There is something pleasurably straining, for the big-hall, velvet-accustomed operagoer, about the experience of sitting for three hours on a very tiny bench in a charmingly chiselled, candlelit little theatre that invites contemplation in its own right – beyond the attractions, musical and other, set up within its frame. The strain is both physical and intellectual: the somewhat uncomfortable posture disrupts any (modern) absorption into the fictional world represented on stage; the small size of the playhouse and the proximity of the performers and other members of the audience call attention to the physicality of the performance – by spotlighting the smallest of details; enhancing the perception of glances, hints and hesitations that make both performers and listeners "alive". Such are the proceedings of my own experience of Francesco Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the recently inaugurated Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in the first co-production, directed by Kasper Holten, between the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe.

Cavalli’s favola regia per musica, set to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini, was premièred in 1644 at the newly-established and first European commercial opera house: the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice (opened in 1637). The opera – an engaging mixture of both serious and comic elements – is set in ancient Anfa (modern-day Casablanca) and revolves around the love affairs and vicissitudes of two couples: Ormindo and Erisbe, and Amidas and Sicle. Although initially in love with the same woman (Erisbe, married to the old King Ariadenus), the two men finally discover (or rediscover) their soul mates: Ormindo, who turns out to be Ariadenus’s lost son, is united to Erisbe, while Amidas’s affection for his jilted lover Sicle is reawakened. Throughout, other characters, both human and allegorical (Music, Love or Destiny), intervene as catalysts of the action – and, much to the audience’s delight, as stirrers of irresistibly witty effects.  

Holten’s production makes the most of the resources and peculiarities of the newly-built replica Jacobean theatre. The opera is sung in English, which, if regrettable from some points of view, appears the only choice possible (one could have hardly fit subtitles on a screen); what’s more, it also grants better opportunities to get across subtle nuances of the text. But it’s not only the choice of the language that makes for a particular underscoring of the words: it’s also the labour in recitation, the singers’ ability in dispatching their lines purposefully and with unfailing acting finesse that return us to a more ‘theatrical’, less singing-focused operatic experience. Indeed, if this is one of the aims of the new ROH-Globe collaboration for early opera, it may well, in the future, be worth rethinking other repertory – why not? – within smaller venues too (though maybe not quite as small as this).

The cast, mostly young singers, all gave superb performances. Samuel Boden and Ed Lyon competed with each other in vocal and dramatic characterisation in their respective roles: the dreamy Ormindo and the sensual Amidas. Susanna Hurrell and Joélle Harvey were both outstanding as Erisbe and Sicle, the latter delivering some moments of truly touching beauty with her singing. Everybody else was equally awesome, with tenor Harry Nicoll in particular giving a memorable performance as the old nurse Eryka. Visual charm was provided aplenty by the imaginative, colourful costume designs by Anja Vang Kragh, while Christian Curnyn’s musical direction – at the head of his eight-strong ensemble from the Early Opera Company – further lit up an already magical venue and evening.