Triumph for the double production of the Longborough festival

Opera song

THERE was something unfamiliar about Longborough Festival Opera’s final production of the 2022 season with its double bill of ancient and modern. But the result was simply sensational.

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

It began with a 35-minute avant-garde musical drama called Spell Book, composed by Freya Waley-Cohen from text by Rebecca Tamás, and ended 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 the two works was the power of women – in this specific context, witches and the spells they can weave – and the effect created on the Longborough scene was captivating.

The conductor and arranger of these two productions was the 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 full of intrigue and uncertainty driven by the power of female sexual liberation. Not to overstate it, the result was sexy, as well as chic.

The instrumental accompaniment for both performances was an excellent chamber ensemble called Chroma, consisting of a flautist, a clarinetist, two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a double bass player.

Spell Book opened with the “Spell for Lilith” sung by 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 subject to Adam. God said, “You can either come back and submit to us, or you can be a devil forever.”

Lilith chose to be a demon, giving her freedom but immortalizing her in Western culture as the first archetype of the demon, and an example of what can happen to disobedient women everywhere (in earlier eras, no doubt…) .

The song cycle continues with five more 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 score places significant demands on the singers’ vocal range and the talent displayed at Longborough gave an indication of the youthful brilliance that surrounds us. (The Double Bill was staged as part of the festival’s regular emerging artists program.)

After the 90-minute dinner interval came Caccini’s 90-minute opera. We understand 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 loyal Ruggiero (baritone Oskar McCarthy) away from his wife.

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

The entire production was rich in color, eroticism and pure style – as well as haunting music. Yet another triumph for Longborough.