We opera lovers are blessed by having two world-class rural opera companies in easy driving distance of Oxford and the Cotswolds. I’ve missed Longborough this year, and the first instalment of the new Ring cycle they are creating, but hope to catch up, if I’m spared, in 2020.
Thanks to the thoughtful and kind efforts of Clare Adams, the outgoing press office of Garsington Opera at Wormsley, I’ve been to every single 2019 production at the stupendous opera house facing the Getty family’s cricket ground at Wormsley. I’ve already reported on The Bartered Bride and Don Giovanni, the first of which was performed in rollicking, familiar Garsington style, and the second a fine musical experience if a less interesting production.
Garsington Opera had 21 years at the founders’, Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams’ Garsington Manor, with its Bloomsbury associations – its Italian garden haunted by the ghosts of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her frequent guests, Lytton Strachey, Carrington, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell et al. – and its intimate productions, with the loggia of the house serving as the stage. Eight more years at Wormsley followed, and Mark Getty has generously allowed the company to lease the “temporary” but very comfortable opera house for another 50 years. The Garsington/Wormsley experience is thrilling, partly because there’s a remarkable level of service; for instance, it takes more than five minutes to drive through the estate to the opera, but guests are waved through and helped to park by a team of people; train transfers are seen to; the catering is superlative; and even the shop is full of interesting objects.
This season we have relied totally on the catering facilities. It is huge fun to plan and bring a picnic from home for the 80-minute interval, and we’ve often entertained our fellow guests with food from our garden and wine from our own cellar, but maybe I’m getting a little too old to do the preparation – and my wife, after all, has to do the driving, which carries with it the penalty of being able to drink only a single glass of wine. Thus we have thrice had Feasts’ traditional picnic, once choosing the vegetarian alternative. They were always excellent, as were the wine choices, and affordably priced. My only caveat is that when you’ve eaten the same (delicious) cold dishes three times, you do begin to long for a bit of variation from the umami-heavy mushroom pâté that is surprisingly chicken-liver-like, and the terrific smoked chicken main course. It would be a real bonus for repeat visitors if these good value picnic hampers changed their contents once in a while – perhaps allying the nosh to the production being presented?
For some reason, I don’t think I’d dined before in chef Michael North’s interval big tent restaurant “Long Room,” overlooking the cricket pitch that is a replica of that at the Oval. We finally remedied this. My guest and I ate the starters of gin-cured salmon and Iberico ham, served with celeriac remoulade, followed by roast chicken, asparagus, wild garlic and mushrooms, and pan-fried hake with mussel velouté; for dessert there was treacle tart and pear tarte Tatin; and the coffee after was actually good. I could, I think, have ordered more imaginatively; but my guest got it completely right, especially her hake. But what really marks the Garsington dining experience is the affectionate, alert, champion service by local young people – and this is also true of the picnic tents. The food and service combined make this the best way to have a glorious Garsington evening.
Which we did when seeing and hearing Fantasio, a somewhat unjustly neglected comic opera by Jacques Offenbach, conducted by Justin Doyle and directed by Martin Duncan. Jeremy Sams’ translation of the libretto by Paul de Musset is fluent and fluid but, I’m afraid, so repetitious that we’d have much preferred to have heard the piece in French, when we’d perhaps have felt less hammered by the repeats in the surtitles. To tell the whole truth, the singers’ English diction, though ok, was not so good that you would lose anything much by hearing the French instead. Yes, I agree, this is almost universally so – we were pleased to hear the Smetana sung in Czech – and I’d be happy to join a campaign to encourage the singing of all operas in their original language, even when that happens to be English, as in Turn of the Screw. In the Offenbach, all the performances were commendable, especially Hanna Hipp as the student disguised as jester, Fantasio. The plot of disguise, deception and political marriage is as thin as the music is entertaining and sometimes moving; and nothing much would be lost if twenty minutes of it were cut. But it blooms and blossoms after the interval, leaving you happy and pleased you came.
When it comes to criticising Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, perhaps I ought to declare an interest, as the libretto (from the freaky Henry James story) was written by our dear, close friend, Myfanwy Piper. But my sole interest is to say what a good job Myfanwy made of writing this libretto in the mid-1950s (many years before we knew her); how she found the way, as Paul Kidea said in his 2013 biography of Benjamin Bitten, “to fillet” James’ novella into a series of scenes, which give only hints or evoke images that cohere – and, as Britten said to Myfanwy, don’t worry about how to achieve the coherence: leave that to the music.
The tale is about a governess engaged to teach the orphaned Miles and his older sister, Flora, at Bly, the country house owned by their uncle. They’re home-schooled because Miles has been sacked from school for an unidentified evil deed. The governess (Sophie Bevan in glorious voice) is supported domestically only by the housekeeper Mrs Grose (Kathleen Wilkinson), and soon realises that the childrens’ nerviness has to do with the atmosphere of the house, and a pair of ghosts who seem (in Louisa Muller’s staging) sometimes to be visible to the other protagonists, and sometimes not. Ed Lyon sings the prologue, setting the eerie scene. He also sings Peter Quint, the late former valet to the childrens’ uncle. He was no gentleman, says Mrs Grose; and we can see that for ourselves, as Ed Lyon returns to the stage as Quint, walking with the lope of an oik, not the assured stride of a gent. (The same is true of the social class of the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel, passionately sung by Katherine Broderick). This wonderful detail of direction is typical of the care and precision of the entire production, and very much true of designer Christopher Oram’s costumes, so that all three women are dressed in (identical?) late Victorian black dresses, voluminous and inherently frightening. The children in the performance we saw were played by Adrianna Forbes-Dorant and Leo Jemison. Master Jemison has the makings of a star, if his treble voice holds up when its timbre changes. He sings his solo, “Malo,” firmly but reflectively, and the truly scary nursery rhyme duets (in Britten’s arrangements) make you gasp; while his enchanting acting when “playing” the perverted Mozartian piano sonata is breath-taking and convincing. Richard Farnes elegantly conducted his small orchestra, and gave the piece an intimacy that exactly suited the Garsington house.
Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 was a “staged” concert performance, but P.J. Harris gave few stage directions, except to move the soloists, the ensembles and the chorus to different parts of the stage, to climb up to platforms, and – sometimes startlingly – to sing while descending the aisles. This, combined with Rob Casey’s lighting, seemed exactly right to me, as it helped to concentrate on the music, while, sometimes usefully, ignoring the Latin words of the liturgy. The sole mistake, I felt, was using an odd font for the Latin text, while the boring English translation was in an all-too-readable typeface.
This service, celebrating Mary, was intended to be used on all feasts of the Blessed Virgin, and I found it exciting that my little remaining Latin was still good enough to detect the two racy passages from the Song of Songs. This performance was by The English Concert, the great orchestra, here conducted by Laurence Cummings. The most dramatic thing that happened all evening was that Mr Cummings came on stage, and when you expected him to face the orchestra, instead began the piece by singing a capella the first tenor line. He subsequently danced through the entire evening, except when playing the organ or harpsichord continuo, sometimes doing the latter with his left hand, as he signalled his instructions to the players and singers using his right hand. If his own was the most virtuosic performance of the evening, it was damned near equalled by the early instrument orchestra (two theorbos!), and soloists Mary and Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, Robert Murray and James Way. The Artistic Director of Garsington Opera, Dougie Boyd, writes in the programme that The English Concert will be returning to Garsington for the next five years. I hope I can be there, too.