To the uninitiated, country-house opera is a peculiar experience. You dress up, park your car on a rich Englishman’s estate, drink champagne and have a picnic, preferably accompanied by the warm sunny weather most of Britain had last weekend. The opera is almost incidental.
For connoisseurs, the dressing-up is merely a posh backdrop to the operatic meal, which promises (but does not always deliver) delights you rarely taste in a metropolitan setting: exotic repertoire, an intimate sense of drama, a star performance from a young singer. The three main providers – Glyndebourne in East Sussex, Garsington at Wormsley in Buckinghamshire and Grange Park in Hampshire – are dependent on box office and donations. The result is a precarious balance between art and commerce but they show an amazing capacity to thrive.
Glyndebourne’s 14-week season and £25m turnover make it by far the biggest and best-established. It has programmed La finta giardiniera, a little-known opera by the teenage Mozart, for 15 performances this summer (top seat price £215). Whether that represents self-confidence or foolhardiness will be revealed later this month.
The recent death of Sir George Christie, who masterminded Glyndebourne’s growth from the 1960s to the 1990s, has underlined the increasingly corporate nature of its operation. Christie’s son Gus lacks his father’s artistic nous, and the sheer size of the business threatens to swamp its distinctiveness.
At Grange Park and Garsington, the results are more hit-and-miss but there is no doubting whose taste rules. At Grange Park it is Wasfi Kani: her front-of-curtain speech every evening is an integral part of the experience. Without her fundraising skills, artistic judgment and missionary dedication, the company would probably fold.
That problem – of over-dependence on a single individual – has been solved at Garsington. Since the death in 2005 of its founder, Leonard Ingrams, it has successfully relocated to the Getty estate at Wormsley and adopted a new executive structure, dividing artistic and business responsibilities. Douglas Boyd, the new artistic director, has outlined plans for 2015 that give the company a clear sense of where it is heading and what it wants to achieve.
Boyd is jettisoning Garsington’s recent programme threads (British premieres of forgotten works by Vivaldi and Offenbach that nobody wants to hear) in favour of country-house staples by Britten, Mozart and Strauss. By engaging the Philharmonia he seems intent on improving orchestral standards, and his link-up with the Royal Shakespeare Company for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with Mendelssohn’s incidental music, shows a streak of festive flair.
But what of the current season? The latest performances show how easy it is to get the formula wrong. Garsington’s Vert-Vert, a long-forgotten Offenbach operetta, turned out to be a turkey that not even the experienced hands of conductor David Parry, director Martin Duncan and designer Francis O’Connor could save. The plot, a sort of St Trinian’s-meets-Albert Herring, exudes sexual innuendo – what Offenbach operetta doesn’t? – but there are too many characters and too few memorable numbers.
Sung in English and staged like Gilbert and Sullivan, the show desperately needs a dose of Gallic naughtiness. The chorus steals the show, with the most attractive solo performance coming from Raphaela Papadakis as Bathilde. Fflur Wyn and Yvonne Howard also contribute strongly.
Grange Park’s La traviata underlines the danger of competing with mainstream companies in standard repertoire. Apart from Claire Rutter’s sincere and impressively sung Violetta, carrying the show single-handed, this is a crass and musically mediocre Verdi production. Lindsay Posner and his designer, Richard Hudson, have chosen a black-and-white 1950s Hollywood setting that makes nonsense of the opera’s social distinctions. Act One has a comical poolside location, Act Two opens bizarrely on a ranch in canyon-land, and it’s only with the bedside drama of Act Three that the performance finds a focus. The Alfredo is inadequate, and Gianluca Marcianò’s tempi swing between extremes.