Iford is quite possibly one of the most beautiful garden opera experiences in England. It must also be, surely, one of the most intimate. The delicate cloister seats only 88 people; the furthest back you’ll ever be is the fourth row. We gaze through lovely twin-pillared arches to the central playing space, almost in the round. A small orchestra (for La rondine, the CHROMA Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Oliver Gooch) shares one side with us. And, as the action unfurls around a stone basin in an ivied courtyard, La rondine takes on genuinely three-dimensional shape: Hazel Gold’s elegant choreography of waiters, courtesans and the principals themselves draws us into the story as if we were spectators and eavesdroppers on real life.

Ilona Domnich (Magda) © Rob Coles
Ilona Domnich (Magda)
© Rob Coles

The libretto (sung in Robert Hess’ English translation) can occasionally be hard to catch, but generally comes across well. From the opening party at Magda’s house, all fairylights and champagne, to the sultry Paris dive where students are later discovered toasting new-found love in absinthe, the scene adapts mainly through props, lighting (Charlie Lucas), stunning period costumes and deft styling: Emma Wee’s design respects the cloister at all times, yet makes the most of it.

La rondine is no “poor cousin” Puccini: it is a symphony of self-deception and conscious seduction, in very modern mode. As it gets ever harder for a modern audience to accept the social framework behind La traviata, it becomes conversely easier to believe La rondine, almost post-romantic in its obsessive dissection of romance as a delusion, a demon, or a coldly practical choice. The opera’s compromised, yet nostalgic moral outlook fits our time; the plot, misunderstood for many years and a source of agony to Puccini, who revised it repeatedly, works today. Director Ben Occhipinti presides over this Venn diagram of inclination, need and lust with intelligence and precision.

At its heart is Magda, played by Ilona Domnich as a sensuous, elegant woman with plenty of mystery and conspiratorial charm (inspired in Occhipinti’s production by the outrageous Marchesa Luisa Casati). A magnetic presence, Domnich sings with passion and skilled lyricism. She uses the power of stillness to suggest a character with a rich internal life living out her ultimate fantasy, balanced with the kinetic energy of a consummate actress who almost fools herself into believing her assumed role. An expert seducer consciously allowing herself to be seduced, Magda uses Ruggero to fall in love with love again. There is something both touchingly desperate and coldly deliberate about the way Magda pursues him; yet, when her fantasy threatens to become reality, the complexity of her sorrow is truly moving. Magda plays with fire, and does not escape unscorched; we both love and pity Domnich. Puccini’s wonderful catalyst for his finale, the letter of congratulation (from Ruggero’s mother), is agonisingly cruel, as are the bells that chime softly in the background as Ruggero hopelessly begs Magda to stay: bells are the ultimate Italian emotional shorthand for homecoming, campanilismo, which Ruggero represents, but which Magda cannot endure.

Ilona Domnich (Magda), Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson (Lisette) and Christopher Turner (Prunier) © Rob Coles
Ilona Domnich (Magda), Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson (Lisette) and Christopher Turner (Prunier)
© Rob Coles

As Ruggero, James Edwards is smooth and strong on all his notes, singing with superb accuracy. Sincere and straightforward, with just a hint of the prude, Edwards makes a perfect foil to Domnich’s tantalising siren. Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson is a brilliant Lisette, with wonderful projection, cheeky characterisation and strong stage presence. Jenkins-Róbertsson gives us some spinetingling high notes, and also acts adeptly, hilarious when playing drunk. Christopher Turner’s witty, warm-toned philosopher Prunier forms her ideal counterpoint, and the sheer joy of Lisette and Prunier’s love scenes (which often begin or end in argument) sees Puccini at his most playful and beguiling. Like a more extreme version of Musetta and Marcello, Lisette and Prunier illuminate another side to love.

Charles Johnston is the very image of a successful social elder statesman as Rambaldo, observing Magda’s deliriously beautiful “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” aria with scepticism, anxiety and suspicion. Johnston’s baritone is fabulously full, clear and rounded. The smaller female roles are prettily drawn by Katherine Aitken, Sarah Richmond and Celena Bridge, who has a particularly exquisite little aria, “Nella trepida luce”, just before the close of Act II. The young bucks in the club are also delightful (Adam Gilbert and Gitai Fisher). Sparkles from the harp added a glittering edge to the score.

Iford’s garden itself, on a steep hillside, is an Italianate series of slim terraces which just beg to be explored, picnic in hand, offering new views at every turn: here a Japanese garden, there a sculpture, a new view of the valley, a tiny hidden woodland glade. The cloister itself was built by Harold Peto in 1914, when he carved into a lintel the evocative inscription, “The Haunt of Ancient Peace.” Even as world war was brewing, Iford was a place of magical seclusion: as an intimate, special, unforgettable setting for small-scale opera today, it takes some beating. 

****1