As someone who came to enjoy opera as a result of the ENO’s performance at Glastonbury Festival, rather than a childhood steeped in classical music, I’ve always enjoyed seeing innovative performances in an informal atmosphere. With this in mind, I was really looking forward to my first Waterperry Opera Festival – a relatively new event on the classical calendar, and one which has developed a reputation for nurturing young talent and taking a highly inventive approach. I am delighted to say not only did Waterperry meet my expectations, it provided a truly inspiring experience. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys musical storytelling, regardless of genre, because Waterperry truly is a festival for everyone – from toddlers and first-time opera-goers to seasoned audiences looking for a fresh take on this classical art form.
On arrival, my first taste of the unique Waterperry atmosphere came in the form of the very young audience, picnicking ahead of the lunchtime performance of Peter and the Wolf. I’m not sure there are many opera festivals attended by stuffed toys, plastic dinosaurs and fairies, but at Waterperry it feels like the natural order. This inclusive, approachable atmosphere was reinforced by a delightfully playful and inventive performance of Prokofiev’s much-loved tale: from the instrument introductions to the highly expressive dance and spoken word, everything about this take on Peter and the Wolf felt like it had been considered and tweaked for maximum fun and accessibility.
Waterperry Opera’s dedication to developing young talent was not limited to child-friendly performances. In Love and Opera: A Young Artist Showcase we were introduced to a company of singers with strong acting skills, clarity and confidence in their singing, and fabulous comic timing. They turned a series of love scenes into a kind of operatic Love Island we immediately got caught up in the dramas of these young lovers, and enjoyed yet more of that playful Waterperry spirit.
Clairières dans le Ciel, composed in 1914 by Lili Boulanger, marked a distinct shift in mood, from high jinks to a deeply personal meditation on heartache: the agony and ecstasy of love, exquisitely expressed by soprano Sîan Dicker. Somehow the woodland setting became part of the music – the whisper of the wind in quieter moments added to the intimacy, had us hooked on Dicker’s every move, and seemed to draw attention to the sensitive connection between singer and pianist Krystal Tunnicliffe.
Headline event The Elixir of Love provided plenty of wow-factor – including the wisteria-clad Waterperry House as a backdrop. This vibrant, contemporary and delightfully witty production transposed the story from early 19th century Italy to a 1950s Saratoga Springs health resort. Alison Langer’s vivacious, canny Adina was the perfect love interest for Thando Mjandana’s earnest, romantic ‘loser’ Nemorino. I say ‘loser’ because that’s the term they used – one of the many wonderful surprises in this performance was the use of modern, colloquial language – “she’s out of my league” and so on. The perfect way to end a fantastic first day at Waterperry Opera Festival.
I returned on Monday 16th to see On Wenlock Edge – Vaughan Williams’ interpretation of selected poems from A.E. Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad. Once again the woodland stage made for a perfect, intimate setting – this time giving us the sense that we were onlookers to a rather lonely man’s muddled mix of nostalgia and existential musings. Tenor Ted Black gave a wonderfully nuanced performance – gentle and introspective, but always with the sense that there is a deep undertow of strong emotion present, as the protagonist’s thoughts hop between the timelessness of natural forces and relative brevity of human life. His ‘finale’ – merging with the woodland surroundings – was yet another reminder of how much Waterperry Opera Festival uses the gardens to full artistic effect, making them integral to the performances, rather than simply a beautiful addition.
The final part of my Waterperry experience, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, offered yet another example of innovative reimagining. In this case, combining the powerful prison camp creation with a contemporary light show by visual artist Anne-Héloise Dautel. The result was absolutely mesmerising – with the lighting shifting from sweet, subtle and understated, to dramatic, intense and fractured. Each musician was picked out in light as they played, before being plunged back into darkness – with the result that their remarkable playing was even more pronounced. It felt as though we, the audience, were invited to meditate on every movement of the bow, every intake of breath. The ensemble (Gabi Jones – violin, Matthew Wilsher – clarinet, Samuel Ng – cello, Bertie Baigent – piano) were exquisitely exacting – creating an almost-hypnotic experience, which made for a spectacular way to say goodbye to Waterperry for this year.