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Garsington Opera season 2019

Don your glad rags for a glamorous night at the opera!
Garsington Opera 2019 Fantasio - credit Clive Barda
Garsington Opera, Wormsley Estate High Wycombe HP14 3YE, Thu 27th June - Fri 26th July 2019
Buy tickets on the Garsington Opera website

Set in the breathtaking surroundings of Wormsley Estate, nestled in the Chilterns, Garsington Opera has a world-renowned reputation for top-quality performances. This year is no different, with an exciting programme featuring three pieces spanning over four hundred years.

The relatively modern The Turn of the Screw, regarded by many as one of Benjamin Britten's finest work, uses the original libretto by Myfanwy Piper (written in 1954) to evoke the eerie drama of Henry James' ghostly nineteenth-century novella. Fantasio will see a riot of colour arrive onstage, as Hanna Hip, Jennifer France and director Martin Duncan join the orchestra to celebrate Offenbach's wittily catchy melodies, in time for his bicentenary year. Closing out the season, the company's top performers will join Baroque and Classical chamber orchestra, The English Concert for Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, following a day of quintessentially English delights: tours of the Estate's beautiful grounds, a spot of cricket, picnics; all the atmosphere of a charming summer garden party.

There will be a shuttle bus from High Wycombe Station to Wormsley for each performance, arriving in plenty of time for guests to enjoy a picnic supper before the show begins. Each ticket price includes a non-compulsory £70 donation (£30 for Vespers of 1610) so you can make the evening more affordable if need be. So don your glad rags and indulge in a night of glamour at this local yet global cultural gem.

July 9, 2019
An evening to remember

The Turn of the Screw, Thurs 4th July 2019

This is a strange story, written in faded ink. Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 ghost story is a chamber opera in two acts, with a cast of six and just 13 musicians, a pared-down ensemble which produces an impressive richness of sound and atmosphere. Dominated by huge, mistily opaque arched windows, the stage’s air of neglected gothic beauty evokes a sense both of period and of menace, the perfect setting for a naive young governess to take sole charge of two angelic children in a remote country house where everything is not quite what it seems.

For the untutored (me), the music is challenging but not inaccessible, and - sweetened with atmospheric Victorian horror and arresting visuals - infinitely rewarding. Sophie Bevan sings the role of the governess with drama and assurance, and with an unornamented sound so pure it seems youthful, nervy, melding with the orchestra as another instrument – not quite human. The children, played by the hugely impressive Elen Willmer and Leo Jemison, of course bring their own sense of the not-quite-human to the story, alongside the ghastly charms of the definitely-not-human Peter Quint (Ed Lyon) and Miss Jessel (Katherine Broderick), whose exchanges are compelling, controlled but wild, while Kathleen Wilkinson brings strength and pathos to the role of Mrs Grose. The music is full of tension, the mainly higher voices creating an other-worldly effect, doing justice to Myfanwy Piper’s darkly suggestive libretto, while the use of nursery rhymes and church music painfully tethers our uncertainty to the safe and familiar.

It’s wonderful how much thought clearly goes into making a trip to Garsington special, but laying aside great facilities, lovely staff, and magnificent opera, the beauty of the Wormsley estate does lift the experience beyond the ordinary. Performing Britten’s opera here adds another layer to the framing devices used in the story; a ghost story written down by a governess, related by a narrator, within an opera, performed in idyllic surroundings which might bear some resemblance to the fictional Bly. Deliberate and effective use is made of natural light, and the cast look out over the lake at Bly, towards Wormsley’s own lake, just beyond the opera pavilion. During the interval, the sun sets abruptly over the lip of rolling hills surrounding the estate, the warmth of the day disappears with unanticipated speed, and the light begins to fade with perfect timing for the beginning of Act 2.

Conductor Richard Farnes and director Louisa Muller have produced a dramatic, musical and visual experience which is truly memorable. The overall effect of the piece is unsettling if not in itself frightening, but story’s ambiguity and the music’s power combine to prompt questions about the nature of fear, innocence, good and evil, against a backdrop which is deeply atmospheric.

The atmosphere lingers: the warmth of the sun before the late evening chill; good food by the lake; a demanding, haunting, uplifting musical experience; the grassy smell of summer – this was an evening to remember.

July 9, 2019
Rare gem proves a charming night at the opera

Fantasio, Fri 5th July 2019

Now this is a rare gem. To mark the bicentenary of composer Jacques Offenbach (and handily performing in their 30th season) Garsington Opera have the UK stage premier of Fantasio. A poorly timed flop on its release in 1866 (its optimism and fairytale quality clashed with a mood of imperialism and war), it fell into obscurity. There was a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013, but for audiences in the resplendent opera house, this is something altogether new.

