Summer Opera, 2017 (Glyndebourne Festival, The Grange Festival, Grange Park Festival at West Horsley, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Opera Holland Park)

2017 was not a usual season of opera in our expanding list of British country-house theatres, which Opera magazine deplores. Take the weird choice offered by the Glyndebourne repertoire. No less than two of the three works getting new stagings – Hipermestra by Cavalli and Hamlet by Brett Dean – were completely unknown to opera buffs, academics, professionals, indeed everybody. Inevitably unknown. The Cavalli, newly dug up, ‘benefited’ (to use estate-agent speak) from self-conscious puritanical musical “authenticity” beside Graham Vick’s dynamically updated civil war production suggesting Syria today – odd, considering the fifty Danaides are foundational Greek mythology and nothing to do with the Islamic feel of Vick’s visuals. Brett Dean’s Hamlet (surely meant for 2016’s Shakespeare-themed festival, but quite worth waiting for) was a testing and well-received premiere by a gifted Australian composer and viola player in the Berlin Phil for fourteen years. The third new production on offer, La Clemenza di Tito, was a comparative rarity, despite the fact that Mozart is uncrowned king of the Glyndebourne tradition and surely used to be the composer most associated with the family-owned Sussex festival.

Of the other Glyndebourne operas, Donizetti’s classic Don Pasquale has seldom been festival fare here. Nor has Traviata or any Verdi apart from the great Italian’s Shakespeare-based works Macbeth and Falstaff. It strikes me as astounding that Rigoletto, one of Verdi’s greatest, most emotionally devastating masterpieces, has never even once graced the stage at Glyndebourne (founded 1934). Indeed in 2017 the only typical Glyndebourne piece was the witty poetic Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss that used to make the old Sunday Times critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor weep floods. (But I doubt if he’d have warmed to this very resistible Katharina Thoma staging relocated self-referentially to what looked reminiscent of the Glyndebourne organ room as turned into a 1940s military hospital.) On paper no Glyndebourne season has ever looked less likely to please. Call it brave. Nevertheless, audiences here do by and large trust the management even if it has to work harder these days to sell tickets at current astronomical prices.

Fifty years ago, for four seasons from 1967, Cavalli was the big Glyndebourne draw. La Calisto triumphed in the late Sir Peter Hall’s superb production, though Raymond Leppard’s clever realisation is today widely ridiculed by purists for its lavish orchestra, cuts and inserted material borrowed from other works – all of which was normal theatrical practice in Cavalli’s day. Today, however, the experts have taken over in the classical music world: William Christie, more of a Handel and Rameau man frankly, went on about his devotion to period instruments in the Glyndebourne programme. But what struck me with Hipermestra and Hamlet, musically two utterly different works, was that both operas entirely lacked arias. Confessional operatic arias are surely the key to composers bringing characters alive. Hipermestra has virtually no ritornelli, the instrumental interludes so memorable in Monteverdi’s madrigal-dominated Orfeo, and also part of his Coronation of Poppea and Ulysses’s Return. Good easy-listening ritornelli do so much to help define location and adorn action in these stories – including even dancing sometimes.

Hipermestra, by contrast, is all recitative. As Christine Jeanneret wrote in the programme, poetic text in this era was more important than music. In addition, for this Glyndebourne disinterment the “orchestra” amounted to just eight instruments – on the left of the stage a string quartet and on the right a plucked instrument quartet including archlute. Very purist but not very colourful. Plus Christie and Vick also cut the classical divinities or figures representing qualities like human fragility, who in the original libretto must have owned the story and explained what was happening and why: distant relatives of Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours. The lost opera prologue was not recomposed. Instead, we got nice voices dutifully registering much pretty dull recitative that I would not wish to hear again, with mystifying Arab goings-on in the staging. And it all took an age.

