Although there is no historical record to reveal if Monteverdi ever performed his Vespers of 1610 in Venice, if we take its Basilica di San Marco as the ideal setting for such a creation, then Garsington Opera does a fine job of capturing the spirit of that place in its own unique way. While the basilica is a dark, mysterious place full of Byzantine splendour, Garsington’s opera house is extremely open to the light. PJ Harris’ concert staging plays on this to create a setting that emulates San Marco in terms of enabling parts of the work to be sung from all over the venue, while also ensuring that the aesthetic remains appropriate for the space by focusing on simplicity and refinement.
In this way, two large wooden panelled boxes stand behind the orchestra, which occupies the main stage, with singers proclaiming their messages from the top of them. In front of these is a long semi-circular platform that is generally occupied by the chorus so that during ‘Dixit Dominus’ the two soprano soloists, sisters Sophie and Mary Bevan, each stand in a box as their voices interact with those of the people below. The effect is completed by candles in black and gold holders also gracing the platform.
The evening begins with the conductor Laurence Cummings singing the first line ‘Deus in adiutorum meum intende’, and (quite deliberately) taking the audience by surprise that the performance has actually started as no singers seem to be in place. This, however, is part of the effect as they all process on from different parts of the auditorium during ‘Domine ad adiuvandum me festina’ and the lines that follow. In this way, the tone is set for the evening as people frequently perform from the boxes or various points in the auditorium as well as the main stage. For example, ‘Sancta Maria’ sees the various soloists (most of whom are from the chorus) appear in a variety of these positions, while ‘Audi coelum’ sees Benjamin Hulett sing on the main stage with one theorbo as James Way and the other theorbo respond to him from the back of the auditorium.
The movement that this requires from everyone is slick, and one can appreciate the thought that went into positioning people. For example, when the chorus are dominant in a section they occupy the entire semi-circle, but if they are mainly responding to the soloists in the boxes above they tend only to grace the two sides of it. The evening also does not feel too dynamic because the more intimate moments are presented quite simply, with Robert Murray singing ‘Nigra sum’ from the front of the stage. Surtitles are projected in both English and Latin on the back wall, which also comprises wooden panelling, and at one point this opens to enable the chorus to come through it surrounded by smoke that signifies incense.
The line-up of soloists is very strong, and if each naturally sounds good on their own, some of the finest moments come when they sing together since their voices blend so beautifully. In this way, Murray and Hulett sing ‘Duo Seraphim’ extremely sensitively from the front of the stage, with Way then joining them from behind the orchestra to make things even more moving.
Enunciation is strong across the board, and the attention to detail from soloists and chorus alike is frequently stunning. In particular, the precision demonstrated in rendering repeated vowel sounds, such as Sophie Bevan’s capturing of the ‘i’ in ‘ipsi’ during ‘Pulchra es’, is exquisite. The orchestra, comprising The English Concert and The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, reveals equally high levels of accuracy, and the overall beauty of its sound is outstanding. Particularly fine playing comes from the sackbuts of Emily White, Tom Lees and Adrian France, and during the ‘Magnificat’ one of the men turns to face the audience while the other turns his back to it so that it really sounds as if the second is ‘echoing’ the first.
Garsington Opera’s 2020 season runs from 28 May to 18 July. For further details of its productions visit the designated website.