The pandemic forced Waterperry Opera Festival to postpone its planned schedule until next summer. Instead they are offering this “2020 Mini-Festival” of two works; Jonathan Dove’s Ariel and Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The opera was semi-staged in front of the imposing façade of Waterperry House, with the audience within socially-distanced “pods” – circles painted on the grass – spread over a substantial part of the front lawn. This setup necessitated some amplification for the singers, which at least resulted in audibility wherever people sat. Inevitable elements of a concert performance included singers’ music stands and scores, since there was so little time for everyone to get together and prepare. In these circumstances, this presentation was something of a triumph.

Damian Arnold (Ferrando) and Nicholas Morton (Guglielmo)
© Waterperry Opera Festival

The singers were uniformly persuasive in their roles, musically and histrionically. Our two male officers were nicely contrasted. The Ferrando (Damian Arnold) was a frustrated rock star with some flamboyant dance moves, and an impressive tenor voice. That taxing aria “Un aura amorosa” was given with real feeling for its line and mood. His buddy Guglielmo (Nicholas Morton) was another cocky young blade, firm of voice and enjoyably comic in demeanour. As Albanians they transformed into builders (dungarees and hard hats being easily sourced costumes) and had fun displaying their assets to the ladies.

Zoe Drummond (Despina), Isabelle Peters (Fiordiligi) and Beth Moxon (Dorabella)
© Waterperry Opera Festival

The Don Alfonso of Oskar McCarthy was the local vicar, perhaps unlikely for a cynical Lord of Misrule manipulating youngsters, despite his sermonising about woman’s fickleness. He sang with the authority the role requires however, despite being a bit louder than his colleagues at the start of “Soave sia il vento”. Zoe Drummond’s Despina made a delightful collaborator in his schemes, as herself and in her medical and legal personae. Beth Moxon’s malleable Dorabella was as homely in manner as Isabelle Peters’ stern Fiordiligi was sparky. The latter was perhaps the finest singer on display in her accomplished solo numbers, despite the demands they make.

Oskar McCarthy (Don Alfonso)
© Waterperry Opera Festival

The direction of Guy Withers made much of the sillier parts of the plot, and his English version was often wittier than this text usually is in translation. Up-to-the-minute too, as in such a couplet as “Though you’ve broken my resistance/I must keep my social distance”. Bertie Baigent conducted with great flair and energy, and played the harpsichord for the recitatives. He somehow kept the ensemble very tight, even in the swift ensembles, although the physical arrangements often denied him line of sight to his singers. His instrumentalists responded expertly throughout. There was no chorus (hardly a big loss, this isn’t Die Meistersinger) and the small ensemble (piano, string quartet, oboe and bassoon) was surprisingly effective. In fact, the constraints and compromises forced into being a new experience – with a cast of six and orchestra of seven, Waterperry Opera treated us to a new chamber opera, and one with music by Mozart.

Ariel: Daniella Sicari
© Waterperry Opera Festival

However those were indulgent resources compared to the other piece in this Mini-Festival, Jonathan Dove’s brilliant Ariel, for one unaccompanied soprano, the text all from Ariel’s role in The Tempest. More monodrama than song-cycle, and initially conceived for dramatic presentation, this performance in Waterperry’s rose garden by Daniella Sicari, directed by Rebecca Meltzer, was captivating. Garbed in the flotsam of a beachcomber, Sicari both sang and acted with consummate conviction, and her very clear diction drew us into this fascinating conception of Ariel’s post-Prospero existence. This was much more than a curtain-raiser. A real tempest was forecast, and later threatened the Mozart. But the interval was shortened, Baigent kept the score fizzing along, and only as we drove away did the rains come. Despite the dodgy vicar, someone up there likes Waterperry opera.

Note from editor: Following a correspondence from a reader, we changed the adjective "exotic" to "sparky" to describe Isabelle Peters' portrayal of the character Fiordiligi. We acknowledge the word used is problematic, particularly in the light of the ongoing dialogue surrounding the experiences of BAME performers. We apologise for any unintended offence caused.