Hamlet is a very ghosty version of the vast Shakespeare play. The central character in Dean’s opera seemed mad almost all the time, and not pretending – yet never talked to himself as he does in the play so revealingly. No soliloquies, so operatic in their nature. Instead we got limited confidences expressed to a bland dull Horatio. The libretto by Canadian theatre boss Matthew Jocelyn consists of often barely-coherent fragments from the famous original blank verse with phrases repeated and repeated for no clear dramatic purpose, perhaps in a way that suits the composer. The music is full of whirrings and instrumental whispers, windy effects and the sort of shocks and interruptions or eruptions that in a horror film would warn you of something nasty about to occur. I agree that Brett Dean’s wispy, atmospheric music with its ghostly implications suggests quite powerfully the mad game we know Hamlet is playing (assuming we are not newcomers to the play). But with no confessional arias to bring people like Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and even Ophelia tellingly alive, there is to my mind very little musical meat to focus on from which one can discover who is who, and why – as one listens and hopefully becomes more engaged. Dean’s effect-laden music is interestingly imaginative and at times genuinely descriptive. But he seems blithely unconcerned about the personal song that should be doing the heavy-lifting work of narrative and characterisation.

The opera flows well but has little sense of occasion. Even Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia, going mad and killing herself, got nothing expressively substantial to work on. The trick of casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with campy countertenors, I found specially annoying and boring. Allan Clayton, a rather plump Hamlet, lacked charm. I have always found the play intensely involving to watch, however it is presented and cut. As Stephen Greenblatt explains in Will in the World it is really two plays not just one – a source that grew and fascinated and grew again. Yet how can one care about a prince with nothing worth singing to show what he is made of? This is opera after all. Is it the librettist Jocelyn to blame, whose text lacks coherent song material so that the music and singing together have such limited capacity to vitalise characters, or is this all just what Dean wanted? Jocelyn after all was the theatre professional in their collaboration – Dean the musician. For me missing was most of what makes Hamlet the play (as well as Hamlet the Prince) interesting as material, those rich character groupings and their twists and turns of recognition and passion. The opera narrative lacked the natural interest, timeliness and complexity which the play contains.

Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito is a completely urban story set in the stone-built city of Rome, in and around the imperial palace. So inevitably, I guess, Claus Guth’s designer Christian Schmidt (with whom the director collaborated on Frankfurt’s unappealing staging of Der Rosenkavalier set in a carehome with the Feldmarschallin heading for the mortuary) opted for something self-consciously different: a two-level set with the floor covered with grasses and reeds evoking country and lakeside, with the emperor Tito upstairs seemingly quite cut off from anyone else in the story – especially the chorus of Roman senators. Guth has little sense of humour or humanity but is very serious about his own dramaturgical notions. His trick is some new take on the plot which nobody has thought of but which often jars with the work’s fundamental ideas. The cast was strangely disappointing. Alice Coote, as the intriguing Vitellia, was stressed by the part’s high range. Of other performers only Richard Croft’s elegant singing as Tito made much mark. Robin Ticciati’s conducting was affected and fussy, while none of the excellent parts in this coronation opera was persuasively played. The great Sesto aria, ‘Parto’, did not have a basset clarinet as obbligato which Mozart wrote specially for Anton Stadler to play. Shame.

Country-house opera elsewhere had different problems – none to do with whether the rep on offer was enticing enough. Grange Park Opera’s lease of the theatre at Northington Grange in Hampshire was not renewed, and as Wasfi Kani’s company owned everything moveable – which her leading supporter Sir David Davies, the Anglo-Welsh-Irish banker, pointed out in his panegyric to her achievement in the 2016 GPO farewell programme book – the theatre at the Grange was stripped of lighting rigs, auditorium seats and much else when her Grange Park Opera relocated to West Horsley Place in Surrey (Wasfi’s Theatre in the Woods). But Northington Grange is accustomed to misuse. Its Baring owner Lord Ashburton, who restored the family link when he bought the estate at auction in 1964, subsequently deroofed the historic house which it took public money to replace. Michael Moody, Wasfi’s former colleague in creating Grange Park Opera stayed behind at Lord Ashburton’s theatre administering what is now called the Grange Festival. He explained: ‘She’s got a new building and lots of old equipment. We’ve got an old building and lots of new equipment.’

I used to find Wasfi’s emphasis on money entertaining. Yet latterly it seemed money was all that mattered for her – more than artistic judgment and commitment. There will always be better and worse shows, ups and down in quality. Opera is a gamble with people as well as with money. I deeply regretted that she never revived the finest achievement of her impresario years – David Fielding’s 2011 production in his own designs of Tristan und Isolde, its third act memorably atmospheric – a uniquely perceptive original staging that brought to theatrical life the ghosts in Tristan’s memory. The falling-out (if it was) became a falling-off in her standards.

