Waterperry Opera Festival

Mozart's Don Giovanni, Dove's Mansfield Park, and more.
Waterperry Gardens, Fri 17 August - Sun 19 August 2018

A short drive out of Oxford, Waterperry Gardens was home to Beatrix Havergal's School of Horticulture for Ladies from 1932 to 1971, and its 8 acres of landscaped ornamental gardens now feature a plant centre and garden shop, gallery and gift shop, museum and tea shop.

The Waterperry Opera Festival offers innovative productions and engaging participatory events. Their aim is to create socially relevant, high quality collaborative work that bridges the gap between performer and spectator.

August 20, 2018
Mansfield Park - Magnificent manners and dreadful deeds

Festival Director Rebecca Meltzer’s sparkling production of Jonathan Dove’s chamber opera Mansfield Park ran the gamut of every emotion: it moved the audience to tears during the rhapsodic standing ovation, and its two acts were an unbroken joy.

The elegant Regency setting of Waterperry House gave walls and windows to Mansfield Park which Jane Austen herself could not have imagined more vividly. The intimacy and domesticity of Dove’s original score, written for four hands on one piano, was brilliantly evoked by Musical Director Ashley Beauchamp and Répétiteur William Ford. Jane Black’s costumes were exquisite.

But it was the 10-strong ensemble cast of young professional singers who carried the performance, through their narrative drive and subtle characterisation of Mansfield Park’s inhabitants, as heartbreak, seduction, snobbery and scandal entered their rarified world.

In the moral triangulation of behaviours, Sir Thomas Bertram (compelling Phil Wilcox) holds overbearing sway over the household until he is called away to address poor returns on the family’s slave-produced sugar in Antigua. Younger son Edmund (a delightful Milo Harries), destined for the Church, is left as moral litmus, while impecunious niece Fanny Price (the superb Flora Macdonald) has the least power, but the clearest eyes to the folly and fall which surrounds her.

Two women – the pug-obsessed Lady Bertram (an excellent Emily Gray) and spiteful Aunt Norris (an imposing Andrea Tweedale) are no match for sophisticated siblings the Crawfords. With eyes that hook, play and land the eligible three Bertram children, they reek emotional havoc – and more importantly – compromise the Bertrams’ value in the marriage market.

Wealth, not love, as societal glue is constantly highlighted, most obviously in Mary Crawford (the glittering Eleanor Sanderson-Nash)’s rejection of Edmund. It is also found in Maria Bertram (a poignant Charlotte Hoather)’s acceptance of the good-natured pill Mr Rushworth (a nuanced Lawrence Thackeray), and Sir Thomas’ fury at Fanny Price’s rejection of louche charmer Mr Crawford (a seductive David Horton) and at Julia Bertram’s elopement (a vulnerable Sarah Jane Champion).

Alasdair Middleton’s brilliant libretto, Dove’s gorgeous combination of melody, pathos and drama and Meltzer’s superlative staging (the Wilderness, the Ball and the newspapers’ veiled revelations) and characterisation brought the audience to its feet, and Jane Austen’s little piece of ivory to new emotional heights.

‘That was better than Austen’, one audience member told me. ‘They threaded the needle to perfection.’

August 20, 2018
Don Giovanni in 21st Century

The inaugural Waterperry Opera Festival launched last night with a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Its seething plot of seduction, sex and revenge came to life in the modest intimacy of Waterperry’s stone amphitheatre, set among five acres of ornamental landscape gardens. The acoustics were excellent, and provided the perfect backdrop for getting up close and personal with the action, and some thrilling young singers.

The key figures of Leporello, sung by Oskar McCarthy and Jerome Know, in the titular role, made a sweeping entrance during the overture, taking a series of selfies, introducing what were to be recurrent references to the contemporary throughout the performance. These references were backed up by an excellent new English translation of the Lorenzo Da Ponte’s classic libretto by Jeremy Sans, alongside some surprisingly risque costumes and a superb sequence of jokes. At one point while preparing to entertain at a feast, Don Giovanni swigs from a bottle of red wine and flings a carton of chips over his shoulder. It is all surprisingly close to real life in the 21st century.

Alongside Oskar McCarthy’s memorable Leporello there were also stellar performances from Ben Durrant in the role of Don Ottavio and Eleanor Penfold, singing the role of Donna Anna, who duetted with beauty and delicacy. Orchestral accompaniment was provided by the London Young Sinfonia who played under a gazebo above the stage.

Tonight’s Don Giovanni was directed by young upstart Laura Attridge, who has previously worked with Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Opera Holland Park. Attridge seems to have a natural instinct for spotting the potential for humour within the plot, and juxtaposing this in such a way that it brings out all the most awful and villainous aspects of Don Giovanni’s character.

It’s not to take anything away from an excellent cast to say that, in a sense, the real star of the show is its setting. Tonight proved that Waterperry makes for a stunning location, as the sunsets on its Cotswold stone columns, and the wind begins to shake in the trees. This was another magical Oxfordshire evening - not to be missed.

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