Longborough double bill


The Spell Book / La Liberazione di Ruggiero
Longborough Festival Opera,****

In the deathless words of Nigel Tufnell, what's wrong with being sexy? Jennie Ogilvie's Longborough production of Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero (1625) places the sorceress Alcina (Lauren Joyanne Morris) and her toyboy Ruggiero (Oskar McCarthy) on a pink, high-kitsch Love Island. And once you overlook Alcina's penchant for transforming people into rubber plants, they're clearly having the time of their lives - lolling around in their candy-coloured smalls, attended by sexually-ambiguous trolley-dollies with Michael Fabricant hairpieces. Ruggiero's wife Bradamante (Simone Ibbett-Brown) is having none of it, and the plot of the opera concerns her grim-faced mission to slap Alcina down, and force Ruggiero to put his kecks back on and get back to killing people, like a proper man.

And there you have it: the first known opera in the western repertoire to be composed by a woman. Longborough's end-of-season Emerging Artist shows are usually a lot of fun, and this was no exception: a spirited, stylish rendering of Caccini's light-footed drama performed by a first-rate cast. Morris was captivating in every sense, singing in silvery, caressing phrases. Ibbett-Brown handed down her moral judgements with an august, wide-grained mezzo, streaked with just enough pain to give the drama some stakes. It's hardly McCarthy's fault that Ruggiero cuts a less compelling figure, musically, but he sang with languid charm while spending much of the evening in nothing but his boxers.

The rest of the company squeezed warm colours out of Caccini's succulent choral harmonies: Keith Pun, a high countertenor with a piercing, plangent tone, is one to watch. And respect, too, to conductor / arranger Yshani Perinpanayagam, who re-orchestrated Caccini's original for the modern instruments of the chamber ensemble Chroma - adding bass-powered heft to courtly ceremonial, using the harpsichord to scatter stardust and generally giving the whole thing a buff, sensual physicality that was wholly in keeping with the plot, and which finally broke loose into all-out disco. (Seriously: Ruggiero sang a Barry White number). The audience loved it.

The same forces had opened the evening with a semi-staged performance of Freya Waley-Cohen's 2020 song-cycle The Spell Book, in keeping with the overall theme of sexually-charged witchery. Singers and instrumentalists fidgeted on the floor, daubed bloody scraps of text on a huge paper backdrop and danced under bright orange lights. It was a bold if faintly baffling visualisation of a piece which probably didn't need staging: the sheer inventiveness of Waley-Cohen's wonderfully tactile sonorities said it all, especially when performed by this team (Sarah Richmond's strobe-light mezzo in the first Spell would be a knockout opening to any show). But it's good to hear music by a living composer at Longborough. It felt like a real celebration, at the end of a season that's been little short of heroic.

Richard Bratby

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