I chose to visit Garsington Opera at Wormsley for this joint venture between Garsington and Rambert Dance Company on the same evening that Ben Duke’s award-winning Paradise Lost [lies unopened beside me] was enjoying a revival at Wilton’s Music Hall. Both works have their origin in Milton’s text; although Duke depicts The Creation all on his own, whereas the Garsington performance of Haydn’s oratorio engaged over 130 performers, more than 50 of whom were dancers, either from the company or the Rambert School.

Joshua Barwick (dancer), James Gilchrist (soloist), Douglas Boyd (conductor), <i>The Creation</i> © Johan Persson
Joshua Barwick (dancer), James Gilchrist (soloist), Douglas Boyd (conductor), The Creation
© Johan Persson

While Duke’s solo is a tour de force, I am glad to have opted for this unique event at Garsington. Whilst I would never set myself up as a classical music critic, I have the small experience of having once performed in Haydn’s oratorio, more than four decades ago, at the Bedford Corn Exchange; memories of which came flooding back on a clear summer’s evening in the Chiltern Hills! From that very limited perspective, I will say only that the performance of the Garsington Opera and Chorus seemed exceptionally good. The orchestra was partly hidden behind an extraordinary gothic façade, clearly a two-dimensional elevation but nonetheless imposing; the work of Argentine artist, Pablo Bronstein (currently causing a stir with his Historical Dances in an Antique Setting at the Tate Britain). His architectural sketches of imagined buildings are often influenced by baroque but the style of this section dates to a much later era than Haydn’s music. Nonetheless, it works both visually and as a distinctive boundary to separate musicians and dancers.

The chorus sat above and behind the orchestra on raised platforms; and the soloists sang through the archways in the walls of Bronstein’s gothic “Abbey”. The text was eloquently sung and clearly articulated, with purposeful expression, by Neal Davies (bass-baritone, representing both Adam and the archangel, Raphael), James Gilchrist (tenor, as archangel Uriel) and the elegant soprano, Sarah Tynan, as both Gabriel and Eve.

Taking on The Creation in choreography, both as a narrative concept and in terms of visualising Haydn’s music, is an almighty challenge. And, Mark Baldwin is perhaps better-placed than most to take it on. He has regularly choreographed movement on “creatures” or elemental forces, vide his recent work for the African ballet, Inala and Rambert’s The Strange Charm of Mother Nature. His South Seas background (born in Fiji, educated in New Zealand) infuses a neo-classical choreographic language with movement that is often focused on the hips, the weight thrust down onto bent knees, allowing flex and spring in jumps that seem to float without effort. Baldwin’s approach to the narrative largely eschewed literal references to the text, appearing to be more concerned with the fluid patterns of musicality, rather than the narrative intent of the sung words. There was an ebb and flow to the juxtaposition of his lines of bodies that brought to mind the elegance of ensemble musicality by Mark Morris and – closer to home – Richard Alston. The style of Baldwin’s movement seemed to fit the period of transition from baroque artistry into the age of enlightenment, which neatly dovetailed into the era and style of Haydn’s music, if not the gothic imagery of Bronstein’s set.

Lucy Balfour, Luke Ahmet (dancers), <i>The Creation</i> © Johan Persson
Lucy Balfour, Luke Ahmet (dancers), The Creation
© Johan Persson

The Creation must be Baldwin’s largest-scale choreography, to date. More than fifty dancers are engaged in two discrete groups: the first being most of the members of the professional company at Rambert, dressed in variations on a grey-costumed theme; then there are a larger group of dancers from the Rambert School, dressed in skin-tight black bodysuits with a white ruff. It’s a work where the number of dancers need not be the same for each performance; and it seemed that there was at least one of the credited dancers missing from this line-up. Several of the professional dancers shone in brief solos and duets, notably in charismatic cameos by Hannah Rudd, Simone Damberg Würtz and Patricia Okenwa; the strength of expression in the work of Pierre Tappon and Daniel Davidson; and the tall and aristocratic presence of Joshua Barwick – a real find for Rambert. However, it is a credit to the younger dancers from the School that there was no notable distinction in the diverse impact and qualities of the two groups.

The real star of Garsington Opera is the venue itself. A lakeside glass of champagne was followed by a production in the gorgeous twilight setting of a glass-walled opera house surrounded by the natural environment. The chorus sings “let there be light” and there is. It is a verdant and heavenly setting that is just perfect for the mighty subject of The Creation!