Possibly Wasfi’s new West Horsley venture will be a return to artistic glory. It is a darling house with a nice brick facade and an exciting history behind it in Tudor times including a decapitated owner. The walled gardens need attention; the house too. But the rushed relocation may not be all good news, with its traditionally horseshoe-shaped theatre. Director Stephen Medcalf set his new staging of Die Walküre in a museum introducing into the castlist a non-singing “curator” unknown to Wagner who abused victims among the display cases? I guess the philandering was a reference to Wagner as Wotan in a way. But with the exception of Sara Fulgoni’s Fricka, I found most of the singing very disappointing, though less unconvincing than the lax evidently ill-prepared conducting of Stephen Barlow (who was stretching himself very thin indeed by conducting at almost the same time the Buxton Festival’s Macbeth). Barlow’s wife Joanna Lumley is co-patron with Bryn Terfel of the immensely successful GPO appeal whose chairs are Sir David Davies and Dame Vivien Duffield. The 2017 GPO programme was (as expected by me) proudly full of ‘generous’ donors’ names.

Part of the “new equipment” at The Grange to which Moody referred is of course Michael Chance himself – the successful and well-known Old Etonian operatic countertenor who was chosen by Lord Ashburton and his son Mark Baring to be new artistic director (one day someone will do a thesis explaining the affinity between Eton, banking and opera). Chance’s first Grange Festival season was very canny. He did three works. First, with his own musical leadership in its preparation, Monteverdi’s least melodious opera Ulysses’s Return, the staging by Tim Supple not very convincingly focussed. Next, an unprecedented and interesting new dramaturgical approach to Carmen led off by director Annabel Arden sung in French but with new English dialogue (by my wife Meredith Oakes) which was liked better perhaps by opera virgins than by old hands, involving also as it did a Commère and Compère (Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu) who explained what was going on and what it all meant. Thanks to Jean-Luc Tingaud’s lively idiomatic conducting, Leonardo Capalbo’s exciting José and Na’ama Goldman’s alluring gypsy, this was a fully relishable Carmen that worked brilliantly and declared itself magically. Finally, Chance engaged veteran John Copley, who never goes in for unwelcome surprises and very often satisfies, to provide a classic period staging of Britten’s charming funny Albert Herring.

Festival visitors to Northington Grange, which is the most beautiful of all the Country House opera settings, were also wooed with a total change of atmosphere – compared with the Wasfi years. In the park was a new drive, and opera-goers could also enjoy from the theatre terrace a much more romantic view of the lake set in its landscape, while picnickers had a greater variety of nice tents big and small to choose where to have their interval meal. New seats in the theatre (paid for by Cameron Mackintosh) enhanced the acoustic and were more comfortable than the ones taken away by Wasfi. Especially welcome was Chance’s silence about money and donors, with nought rude in the programme about the previous regime. All well-behaved gents at last.

Garsington Opera (where Wasfi took early steps as an opera conductor) is also part of the Baring story, because the late Leonard Ingrams might never have made the money to snap up Garsington, the loveliest Manor house in England, if nepotism had not suddenly dropped out of fashion at the old Baring firm in 1979, after being the invariable rule for two centuries. Denied the role he thought he merited from his status as a Baring cousin, Leonard had returned to the Middle East and coined it. Hence his opera festival and all those rare Haydn and Richard Strauss works he chose to put on stage. The Garsington Opera phenomenon today at Wormsley Park, the Getty estate, is very different but just as successful. I wish Wormsley’s demountable opera pavilion had the charm and tight focus Ingrams achieved in his ramshackle stage space at Garsington Manor. The set for Pelléas et Mélisande this year, stretching right across the pavilion stage’s width, could not achieve the claustrophobia needed for the castle and cave locations. Despite Paul Gay’s resonant pained Golaud, Andrea Carroll’s charming Mélisande, and Dutch maestro Jac van Steen presiding efficiently, Michael Boyd’s staging was too dull and Jonathan McGovern’s Pelléas too baritonal and forceful to stir many feelings.

