The fields are alive, with the sound of… opera! Yup, it’s that time of the year when the most unlikely art form on the planet goes al-rural, moving from stately city halls to the most unlikely locations in the countryside.
Bored with producing The Marriage of Figaro in that dull, old, watertight city centre opera house with backstage high-tech and state-of-the-art lighting?
Tell you what. Let’s take the whole shebang to a field in Surrey or Lincolnshire, or Sussex, or Buckinghamshire. Country houses, built for leisurely shooting weekends are almost impossible to adapt for staged opera. Rise to the challenge of Parsifal on a mole-hilled lawn.
Or, in the case of the Christie family, owners of the Glyndebourne pile, give up and build your own bespoke opera house anyway.
What about inconvenience-max? How about the medieval castle, Olavinlinna, in Finland? Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere on a lake, at least lighting poses no problems. It just doesn’t get dark in July during the Savonlinna Opera Festival.
Fired up by his recent backstage close encounter with Mephistopheles in Lisbon, Reaction’s opera critic is packing his wellies, nifty Barbour reversible black-tie ensemble, blowing moths from the pop-up gazebo, oiling the ingenious folding table with self-erecting candelabra — picked up for a song on eBay from Heath Robinson Al Fresco inc. — dusting off old Harrods hampers and firing up the Champers portable fridge. The fridge is the type that runs off the car’s cigarette lighter attachment and the same one that drained the battery so flat that post final curtain at Glyndebourne some years ago, he was forced to ask the driver of the adjacent car if he had jump leads. Bentley owners don’t. And the RAC don’t know where Glyndebourne is. Ah, the hazards of a British summer.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
First up, Nevill Holt, near Market Harborough, for Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Nevill Holt Hall, the yellow, honeyed, 14th century sprawling manor house home of David Ross, former Chairman of The Royal Opera House and co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, is a venue worth visiting in its own right, never mind the opera.
The garden is home to a British contemporary sculpture exhibition, featuring artists such as Marc Quinn, Allen Jones, and Peter Randall-Page. Ross has built a modern 400 seat theatre, amazingly incorporated into the original stable block. No exterior sign visible.
Dining can be al fresco, in the Picnic Chapel or pre-arranged in the Welland Restaurant, the Kitchen Garden Buffet, or a private pavilion —with the option to bring your own crockery.
This season Nevill Holt Opera hosts two operas, The Barber of Seville in the main theatre and a concert production of Puccini’s La Bohème in Lincoln Cathedral, as well as a Festival which featured The Great American Songbook, headed up by “a Renaissance man in a Jazz World”, Sam Jewison, and on 8 July a concert performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea from the Dunedin consort, a leading Scottish Baroque ensemble.
Tickets are still available for The Barber of Seville and Acis and Galatea.
Next up, Grange Park Opera in Surrey for Janacek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek. The irony is that while it is quite possible to travel effortlessly to the moon courtesy of Svatopluk Cech’s novels, a simple train ride from Waterloo to Leatherhead is now likely out of the question, courtesy of RMT.
Grange Park is bouncing back from Covid with an ambitious programme. Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander and The Final Fling, a programme of “two grand pianos in combat and harmony”, weaponised by Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy.
This is an ambitious programme, with quality casting. Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor, is the treacherous lover in La Gioconda. Simon Keenlyside, British baritone, sings Iago in Othello and Bryn Terfel, the beloved Welsh bass-baritone is the Dutchman in Der Fliegende Hollander.
Founded in 1998 by the prodigious Wasfi Kani, violinist and opera impresario, Grange Park has mounted close to 80 operas and is now one of the major European summer opera festivals. She has pulled out all her connection stops to secure a fabulous roster of singers.
The relocation in 2016 to West Horsley Place, home of Bamber Gascoigne, original host of University Challenge, led to the building of the Theatre in The Woods, a 700-seat opera house based on La Scala in Milan. The first UK new build opera house in the 21st century.
All remaining performances have some space left.
Glyndebourne. Ah! Glyndebourne. The fountainhead of English country house opera. Founded by John Christie and his wife, Canadian soprano Audrey Mildmay in 1931, when Christie built a 300-seat theatre to accommodate intimate Mozart “salon” operas.
The current 1,200-seat theatre was completed in 1994. I find Glyndebourne almost too professional. There was an informal intimacy in its ramshackle predecessor, the sounds of warm up rehearsals echoing around the gardens.
Commercialism raised its ugly head to fund the new Glyndebourne house. Picnickers were partly superseded by glitzy all singing and dancing restaurants. Someone organised the car park.
