Saturday 28 June 2008

Country House Opera

In this month's Opera magazine, the editor addresses the issue of country house opera, particularly in relation to the planned move of Garsington Opera from its current home. In his editorial he says, 'Its Elgar Howarth-David Fielding Strauss cycle apart, Garsington has generally resembled English Touring Opera with better champagne facilities'.

Though critics generally regard country house opera with disdain, it is unusual for them to be so very direct in print. In fact critical reaction to Garsington Opera over the years has tended to disguise both the limitations of the company and the venue. In some reviews you felt reviewers were charmed by the champagne, the lovely house and garden, and liked the pleasant journey out of London and so were prepared to be a little forgiving if standards slipped a little or if the weather was not kind.

By contrast Grange Park Opera has come in for quite a bit of critical flak, some reviewers giving the impression that they resented schlepping out to Hampshire and felt out of place amidst the well-to-do locals enjoying their champagne on the portico of the ruined mansion. In fact in one of their Festival supplements Opera Magazine referred to Grange Park Opera as the UK's most unnecessary opera festival! Grange Park Opera is something of an offshoot of Garsington in that Wasfi Kani, who co-founded Grange Park, was previous the assistant to Leonard Ingrams who founded Garsington Opera.

Garsington Opera was founded in 1989 and Grange Park Opera in 1997. It is only in recent years that Grange Park Opera has had the money to ensure that standards of performance are raised to a consistent standard, particularly by having a named orchestra in the pit rather than a pick-up band. It would be interesting to go over the early reviews for Garsington to see whether or not they had the same start-up problems. What the 2 companies have in common is a reliance on funding from local sponsors, no dependence on public subsidy and an artistic policy which mixes the well known with the more outre, both in terms of repertoire and production style. Leonard Ingrams at Garsington seems to have played neatly to critical prejudices by specialising in Strauss leavened with some unusual Rossini; generally critics liked his choice of unusual repertoire. At Garsington Wasfi Kani was more varied, she has consistently championed rare Slavic operas, giving us Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress, Prokofiev's The Gambler, along with French rarities like Massenet's Thais, Chabrier's Le Roi Malgre Lui and Messager's Fortunio. These have sparked rather less critical appreciation, in some reviews you could feel the critical hackles rise as the review has trekked out to Hampshire to see a rather undercooked production of Le Roi Malgre Lui, an opera which requires everything going for it for it to work properly.

What both these opera companies have in common is that they sell tickets and people come back for more. The Editor of Opera implies, in his article, that the audiences for these opera companies lack critical faculties and kid themselves that they are getting a Glyndebourne experience. But, as he points out, Glyndebourne is no-longer country house opera, it is an opera house in the countryside. Pre-rebuild you could just about convince yourself that you were seeing opera in a country house setting, but this has gone with the increase in size of the new house. I don't think that people attending Garsington, Grange Park or any of the other country house opera companies are lacking in critical faculties. They are out to combine pleasures, lovely surroundings, good food, good company (many people use these occasions for entertaining) and good music, all on your own doorstep. This latter point is important, many of the audience at Grange Park, for instance, have not schlepped down to Hampshire, they live there and Grange Park is local to them.

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