Reaction Weekend

Nevill Holt Opera – a glimpse of an era past

Review - Britten's Midsummer Night’s Dream at Nevill Holt Opera

BY Gerald Malone   /  21 June 2019

David Ross, the mobile mogul who built his Carphone Warehouse empire in the “loadsamoney” era of the nineties, has revealed his true character in his Foundation’s twenty-tens Nevill Holt opera project. It turns out Mr. Ross has “loadsataste.”

Nevill Holt is no grand country pile à la Downton. It’s an enchanting, meandering structure, dating from the 13th century, perched on a rise in Medbourne Parish, set in the Leicestershire countryside. Built in mellow yellow, warm stone, it comfortably inhabits its setting, on approach emerging slowly from behind trees. There is no grand drive. Capability Brown contrived no vista. The manor has presided over the same unspoilt (relatively), gently undulating view for 700 years.

Where’s the opera house? Missing. Well, actually it’s in the 17th century stable block, undiscernable from outside. Entry is through the stable door, under the clock tower. There is no formal foyer. The foyer is the surrounding garden, spattered with intriguing sculptures, herbaceously planted.

The mandate to the architects was to build an opera house that did not disturb the rambling, listed façade. And herein lies the first clue to the purpose of the Nevill Holt project. It is not a Glyndebourne. After a 1994 makeover, taking it to 1,200 seats compared with the original 300.

Glyndebourne transmogrified into the Charles Atlas of English country house opera, all bulging flexing muscles. It kicked sand in the faces of lesser venues across rural England. Biggest kid on the block, but much of the original informal charm was lost. Nevill Holt seats 400. That’s it.

Glyndebourne might still be the Christie family home, reigned over since 2000 by Gus Christie, grandson of founder John, and his wife, the incomparable lyric soprano, Danielle de Niese, but the scale of the operation now requires even the unloading of picnic hampers to be regimented. In summer seasons more sherpas are to be found lugging hampers from the boots of Bentleys at Glyndebourne than in the foothills of the Himalayas.

I own a wonderful thing. A Glyndebourne Festival 50th Anniversary Box Set – vinyl of course – dating back to the mid eighties. It features recordings from 1934 – 1963, and, clicks, rumbles and whirrs aside, the sense is of an era past, when artists gathered in a country house, as much to enjoy each others’ company as to perform to an opera loving public.

Nevill Holt harks back to that era. The presence of a Young Artists Programme and outreach into local schools lends a family feel. Chatting to the couple to our left in the balcony, it turned out the husband had built the auditorium roof. He took delight in explaining the design of the ceiling fanlight, allowing the auditorium to flood with natural daylight on demand.

I also fell into conversation with Bob Essert, proud to claim responsibility for the acoustics. There are no baffles, reflectors, any acoustic devices at all. The involving sound has been achieved with the sensitive use of materials and subtle shaping of the wood, Douglas fir. The result is a space which young voices can fill without vocal strain.

Nevill Holt’s grounds form a garden of sculptural delights on a scale to rival Hieronymus Bosch. Gosh, there’s Bryn Terfel!! Can’t be. He’s not seven feet tall. It’s a frighteningly lifelike statue. Actually, looks a bit like Lloyd George.

Keek round every herbaceous border and there’s another one; a huge golden shell nestling beside the bar; a massive bronze horse’s head, nose down pointing earthwards, suspended, but seemingly in motion; a concrete cast of the inside of a chicken shed. Eclectic, moi?

And, no chance of being afflicted by hubris. Propped casually against a wall is the infamous “EdStone”, launched by Moses Miliband in the 2010 election as a biblical list of manifesto pledges. “Don’t take the tablets, Ed”!!!

We ate our interval meal in the enchanting “Picnic Chapel”, adorned with modern religious sculpture. The tight layout encourages conversation from table to table and requires less of the frontier “rush west” spirit needed to secure picnic territory in other country house opera venues. You can sit on the damp grass if you prefer.

Playing, was Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, his lightly worked over version of Shakespeare’s play, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1960. It is one of Britten’s most popular works, a regular in the repertoire and an obvious choice for an intimate space like Nevill Holt, in the middle of June.

The physical constraints of the stable block mean that the stage has no fly system, or backstage area. Sets can’t be complex, so must be artful. Set Designer, Simon Kenny, is well versed in working in tight spaces. His off-Broadway Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater, New York won a Drama Desk Award nomination. Nevill Holt charged him with their inaugural production of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro in the new house – a huge success.

Scored again! When the foyer door closed the audience was in another world, a full moon high left stage leaving no doubt that goblins of the night were on manoeuvres. The two-tier performance space was created with a higher level on which perched Robin Goodfellow (Puck) and Oberon observing the foolish mortals below, descending and ascending as the action dictated.

Director and choreographer, Anna Morrissey exploited the house atmosphere skillfully. Her particular skill is in making performances match their architectural and historical settings. In 2014 she was Artist in Residence with Historic Royal Palaces, staging On Progress at Hampton Court.

As the audience gathered, the actors quietly populated the unlit stage, settling down on silver pillows. When conductor, Nicholas Chalmers, took the podium we were already in dreamland.

In a restricted space attention to detail is everything and the measure of Ms. Morrissey’s success was that her fluid and dynamic choreography never once felt crowded. A single misstep would have meant chaos. There were occasional glitches – petals signifying the dream inducing potions falling on an empty stage instead of the intended drugee – but these are quibbles. She was particularly successful in matching Britten’s vivid programme music to the onstage action.

The band was the Britten Sinfonia, based in Cambridge, formed in 1992. Their founding principle is to involve musicians and audience with unusual intensity. No better exponents of Britten’s work are playing today.

The cast was excellent. Daisy Brown proved an impressive Tytania. Tough cookie, with a voice sometimes honed to sharp steel. Memo to self – keep on the right side. Timothy Morgan as Oberon sang sweetly, but lacked acting oomph. Maybe that was the plan. Tytania is the dominant force.

Lawson Anderson was Bottom. He has a fine bass-baritone and excellent articulation. Which is just as well, as he has some complicated comic lines to deliver, even from behind a donkey mask. I thought Martha Jones, mezzo-soprano, Hermia, the standout of the four lovers.

Then there was the truly remarkable Children’s Chorus, led by Chorus Master, Simon Toyne. As a troupe of bleached-wigged fairies, with bags under their eyes – no rest for the fairies! –  they seemed everywhere – popping up with ethereal lights in the aisles, the balcony, quietly placing balloons around the auditorium to involve the audience in the party atmosphere of the Rude Mechanicals’ play, Pyramus and Thisbe, performed before Duke Theseus and his bride, Hippolyta. They handed out playbills beforehand, “The most Lamentable Comedy…” Great fun.

They presented a beautifully consistent melodic tone, difficult enough to wrestle from long serving church choristers. To marshal fourteen youngsters gleaned from three local schools into a single instrument of such high quality was no mean feat.

“Pyramus and Thisbe” was successfully comedic. It featured a slow-stalking astronaut as “Man in the moon”; Wall being threatened in his vital parts as players entered and exited between his legs; and a reluctantly roaring lion.

The confines of the house were exploited artfully as the opera ended. Puck begs pardon of his audience.

“Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.”

Stable doors at the rear were opened. Summer light flooded the stage and auditorium. The dream was well and truly over.

Driving back to London I asked my long-suffering, non-opera-loving wife what she thought. “It was fantastic… apart from the music”. High praise, indeed, for Nevill Holt! But, you can’t win them all. Sorry, Benjamin.


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