The list of musical works by that arch-genius ‘Anon’ really must go on anon anon. This particular offering was discovered in Venice’s Marchiana Library back in 2003 and so far the actual composer’s identity remains unclear, though Naomi Matsumoto in her programme notes suggests the possibility of Giovanni Sances. With no performance date offered or known for L’ospedale, it’s all up for grabs in the dating game, the wide timescale being anywhere from 1640-1660, though I veer towards the earlier dates. It’s a short piece that in this performance was padded out with two madrigals by Gesualdo, an enjoyable if slightly anachronistic choice considering that the later of the two chosen form part of his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1611, a good 30 years before a likely performance of L’ospedale: much had changed between. It’s a bit like hearing “Possente spirto” transported to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.
Any musical performance in such a fun and quirky venue as Wilton’s Music Hall is welcome and one could only wish that the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse could have been the size of Wilton’s to make it a most perfect venue. Director James Hurley set the hospital in the now familiar concept of a dystopian future in a world gone mad. So far so fringe. Lighting by Ben Pickersgill edged towards overly dark and dismal and much use of smoke effects. Piles of abandoned orange sacks littered the backstage area whilst the main action took place with audience placed around a hospital cubicle. As one character entered and was admitted to the hospital, his clothes were placed within a new sack, only for this to be thrown along with the others – a sad, melancholy image of the inhumanity that infiltrates the world today.
The plot such as it is has four patients with differing maladies waiting for a doctor to arrive. When he does, his remedies are so inept that the afflicted take matters into their own hands. It’s a satire on the avarice of the medical profession with overtones of Waiting for Godot but equally biting at the hypochondria of those able to afford the luxury of personal care: the one character who is told his case is incurable is the poor man who is unable to pay for a quack remedy. Acting as prologue and epilogue, a voiceover of a ministerial announcement told of the need to cut down on health costs and further political verbiage about long-term solutions and the collective responsibility of a Big Society. The epilogue had the minister returning to announce he felt that in the face of the sterling work of doctors he had to step down from his post. It was all rather pointed, though how much attention a stereotypical Conservative opera audience would have taken of this message is debatable. Despite a lot of the humour within the piece, it was all taken far too seriously without taking into consideration the self-indulgence of the maladies being suffered.
Beneath the voiceover of the minster promising reforms and cuts we were treated to a well-intoned rendition of the first of the Gesualdo madrigals, “Io tacerò”, its plangent harmonies beautifully executed by the cast. With the many choral interjections, the piece didn’t feel particularly Venetian, even though discovered there, but that it was found there is no indication of its source city of composition. As Cortigiano, Thomas Herford was a nervous and tremulous character, the character being updated from being unable to cope with the intrigues of court to being unable to deal with workplace politics in the City. As with all the roles there was little material to experience; the whole performance, including the meaningful silences that opened the work, took place within 60 minutes, but as with the other performers, he was secure and projected an elegant tone. His aria curiously contain suggestions of L’incoronazione di Poppea and Arnalta’s cries of “Corri, corri”.
The hospital worker of Lucy Page showed a clear and light tone, though there were some signs of straining at the top of her range during “Mercè, grido piangendo”. As the lovelorn Innamorato Rebecca Moon displayed a smooth legato line in what was possibly the highlight of the evening, a drawn out lament that would not have sounded out of place in a Cavalli opera and with rhetoric that had echoes of Ottone’s aria in Poppea. From the words being sung and with references to ‘her’ being the character’s abuser, I suppose the role was originally a castrato role but the change of gender worked well. The beauty and serious nature of the lament was nicely deflated by the doctor’s remedy which was of the ‘pull yourself together’ variety and advice not to be such a rampart stalker.
Michal Czerniawski played il matto, the madman, convincingly, flitting between lucidity and insanity before being restrained, cackling happily during his aria. Providing strong support at the lower end of the vocal range, Nicholas Merryweather provided the voice of reason, his malady being less mental instability than material insecurity. Technically sound, he created a strong presence for the other characters as they all come to the honest realisation that they’re all skint so need to get on with things.
If there was little in the way of solo moments to really grapple with, the ensemble work from the singers was formidable, singing the madrigals especially well but also making regular well-timed group interjections. Less successful was the rather liberal reinterpretation of the libretto: sung in Italian the surtitles often didn’t fully convey what was being sung as various changes creeping in to support the director’s concept rather than their actual meaning, all of which contributed to this being a slightly overthought production.
Making up for this was some fine playing by members of Solomon’s Knot who I hope will go on to introduce other early operas into their repertoire. With just a few continuo players involved, there was still a gutsiness to the performance that was a pleasure to hear, providing excellent support during Innamorato’s lament and relishing the many ostinati moments in other places. It would have been preferable to hear them more that the voiceover that concluded the work and which drowned them out but this was a fine musical performance with much to enjoy.
(Photos : Robert Workman)