English Country Opera
At this time of year opera leaves London for the shires, and the phenomenon known as country-house opera begins. First and foremost is Glyndebourne, the house in Sussex where John Christie, Eton master, infantry officer and all-round English eccentric, built an opera house as a love-offering for his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, in the 1930s. More than eighty years later, Glyndebourne opens on May 20 with the first performance in England (after 350 years) of Hipermestra by Francesco Cavalli, the composer who, in the view of scholar Ellen Rosand of Yale, created opera. The season ends with the first performance anywhere of Hamlet, a new opera by Brett Dean. Other performances include La Traviata, La Clemeza di Tito, and Don Pasquale, with the Italian baritone Renato Girolami in the title part and the Cuban-American Lisette Oropesa as Norina.
Two of the most successful festivals inspired by Glyndebourne are both, remarkably, called Grange. It is a story of nearly opreratic complexity. Grange Park Opera was founded in 1998 at the Grange estate near Winchester an uninhabited country house, spectacularly disguised as Greek temple. (The house has a footnote in history. Churchill and Eisenhower met there in March 1944 to discuss the coming invasion of Normandy.) When one of the founders of Grange Park Opera fell out badly with her collaborators, she moved the company to another country house, West Horsley Place in Surrey, taking the name Grange Park Opera with her. The original festival had to be rechristened Grange Festival.
Both will have a full program this summer. Grange Festival will present Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Carmen, and Albert Herring, in what sounds like an attractive production by one veteran of the summer program, John Copley, and conducted by another, Steuart Bedford, one of the last musicians to have worked with Benjamin Britten. It will also premier Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park. In the meantime, Grange Park Opera in Surrey will present Tosca, with the tenor Joseph Calleja, Die Walküre, Jenufa and a show called Bryn & Zen, where Bryn Terfel sings and Zenaida Yanowsky dances.
Another festival with complicated nomenclature is Garsington Opera. It began life at the house of that name near Oxford, where Lady Ottoline Morrell once entertained Bertrand Russell and D.H. Lawrence in her salon. When the house changed hands, the new owner asked the opera to leave. The opera is now based in Wormsley in Buckinghamshire, a beautifully landscaped estate owned by Mark Getty. The pick of this season may be Semele, along with Le nozze di Figaro and Pelléas et Mélisande. The opera will also present a new work, Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch, belying any idea that these pretty country festivals offer only undemanding fare.
Two other festivals deserve mention. Iford is a house near Bath with a lovely garden where opera in miniature is performed for an audience of ninety. The most surprising of all festivals is Longborough in the depths of Gloucestershire. It has made a speciality of Wagner largely thanks to the fine conductor Anthony Negus, whose status among critics and serious music-lovers has never been translated into worldwide fame. This summer he conducts Tristan und Isolde as well as The Magic Flute.
And for those who can’t get to these rustic idylls, English Touring Opera bring cut-price, but often excellent, opera right across the country from Canterbury to Durham, Exeter to Perth. They’re now touring Tosca and a highly entertaining Patience, with the delightful Lauren Zolezzi in the title part and Bradley Travis as Bunthorne.