Sunshine and showers, shawls and high fashion, hampers carefully placed in resplendent grounds. Add the thrill of great music drama, and one of the essential rituals of summer in England is complete. From a kind of extravagant novelty, country-house opera has become a fixture in the cultural calendar, with enthusiasts up and down the land relishing what one has called ‘a fiendishly difficult and unique art form’, which must aim for ‘an equal balance between a garden, its ambience and the music’.
Of course, Glyndebourne (01273 813813) created the pattern for this delightful phenomenon, and still sets the standard. In its 2010 season (until August 29), Michael Grandage, acclaimed director of the Donmar Warehouse, will make his operatic debut in Glyndebourne’s first production of Britten’s Billy Budd. Continuing the festival’s rich Mozart tradition are a new staging of Don Giovanni by Jonathan Kent, starring Gerald Finley, and a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Cosí fan tutte. Three previous Glyndebourne hits round off the programme: Richard Jones’s tartan-and-trailer-park Macbeth, Laurent Pelly’s post-apocalypse Hänsel und Gretel, and John Cox’s classic version of The Rake’s Progress, with David Hockney’s evergreen designs.
For 21 years, Garsington Opera (01865 361636) has won a devoted following with the relaxed opulence of its Italian gardens, historic literary associations and willingness to show-case both new talent and little-known repertoire by great composers. Sadly, this summer will be its last at Garsington Manor, although it has found a new home at the Wormsley estate on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border.
Its valedictory season (June 2-July 3) in its original setting will celebrate its signal virtues: the first British production of Rossini’s Armida, a new version of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a revival of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a work that seems made for Garsington’s idyllic intimacy.
Going from strength to strength in recent years has been Hampshire’s Grange Park (01962 737366), with its romantic Georgian mansion and the Greek Revival temple that houses its theatre. Its Arcadian landscape is a picnicker’s paradise, its productions ambitious and impressive. This year’s programme (June 3-July 4) comprises Puccini’s Tosca, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, and Strauss’s Capriccio. And from July 8 to 13, Grange Park Opera transfers to its medieval Leicestershire base, Nevill Holt, for Madama Butterfly.
Sometimes, country-house opera can seem an extension of the setting itself. West Green House, also in Hampshire, possesses one of the most notable gardens in England, and Marylyn Abbott, its opera-loving creator, found the perfect complement for its many-sided classical beauty in the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries. This year, West Green Opera (01252 845582) will present English versions of Cavalli’s Erismena (July 24-25), Mozart’s Cosí fan Tutte (July 31-August 1) and Britten’s edition of The Beggar’s Opera (August 7-8).
A rare synthesis of opera and horticulture also distinguishes Iford Manor, near Bath (01225 868124). At the heart of his sumptuous Italian grounds, the renowned garden architect Harold Peto placed a bijou cloister, which in the summer becomes a 90-seat venue for opera in the round. Compact in scale, the productions are remarkable in immediacy, and this summer’s bill offers Ross-ini’s La Cenerentola (June 19-July 3), Handel’s Serse (July 9-17) and Verdi’s Rigoletto (July 24-August 7).
At the opposite extreme, Longborough Festival Opera (01451 830292) still reflects its founder’s twin passions for music and community. For years, Martin Graham has opened his Cotswolds estate to the public for performances of his favourite works, which, uniquely in country-house opera, include Wagner’s ‘Ring’. This season, Longborough’s specially built theatre, seating 480, will host Don Giovanni (June 17-26), Madama Butterfly (July 3-10), and Die Walküre (July 24-31).
Scale and ambition are hallmarks of London’s urban version of the country genre. Opera Holland Park (0845 230 9769) boasts starry young casts, daring productions and unusual repertoire under its permanent canopy, with peacocks crying in the distance. From June 1 to August 14, its tempting bill comprises Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Bizet’s Carmen, Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, and Zandonai’s Fran-cesca da Rimini, plus a new staging of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
Despite the allure of these well-known venues, the pleasures of country-house opera can also be found in places offering a single production. Clonter Opera Theatre (01260 224514), for instance, set amid lawns and bluebells in the Cheshire country-side, will present La Cenerentola (July 24-31), repeated at London’s Royal College of Music (020-7591 4314) in October. In Shropshire, Walcot Hall (01588 680570), once home to Clive of India, will showcase a young cast in Tosca (June 4-5), and midsummer weekend in Essex will be gladdened by the youthful production of Ross-ini’s The Barber of Seville (June 17, 19, 20) by Stanley Hall Opera (01787 472315).
Finally, country-house opera comes to a castle. On July 3, Hever Castle in Kent (01732 866114), family home of Anne Boleyn, plays host to Carmen, followed, from July 28 to August 1, by a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers-English history and music meeting in one of
the delectable occasions of an English summer.
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