The eponymous hero of the opera is a debt-riddled commoner in the kingdom of Bavaria who takes on the role of court jester. There, he falls for the princess and sets about stopping her arranged marriage. The fact his actions could cause a war act less as a terrifying consequence and more as an additional complication in the course of true love.

One of the strengths of productions at Garsington is the breadth of talent on stage. A fabulous ensemble brings a terrific energy to proceedings, especially in a number of splendidly-staged group moments. At the production's centre is a pair of outstanding turns. The mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp makes an endearingly mischievous lead, a likeable presence in the middle of a manic ensemble. The soprano Jennifer France finds an emotionally powerful take on the princess, a role that could easily have been two dimensional. A high point of Fantasio is a beautiful duet at the start of Act 3 between France and Hipp. It marks out the two as skilled performers and sends chills through the audience.

On the one hand, Offenbach's score is a brilliantly pacy affair, expertly performed by the Garsington Opera Orchestra. On the other, the opera has some clunky moments, lacking some much-needed satirical bite. An effective translation by Jeremy Sams can't hide what is absent in Fantasio. But the text's shortcomings are made up for by a production that is a hoot to watch. Francis O'Connor's design is a colourful delight with proceedings popping off the stage. The costumes are gorgeous, the set is refreshingly adaptable, moving from a midnight garden to a prison cell with efficiency, and it all builds to a tremendous production.

Director Martin Duncan was last at Garsington in 2017 with Il Turco in Italia. That was a rollickingly good production and he works his magic similarly with Fantasio. A gorgeously designed production is performed with gusto by an endearing ensemble. While there are weaknesses in Offenbach's text (though not his gorgeous score), the two leads find the beauty and charm in it. Garsington Opera have picked a rarely seen operatic treat and their gamble pays off handsomely.

The Turn of the Screw, Mon 1st July 2019


So sing the ghosts of Peter Quint and the erstwhile governess Miss Jessell in Benjamin Britten’s haunting chamber opera, which had its production premiere at Garsington Opera on Monday July 1st.

It could be argued that ghosts don’t sing, let alone speak, but then neither does anyone else speak in Henry James’ chilling tale, and it is the genius of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto that brings all six characters in the tale, and the opera, to life, so to speak. Piper would once again deal with the problem of manifesting the mute characters of James’ story, just as miraculously in Britten’s later, and last, opera: “Death in Venice” based on the novella of Thomas Mann. She succeeded marvellously, and inspired some of Britten’s most sublime orchestral colours in both operas (in this case from just thirteen players) with a score of such richness and ingenuity that produces sonorities more usually associated with bigger orchestral forces. Above this panoply of astonishing invented ness Britten floats his characters vocally, in melodic lines such as the melismatic line he gives to the villain of the piece, (the ‘Master’s dead valet, Peter Quint ) - serpentine - and blood curling one might say - admirably executed by tenor Ed Lyon, whose vocal agility was matched superbly by Sophie Bevan as the Governess. Supported by an equally strong cast: Kathleen Wilkinson as the housekeeper Mrs Grose, the girl Flora, Adrianna Forbes Dorant, the boy Miles Leo Jemison. Richard Barnes, obviously in love with the score, drew superb playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra. Louisa Muller provided a convincing production of this difficult narrative, helped by Chris Oram’s designs and the atmospheric lighting of Malcolm Rippeth. Two caveats in this particular respect - the admirable ‘creed’ of using the Garsington pavilion’s natural lighting meant that this sinister tale began in bright evening sunlight pouring on to the stage, but as the evening wore on into twilight appropriate shadows of the magnificent trees which abound on the site, provided the more sombre and claustrophobic atmosphere of the the tale. The second caveat: the richness and subtlety of Britten’s extraordinary orchestral colours were sometimes lost in the very openness of the auditorium which is such a pleasure to experience.

However the overall impact of James’ extraordinary, haunting, story was never in doubt, in the hands of the musical genius of the composer. Oddly, it was his librettist (of three of his most successful operas), Myfanwy Piper, who with her artist husband, John Piper, lived in a Chilterns valley not far from the glorious Wormsley estate, blessedly now the site of Garsington opera, who suggested James’ story as the unlikely subject of an opera. Her use of Miles’ conjugation of the Latin verb Malo, given to him as a plangent melody of a simplicity in contrast to Quint’s tantalising, beckoning vocal line, is really the pivot of the opera when he sings it: Malo, Malo, I would rather be, Malo Malo: an apple tree, Malo Malo: than a naughty boy, Malo Malo: in adversity. The refrain, repeated now by the grief-stricken governess, as she hugs the lifeless body of Miles to her, is shattering in its effect as the opera comes to its end.

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