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June 5, 2011 5:24 pm

The Magic Flute, Garsington Opera, Wormsley; Tristan und Isolde, Grange Park Opera, Hants

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the magic flute
 ‘The Magic Flute’ opts for a panto-style punk Papageno to join Pamina in the bath

A temporary theatre, a greenfield site, a wealthy audience – sound familiar? Richard Wagner created the template in northern Bavaria nearly 150 years ago, and it flourishes today in southern England.

Glyndebourne, Garsington, Grange Park, Longborough – all these purveyors of unsubsidised opera to the rich began as the eccentric vision of one person, who had the drive to persuade others to pay for it. English country house opera might not have the philosophical creed underpinning Bayreuth – it is too hedonistic for that – but it shares other characteristics. It unites art with the landscape of nature, it behaves like a socially exclusive club – and it thrives on long dinner intervals.

Like Bayreuth, country house opera invariably starts out in a temporary structure that becomes permanent. The latest to take the leap is Garsington Opera, which last week unveiled its new theatre at Wormsley, the Getty family estate in Buckinghamshire. The structure – a pagoda-style pavilion seating 600, with spacious stage, lively acoustics and airy wings – is collapsible, and will be removed at the end of the season. But it feels permanent and provides a more spectacular focus for the landscape at Wormsley than the existing cricket pitch and artificial lake.

Garsington, founded 22 years ago by the late Leonard Ingrams at his Oxfordshire manor, has signed a 15-year agreement with Mark Getty and is paying a commercial rent, so this is no rich man’s indulgence. Where kings and queens in centuries past spent extravagantly to sustain a court opera, Getty has been gifted one on his doorstep, from which he will derive not just kudos but a steady income.

Garsington wins, too. The manicured splendour of Wormsley’s secluded grounds is, against expectations, even more amenable than Ingrams’ home, and much more spacious. Robin Snell, an alumnus of the Glyndebourne rebuild 20 years ago, has created a timber, steel and sail auditorium that seems to float in the wooded landscape surrounding it. Despite the hostile economic climate, Garsington raised £3.5m to fund it – an amazing achievement, given that about the same amount needs to be found each summer for the company’s running costs.

Artistically, it is business as usual, and the overriding impression left by Thursday’s performance of The Magic Flute is that Garsington will have to raise its game to suit its new home. It was a wise decision to perform in English an opera that Mozart intended for vernacular consumption but Olivia Fuchs’s humour-free, panto-style staging was focused more on designer diversions – an umbrella motif, a punk Papageno, a hippy-style commune of sun worshippers – than providing a coherent vision.

By the end, I began to wonder what the trials of fire and water signified, other than the basic learning curve everyone undergoes in the endless school of life.

The quality of singing and conducting was also middle of the road. Martin André conjured an old-fashioned sound from the orchestra, with little flair in the phrasing. Among a young cast, the only voices that set the pulse racing were Kim Sheehan’s Queen of Night and Sophie Bevan’s Pamina.  


If Garsington’s ambitions this summer have been understandably directed towards infrastructure, the other country house outfits have been stretching themselves in a field previously thought beyond their reach – the time-and resource-consuming music dramas of Wagner. After Glyndebourne’s Meistersinger last month, Grange Park launched its season on Friday with Tristan und Isolde, and Longborough follows next month with Siegfried.

Tristan und Isolde performed at Grange Park Opera
 Stephen Gadd in ‘Tristan und Isolde’

It would be wrong to categorise Grange Park’s Tristan as chamber-musical just because the auditorium is intimate. Alwyn Mellor and Richard Berkeley-Steele, in the title roles, possess dramatic voices that they were not afraid to unleash where appropriate. But the proximity of stage to audience did encourage a more nuanced style than we are accustomed to in Wagner, and both singers sang with exemplary diction, betokening an uncommon understanding of the text and a desire to communicate it intelligently and musically.

In this they were encouraged at every step by the conductor Stephen Barlow, who in his mid-50s is emerging as a treasure of the English opera scene. His is a light-footed, lyrical reading that knows exactly where to place the weight of the music. I cannot remember when I last heard Tristan paced so naturally, the threads of each act drawn into a slow-burn, overwhelming crescendo.

David Fielding’s modern-dress staging is not one of his best: like Fuchs’s Flute, it amounts to a decoration of the text rather than an interpretation. The first act unfolds in the cabin of what could be a navy frigate, the second in a double bedroom blossoming into a forest glade, the third in a derelict seaside building.

Stephen Gadd’s Kurwenal sometimes wears a kilt, Clive Bayley’s Marke a blazer – both, like Sara Fulgoni’s wacky Brangaene, decently sung. Various bits of diverting production “litter” get strewn across this landscape, and there is a comical piece of pillow-fighting foreplay at the start of Act Two. But Fielding comes good at the Liebestod, matching Wagner’s poetic vision of romantic union in death.

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