By Marie Serrano
Imagine yourself transported to a magical late summer Italian inspired evening, filled with delicious food, wine and live music, just on the outskirts of Truro.
This isn’t just a dream, it was a beautiful event that occurred in September earlier this year. Duchy Opera performed Donzetti’s popular romantic comedy The Elixir of Love at a brand new venue – Park House, Truro. The performances took place over three nights: an opening night, an outstanding Gala night, and an afternoon matinee with an Italian style picnic.
Cornwall is renowned for its beautiful coasts and countryside as well as the warm welcome visitors receive when visiting our wonderful county. What it isn’t known for are cultural experiences more readily available in cities; experiences such as live ballet performances, classical concerts, poetry and literature events, as well as, of course, operatic performances.
In Britain, it is a shame that opera has often been seen as something reserved for a certain demographic. However, its roots are much more popular, with ‘Opera Buffa’ (Comic Opera) being enjoyed for centuries across Europe by young and old, rich and poor alike, and filling the same gap in popular culture as the modern soap opera on TV!
Robert and Sam Salvoni, proud Cornish residents and opera buffs, sought to bring their love of opera to their home county and entered into discussions with the Duchy Opera regarding opening their home, Park House, as a new venue.
In 1977 the Duchy Opera debuted in Cornwall and has been delighting audiences with both traditional and contemporary productions. It has built a reputation as one of the finest regional semi-professional opera companies in the UK and uses Cornwall-based performers wherever possible. Since its inception, Duchy Opera has worked hard at engaging wider audiences to make it known that opera is accessible and can be enjoyed by everyone; an ethos very much in line with that of Robert and Sam’s.
The performance put on by Duchy Opera was that of The Elixir of Love – a story that is both melodramatic and funny, bringing together themes of unattainable love and class, love potions and subterfuge. The characters are larger than life, and the music memorable. It is a great story for both opera buffs and first-timers and has remained consistently popular over the last 190 years since it was first performed.
When the idea first came to Robert and Sam with regard to hosting an opera at their home, there was much deliberation as to which opera would be performed. So why The Elixir of Love?
Cornwall is steeped in history and mythology and one of our most well-known legends is that of Tristan and Isolde; a 12th century romance made famous by Wagner’s opera of the same name. In 1832 Gaetano Donzetti, a significant figure in Italian opera was inspired to write an opera based around that of Tristan and Isolde, from which came forth The Elixir of Love.
The location of Robert and Sam Salvoni’s home has a synchronous connection with the legend. Their unique property is a charming Georgian country house just outside of Truro near St Clement, in the ancient Forest of Moresk. Opera fans might know that the forest features heavily in the tale of Tristan and Isolde; with this connection to the land and the legend, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love was the perfect choice.
Prior to the event taking place, Robert Salvoni from Park House said: “We’re just thrilled to be opening up our home and hosting this event for the first time. My ancestry is Italian, and it seems like a great idea to combine our love of music, food, wine and my Italian heritage at our home. We’re all about reviving the principles of ‘Opera Buffa’ which means being entertained and having fun.”
When arriving at the opera on the Gala Night, the atmosphere was very much alive, warm, vibrant and welcoming. There was a genuine buzz of excitement in the air from attendees and numerous remarks were made as to how thrilled people were to be attending such an event. Although not a requirement, many chose to attend in black tie and evening dress, adding an air of glamour to the proceedings.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed into the walled garden where drinks and refreshments were offered. Various local businesses supported the venture by providing drinks, including Wildlife Botanicals, Old Chapel Cellars, Tarquins Gin, Navas and Espresso Cornwall, with Philleigh Way Cookery School serving an Italian feast. Guests were encouraged to mingle, saying hello to new and familiar faces while enjoying a glass of their chosen beverage as they waited for the feast to be served.
Dinner was a sumptuous traditional two-course Italian meal, served in the old school family fashion of long tables; allowing for conversations to flow, adding to the atmosphere of conviviality.
Whilst guests enjoyed their Italian food and drink in the main house, the performers, orchestra and behind-the-scenes contributors prepared for the main event. With the conclusion of dinner, guests were invited to the main stage to await the night’s focal feature.
With the Park House as the backdrop for the scenery, the stage was set outside with the orchestra located slightly to the side. For this performance Duchy Opera engaged a world renowned Music Director to co-ordinate the music and performers. Aside from the obvious importance of having a director to conduct the orchestra, what many may not realise is the relationship the performers have with the Music Director. Whereas in an acting role the Director instructs the actors on positions, performance and motions, an operatic performer has all of these to take into account with the addition of taking cues from the Music Director, so that their performance is in time with the music. The timing is critical and having a trusted Music Director gives the performers confidence and a motivational boost, allowing them he freedom to express creativity within their roles.
The stage was set. The attendees sat in their seats in eager anticipation and hidden in the main house, the performers waited with baited breath for their musical cue.
Cue music, silence from the audience; nothing could be heard aside from the eloquent notes of Donzetti’s opening overture. The singers entered stage and so the magic began. The performance was at times exhilarating, hilarious, a little tragic but overall entertaining. The acoustics from the property, the professionalism of the orchestra, the singing and acting skills from the performers along with the joy and enthusiasm from the audience created an exceptional evening that will live long in the memories of all that participated and attended.
For those that aren’t familiar with opera and are unsure of what to expect, this version of The Elixir of Love was a perfect introduction. The words were translated from the original Italian, allowing the audience to appreciate and follow the storyline as well as the music. The tale itself was light-hearted, easy to follow and connect with and was exceptionally executed by the cast.
With a very welcome interlude halfway through the performance for a drinks and bathroom break, the hosts proved that they had thought of everything by offering vegan ice cream to the audience, graciously provided by Cecily’s ice cream.
Once everyone was fully refreshed, the second act began and the audience were once again immersed within story and song.
Although the entire opera was shorter than some of their full length, more serious counterparts, it was still a lengthy period of time to sit and watch. It is true testimony to the skills of the cast and orchestra that those hours flew past and the audience demonstrated their appreciation with rousing cheering, clapping and a standing ovation for the cast and musicians at the conclusion of a masterful piece of entertainment.
With true hosting skills, Robert and Sam Salvoni thanked all in attendance, the cast, the musicians, the patrons (Sir Desmond Pitcher and John Nettles) – everyone who helped to make the joyous event the seamless operation it was. They gratefully acknowledged the support of the local businesses who sponsored the event, without whom it would not have been possible. Sponsors involved were Michael Spiers, The Cornwall Kitchen Company, Stephens and Scown, Senso, Francis Clarke and BMW, not forgetting those who contributed their time and skills such as Martin Nixon Design, Arvor Heating and Electrical and Amanda Williams from Secret Truro who organised and co-ordinated the marketing and ran a very tight social media campaign on behalf of Park House.
As a stepping stone into the awakening and launch of Cornwall’s cultural scene, the event was a resounding success. Many were shocked to find that this was a first venture, passionately declaring that there needed to be more such events in Cornwall and that they would be thrilled to attend future performances.
So are there more of these occurring? Robert and Sam Salvoni and the Duchy Opera haven’t confirmed anything at present, however reading between the lines, I’m hopeful that Cornwall may get lucky once again with another event being discussed for the future. If the reception this last venture received is anything to by, it would be safe to say that Cornwall is more than happy to take the next step towards embracing the cultural offerings its residents have to offer.