Constructed as a Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect venue for displaying 17th century works. Having opened in January it has already presented relevant plays such as John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Francesco Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, however, sees its first sojourn into 17th century opera in a co-production between Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Opera.
Cavalli was an Italian genius who in his lifetime composed 41 operas in the Baroque style, although 14 of these are now lost. Set in ancient times, L’Ormindo of 1644 sees two princes, Ormindo and Amidas, seek the love of Queen Erisbe of Anfa. This is in spite of the fact that Amidas is betrothed to Princess Sicle, and Erisbe is married to King Ariadenus. Needless to say, shenanigans ensue, but things begin to resolve when Amidas realises he really does love Sicle after she fakes her death and pretends to appear to him as a ghost. Meanwhile, the King orders Ormindo and Erisbe to be poisoned but, after it transpires that the deadly substance was substituted for a sleeping potion and that Ormindo is actually his son, he endorses their marriage and gives them his kingdom.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse proves the perfect setting for the piece. It provides an intimate setting that sees many of the audience seated inches from the action, and no-one exactly far from it. The superb Early Opera Company orchestra, led by Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, is naturally positioned in the musician’s gallery from where its sound radiates out across the space.
Although Kasper Holten’s production is highly dynamic there is no attempt to introduce lavish scenery and the theatre’s infrastructure is exploited to the full. The figures of ‘Music’ and ‘Destiny’ descend on strings from the roof at the start of Acts One and Two, singing all the while. There are also good, but never excessive, interactions with the audience, which feel highly fitting as many of the arias present a dilemma that naturally assumes someone is listening to the question being posed. The playhouse is candlelit with varying numbers being used in different scenes to affect the mood. The scene in which the candles are extinguished one by one as Ormindo and Erisbe ‘die’ proves particularly atmospheric.
But it is the music that really sends tingles down the spine, and this production is blessed with an excellent cast to bring it out to the full. From the graceful tenor sound of Samuel Boden’s Ormindo to the brilliant bass of Graeme Broadbent’s Ariadenus, through Ed Lyon’s powerful Amidas, Susanna Hurrell’s exquisite Erisbe and Joélle Harvey’s vibrant Sicle, we are treated to some stunning performances. Add in such a perfect setting and this production must surely rank as unmissable.
Until 12 April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT with a start time of 7.30pm. For tickets (£10-£100) visit the Shakespeare’s Globe website. This production of L'Ormindo will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.15pm on 14 April. Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the Shakespeare's Globe/Royal Opera press teams.