Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a full staging of Shakespeare’s Henry V, plus a carnival of fringe events – the Florentine festival with opera at its core returned for its second year offering something for everyone. Ian Herbert reports on an event that champions artists under 35
The Corsini family may not have been as influential in Florence as the Medici – they supplied only one pope – but unlike the Medici, they have survived as leaders of Florentine aristocracy, keeping their magnificent palaces. Two members of the present-day family, brothers Lorenzo and Tommaso, have made the gardens of one of those palaces, a secret wonderland of box hedges, statuary and lemon trees, into a centre for events.
It was a useful coincidence that put them in touch with a group of young English producers looking for a venue. The first fruit of the ensuing collaboration was last year’s New Generation Festival, dedicated to offering opportunities for young artists under 35. It featured two performances of an opera on either side of a symphony concert, staged in the open air in the Corsini Gardens. It sold out completely.
The festival is the brainchild of two young theatremakers, Frankie Parham and Roger Granville, who were old school friends.
“We met again on Bankside while working on the Afghan contribution to the Globe to Globe quatercentenary programme in 2012,” says Parham, “then our work with Afghan charities led us to the conductor Maximilian Fane. Together, we set about devising the New Generation Festival.”
Parham took on the administrative role, while Granville was the director for the opening opera, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, with Fane conducting. The soloists were an international group of promising young voices, most of them prize-winners.
The chorus was trained by leading coaches in a six-week summer school, while the orchestra, also internationally selected, came to Florence for those six weeks to rehearse. Another Brit, violinist Charlie Siem, was the concert’s soloist. Impromptu events in the gardens and late-night entertainment completed the festival’s party atmosphere.
Hardly had the 500-seat temporary auditorium been taken down, when the three co-founders were confirming the soloists for the 2018 festival, which has just ended. Extended to four nights, it added a theatrical performance to the existing pattern of opera plus concert.
Looking at the festival’s glossy website, you could be forgiven for thinking it a glorified outing for the elite. The Duke of Kent is the event’s president, alongside members of the Corsini family, and his granddaughter Marina Windsor is part of the administrative team.
In reality, it is very much a festival, albeit a glamorous one, for the under-35s at whom it is aimed, in the hope of producing the opera-goers of the future. In 2017, a total of 20 free tickets were offered each night to the younger generation, and in both years a large number of tickets were made available at €35 (£31).
Parham estimates that 25% of this year’s attendants were from this group, with special provision made for them in the Fico Club, an on-site rendezvous named in honour of Prince Filippo Corsini, who died tragically young in 2016 as a result of a cycling accident in London. The website does indeed invite the very wealthy to purchase €2,500 (£2,230) tickets for each night, but those taking up this offer, which came with its own programme of special privileges, were present in dozens rather than hundreds. Nevertheless, the €200 (£178) gala first-night dinner was among the first events in the programme to sell out. Over-35s were expected to pay €250 (£223) or €95 (£85) for their seats, which compares well with Covent Garden or Glyndebourne.
1. The New Generation Festival was founded in 2017 to showcase rising stars in opera, theatre and music. With the exception of NGF’s nominated mentors, all the actors, singers, musicians, artists, creatives and crew who participate in the festival are under 35, predominantly in their 20s.
2. The festival is inspired by a festival of music and theatre that took place in the Gardens of the Palazzo Corsini al Prato more than 300 years ago in 1680.
3. More than 800 musicians from 78 different countries applied to play in the 2018 New Generation Festival orchestra.
4. As well as the formal programme, the festival includes late-night cabaret, disco and impromptu performances in the gardens.
5. This year, the second New Generation Festival marks the inauguration of the Filippo Corsini Orchestral Concert and the Fico Club membership scheme for under-35s, both named in memory of Filippo Corsini Jr, who was killed in a road accident in London in 2016.
Sponsorship, commercial and private, plays a large part in the festival’s budget, led by Jaguar Land Rover, which was displaying three models from its range in the gardens. Perhaps the most useful new sponsor for 2018 was Florence’s House of Tirelli, whose founder Umberto Tirelli designed costumes for every major Italian film director from Visconti to Fellini and Zeffirelli. His successors have made costumes for many major films, three of them winning Oscars for costume design.
Tirelli made its fantastic collection available to the New Generation designers and directors, producing a real renaissance feel for Don Giovanni and a solidly Shakespearean look for Henry V.
The play was a unique event in itself with William Walton’s original score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film. Having a full orchestra on site meant that director Rebecca Steel could give full rein to this magnificent accompaniment.
“I produced a director’s script as usual, then worked with Tom Recknell, the arranger, to find where the music worked best for the text,” she says.
Recknell was able to draw on Christopher Palmer’s suite from the film score, a narrative for chorus and spoken narrator. Perhaps it was because of the moving part of Walton’s score that describes Falstaff’s death that Steel, who is director of theatre studies at Eton College, took the decision to start her production with the last moments of Henry IV Part II, where the new king rejects the fat knight – “Otherwise you get the reports of his death without the audience really being introduced to the living character.”
One of the strengths of her production, indeed, was the boisterous bonding between Falstaff’s Boar’s Head hangers-on. She speaks with pride of her company, like her all under 35, who themselves bonded in three weeks of rehearsal in London, followed by a hectic week in Florence, fitting in costume calls, technical and dress rehearsals with preparations for the rest of the festival.
The full orchestra of some 70 musicians was there to help set levels, under the baton of the young Italian maestro Jonathan Santagada, who has worked extensively at Covent Garden with Antonio Pappano.
The loggia of the palace forms a natural proscenium that was well suited to both Henry V and Don Giovanni. Supplemented by side structures designed by another Parham, recent Cambridge graduate Jack, it offers a wide stage space in front of the orchestra area, with the possibility of moving deep into the loggia itself.
Roger Granville made full use of its width and depth for his most intelligent production of Don Giovanni, a challenging opera whose challenges were more than met by its superb young international cast. Lighting designer Andy Grange, a Tara regular, produced some fine effects for both productions with very limited resources, though one might have wished for a couple of traditional followspots to highlight the opera principals, doomed to spend more time than acceptable in shadow.
Celebrations of a successful 2018 festival went on long into the final night, with older audience members not to be outdone by the under-35s. Atmospheric lighting in the magnificent garden vied with the strobes in the indoor spaces to satisfy any taste. Principe Corsini’s own-brand prosecco flowed copiously.
Already, the planning for 2019 has begun: the festival will run for four days, from August 28-31. There will be one opera – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – with the principals already cast. Beethoven and Schumann feature in the symphony concert, and there will be an evening of jazz. Is it too much to hope for another stage piece with orchestral accompaniment? Or even a return of Henry V?
Director: Roger Granville
Executive producer: Frankie Parham
Musical director: Maximilian Fane
Artistic director: Charlie Siem
Founded: 2017 (annual)
Based: Florence, Italy
Festival dates: August 29-September 1, 2018 August 28-September 3, 2019
Employees (2018): Five full-time, 160 seasonal, 10 volunteers
Performers (2018): 15 actors, 85 singers/musicians
Spaces/venues: Three indoor, one open air (500 seats)
Productions (2018): Three
Audience figures (2017): 1,500
Total turnover/budget: 2017 – €600,000 (£535,000), 2018 – €850,000 (£757,500)
Funders/sponsors: Corporate includes Jaguar Land Rover, private sponsors and members
Key contact: Frankie Parham, firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2019 festival will run for four days, from August 28 to 31, and will include Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Click here for more about the 2018 festival