That said, Glyndebourne is still the gold standard of country house opera and the Christie family commitment continues with the Gus Christie and international soprano Danielle de Niese husband and wife dream team currently presiding.
This season sees six stagings: An innovation, Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, Mozart’s Le nozze de Figaro, Puccini’s La bohème, Handel’s Alcina, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and a Poulenc double bill, La Voix humaine — a heartbreaking work based on a one-way phone call to a lover — and Les Mamelles de Tiresias, described as “a giddy romp of an opera that throws questions of politics, gender and society up into the air and watches them shatter into hundreds of glittering pieces.”
So, a sort of Bojo/Starmer PMQ’s set to music. If only. Good news for anyone unable to make it to Sussex is that the Poulenc is to be released “on demand” on Glyndebourne Encore.
Alcina beckons alluringly next week and, in tune with the times, Reaction’s opera critic will forego the soggy smoked salmon sarnies and the wet grass and head for cover in one of the twee restaurants. At least the car is more likely to start at the end of proceedings.
The Finnish Savonlinna Opera Festival has always intrigued me. For the sheer inconvenience of a venue, it takes the biscuit. Flight to Helsinki, then a puddle-jumper to Savonlinna — probably landing in a puddle of a lake — and welcome to opera in one of the Scandi-lands of the midnight sun.
Dating back to 1912 when Finnish opera singer Aino Ackte identified St Olaf’s Castle as the ideal location for Finnish opera, the festival came a cropper in two wars, the First World War and the Finnish Civil War that followed.
Revived in 1967, a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio from the battlements was a hit. A rollercoaster ride followed, and the festival now lasts for a month and attracts 75 per centof its audience from abroad.
This year brings five full-scale productions: Verdi’s Aida, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca, Handel’s Giulio Cesare and a double bill of Busoni’s Arlecchino and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
The festival has grown into Finland’s premiere cultural event and the lakeside city of Savonlinna forms a stunning backdrop. In late July this will be a first for Reaction’s opera critic. The self-styled La Dolce Summer of Opera festival runs from 1 to 31 July.
Tickets are still available for most performances. Not so for the puddle jumper. Got what looked like the last seat. So, best strap in for a Timo Makinen-style rally drive through the relentlessly forested countryside.
And if a rally drive is not enough to test the cojones, why not visit Ukraine? Unbelievably, the fist of musical defiance is being waved in the Russian face by both Lviv and Odessa opera houses — still standing.
From late July to the end of August Lviv opera is staging The Stolen Happiness, by Yulii Meitus, a Ukrainian composer, based on a folklore play by Ivan Franko. The title is presented without even a shred of tongue-in-cheek irony.
Natalka Poltkava, the other work, is a story which underpins the formation of Ukrainian Theatre in the early 19th century. Composed by M Lysenko it is a classic story about love and devotion, rooted in the rural life of Ukraine. A keening cry for peace.
There is also a production of La bohème and a series of concerts.
In war-torn Odessa, a soldier in helmet and flak jacket stands outside the sandbagged opera house holding a bouquet of roses, perhaps for members of the audience sufficiently courageous to ignore the, “In case of sirens head for the shelter,” signs plastered around the building.
Verdi’s Nabucco — his opera about the plight of exiled jews –— is an apt choice for an opera company experiencing indiscriminate shelling and missile attacks.
We will enjoy our summer operas, rallying cries for culture in our countryside, inconstant weather our only threat. So will the proud people of Ukraine, in their very different way. Opera and music are their means of waging war. It is humbling to reflect that, for them, silence cannot be bought at any price.
And another thing!
Apropos of last week’s piece on Opera Lafayette’s The Era of Marie Antoinette, Rediscovered, an irritating “Reader from Glasgow” — I surmise it may be Reaction’s very own Gerald Warner — points out a glaring omission.
Marie-Antoinette offered strong patronage to the Chevalier de St Georges, bastard son of a French noble and a black slave woman. He was both the greatest swordsman in France (which reduced the amount of racial abuse he might otherwise have received in Paris pubs) and a major composer, in the style of Mozart. The Queen used to support his evening concerts at Versailles.
Unfortunately, he repaid her by becoming a revolutionary general with a corps of black revolutionaries. His music is very listenable and available online.
The most infamous episode of derring-do was a sword bout between the Chevalier de St Georges and the Chevalier d’Eon, whom nobody knew whether he was a man or a woman — very du temps, woke combination of themes there.
How the hell could I, or Opera Lafayette, have missed this? Apologies all around. As my affronted reader encourages, “Try his music”, I might even self-identify — as a Chevalier.