Garsington could claim brownie points (whose PR value counts in the performing arts) for Roxanna Panufnik’s new commission, Silver Birch, described variously as a “community opera” or “outreach work” with 200 non-professionals alongside a professional cast and orchestra. The text included some Siegfried Sassoon First World War poems and an onstage ghost of Siegfried Sassoon. This was a tale of a dysfunctional family with two brothers who go into the army and a father who is not up to setting much example. Not very coherent or persuasive with nondescript music. Yet participating children and adults were enthused. The problem perhaps was the nature of this “community” whistled up to provide “participation” and “outreach” which otherwise had nothing to do with why Garsington Opera exists, who it serves, and how it can do its job of performing operas well for the wealthy punters who support it by being ticket buyers and donors!

Holland Park is more of a genuine community experience – though the decision by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to stop regular funding of the summer season puts a question mark over its long-term survival. The covered auditorium has grown much larger over the years, and the cheap seats are getting further from the stage – nor are they as cheap as they used to be. Overall, there is a sense of economy about the productions on stage – which often seem to be less than well-polished and rehearsed. And like Garsington, the stage is so wide that it seldom provides a suitable focus for the action. A different theatre structure might help. The Grenfell Tower fire led to some misplaced and unfortunate complaints that the Borough Council had put money into opera that should have been spent in a way that might have saved lives. In fact, the council award of some millions was a final bequest to what has been a very successful and (for the UK) unique project fathered within a town hall: possibly Holland Park Opera is one of the few worthwhile and wholly good things that the Royal Borough has ever done. The future for HPO will not be easy – more’s the pity.

Puccini’s La Rondine and Leoncavallo’s Zaza were the 2017 new productions and both were worthwhile choices though neither got the polish and casting ideally needed. Martin Lloyd-Evans is a Holland Park old hand and Marie Lambert a newcomer but each production felt under-rehearsed and off-piste. One needed more than the rather blowsy singing of Elizabeth Llewellyn as Magda and Matteo Lippi’s crude forcefulness as Ruggero in La Rondine, and, in the interesting Zaza, Anne Sophie Duprels and Joel Montero were simply not quite up to the demands of the title role and of Zaza’s lover Millo. Though Peter Robinson was his usual reliable maestro self in Zaza, Matthew Kofi Waldren’s conducting was not on top of the Puccini. A phenomenon like HPO has its ups and downs. But neither of these shows was as accomplished or memorable as Holland Park Opera in the past.

Looking ahead to the 2018 summer season with ticket sales starting in a month or two, Glyndebourne, Garsington, and Opera Holland Park stand out for brave choices. Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is a total novelty in the British festival opera field – an atmospheric piece with beautiful accessible music which I much like (and which was superbly staged at the Wexford Festival in Ireland in 2016). The Skating Rink at Garsington is a brand new commission from composer David Sawer and librettist Rory Mullarkey – reflecting how Leonard Ingrams’s baby wants to emulate every aspect of Glyndebourne, including new work which is not normal diet for country house opera companies. And at Holland Park, Mascagni’s almost unknown and traditionally romantic Isabeau maintains the company’s daring tradition of bringing on forgotten works from the fading embers of the Italian tradition – for which there has been a real demand in the Royal Borough (and a risk with which ratepayers’ money helped a lot).

Other appealing comparative novelties that hit my button include Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and also Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fab musical Oklahoma at West Horsley, Handel’s superb and flawless early opera Agrippina at The Grange, and Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea with a very young cast at Longborough – the opera in which I myself made my debut in 1970. No chance – I am long retired. Enjoy!

For information on the summer season 2018:

Glyndebourne Festival –
The Grange Festival –
Grange Park Festival at West Horsley –
Garsington Opera at Wormsley –
Opera Holland Park –
Longborough Festival Opera –

Tom Sutcliffe wrote about the arts, especially opera, in The Guardian for many years, was opera critic of the Evening Standard from 1996 to 2002, and writes now for Opern Welt in Berlin and Opera Now in London. He was president of the Critics’ Circle from 2010 to 2012. He wrote Believing in Opera (Faber, 1996) and edited the Faber Book of Opera. He has served on the General Synod for 24 years.

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