen and come to one of the arches on either side of the conductor to sing.

This leaves a large central area in front in which 57 dancers of Rambert and Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance play out the oratorio. They are decked out in black or shiny lavender, with white ruffs and other ‘cotton wool’ features vying with green and silver make-up and bright lipstick. If it is hardly a literal rendering of the Gothic style, there are enough in these costumes to make them feel an affinity with the ornate backdrop. The movement is exceptionally skilful, and frequently playful. The ‘drama’ is played out in a variety of ways, but throughout the dancing fits the shape and rhythms of the music well, while reactions can arise from single notes or words, even if they do not reveal literal responses to what has just been uttered.

Sometimes the dancers simply emphasise the drama so that as the immortal words ‘and there was light’ (the oratorio is sung in English using Paul McCreesh’s version) are uttered, they rush to confront us en masse. Even, however, when actions might seem to follow the text literally some twist is applied. For example, as the darkness is cast out three dancers reveal this with the shielding and uncovering of eyes, but this gesture is only one part of a far greater structure and dynamic that they generate by all being at different heights.

(Photo: Johan Persson)

(Photo: Johan Persson)

When Raphael sings ‘And God made the firmament’ the utterances of ‘thunders on high’, ‘showers of rain’ and ‘light and flaky snow’ are all responded to, but it is usually the movement in the music that follows each that is encapsulated, and not the specific weather description. In ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ the number of dancers generally decreases as the aria moves from a ‘boisterous sea’ to a ‘limpid brook’.

Dancers can appear in twos, threes or groups of varying sizes, and arias can move from solos to mass dances in an instant, or see sub-groups do different things at the same time. Some of the dancing can also seem counter-intuitive in that often the most rousing choruses begin by featuring the slowest movement, but this is clearly deliberate on Baldwin’s part. It is not only that the dancing needs to take less strain when the music is so overwhelming, but that these represent occasions when its contribution has to be something other than providing further power. In many cases, choruses that begin in this ‘silent’ way do build up more dynamism, but the ‘creeping’ and ‘slow motion’ movements to be found in some of them are very important. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ begins (and ends) with just two dancers, although it is noticeable that ‘chains’ of four or five people who act in tandem soon appear.

Mark Henderson’s lighting is excellent, with some light coming from behind so that the Gothic screen creates a beautiful pattern on the stage. Because the lighting alters throughout, however, so too does the shadow so that during ‘The Representation of Chaos’ there is a filigree pattern centre-stage that a lone dancer appears to dissolve in as he moves. Elsewhere, emotions are revealed that feel universal rather than responses to the specific text. For example, at ‘In brightest splendour rises now the sun’ a group of dancers reveal a sense of wonder as they gaze on a ‘happy couple’. Similarly, when we reach ‘Adam and Eve in Eden’ we see several couples form in turn, but the unique gestures, actions and traits of each would seem to reveal more about these specific partnerships than the original couple.  

The Garsington Opera Chorus produces both a balanced and rousing sound, while the orchestra similarly offers precise playing that can display lightness or exuberance as required. The soloists – Sarah Tynan as Gabriel and Eve, James Gilchrist as Uriel and Neal Davies as Raphael and Adam – are all models of consistency, but while the beauty of their voices does come through, the staging does not enable them to shine in the way that they normally would. This is not necessarily a problem as it is still a relatively modern idea to see the soloists as the stars. In this respect, this presentation may be moving closer to Haydn’s day in the sense of seeing them as serving something far greater. It is true, however, that the introduction of dancing does affect the way in which we receive the entire oratorio, and so this performance may not be for people who wish to engage specifically with the music, rather than with the overall experience.

It is possible to ask, when the dancing is predominantly abstract, how much a complementary stream of abstract movement adds to what is already there, and it is equally possible to provide answers. As much as anything, it transforms an already great oratorio into an experience that ideally complements an afternoon of dressing up, picnicking and enjoying the sun in the most beautiful of surroundings. Different things work for summer operas than would for performances in the heart of a city, and that is why we love them.

buy Sarah Tynan MP3s or CDs
Spotify Sarah Tynan on Spotify

More on Sarah Tynan
The Turn Of The Screw @ Grand Theatre, Leeds
Il turco in Italia @ Garsington Opera, Wormsley
The Creation @ Garsington Opera, Wormsley
Idomeneo @ Coliseum, London
Interview: Sarah Tynan