Saturday 15 August 2020

Co-founder Jonathan Darbourne introduces The Vache Baroque Festival's debut staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Katie Bray as Dido

The Vache
The Vache
With current restrictions encouraging the popularity of out-door performance, it is no surprise to find a new festival appearing. The Vache Baroque Festival is the brainchild of counter-tenor/conductor Jonathan Darbourne and soprano Betty Makharinsky, and this year they will be presenting staged performances of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at The Vache, a house of Tudor origins in Chalftont St Giles.

The production will be directed by Thomas Guthrie [see my recent interview with Thomas], with Katie Bray, winner of the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2019,  as Dido and Jolyon Loy, one of the National Opera Studio's Young Artists for 2020/21, as Aeneas.  Betty will sing Belinda and Jonathan will conduct, and I recently spoke to Jonathan to find out what is on offer.

This year, the festival will be presenting two performances, but they are hoping to expand and offer a wider experience to audiences in future years. In order to give audience members this year a more interesting experience, they are planning on giving pre-show performances in the grounds of The Vache, taking advantage of the house's attractive setting including a lake. 

These extra performances will probably involve music by Matthew Locke, Purcell violin sonatas, and perhaps something Italian (as Jonathan put it, to get the audience into the violin-based sound-world of Purcell's music) along with arias. The opera's cast of eight includes some fine young singers with people like Rory Carver (who sings with William Christie in Les Arts Florissants' Le Jardin des Voix), Angela Hicks (who has performed with John Eliot Gardiner) and James Geidt in smaller roles, so the extra performance will give them further opportunity and each of the cast (except for the three singers playing Dido, Aeneas and Belinda) will be singing in pre-performance event.  The pre-show entertainment will also feature sound installations by sound artist Dan Samsa from speakers positioned in different areas of the grounds, which will develop themes found in the opera and Virgil's Aeneid.

So the audience can enter the grounds from up to three hours before the opera starts so that they can explore, picnic and hear some music, rather than simply twiddling their thumbs until the explosion that is Dido and Aeneas.

Katie Bray performing at the 2019 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (photo taken from video stream)
Katie Bray at 2019 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World
(photo taken from video stream)

Jonathan and Betty hope to turn the festival into a larger event, and perhaps even take performances elsewhere. They would love to be able to take this performance of Dido and Aeneas to people, when things cool off. But at the moment their attention is on this year, including the logistics of the performance, such as arranging parking for 200 in a time when people do not want to use public transport. 

Whilst performances themselves are priced reasonably to allow artists to receive a fee, Jonathan and Betty would like to open performances up and hope to open the dress rehearsal to school groups and those who cannot afford the tickets, though the timing at the beginning of a problematic school year means that currently schools are wary of outings.

Jonathan is a singer, conductor and composer, and as a counter-tenor his musical life has existed mainly in Baroque music making. This means that he has been able to create the festival thanks to existing musical contacts and the community around him. He and Betty were also lucky to be able to have access to the grounds at The Vache. He also points out that the current crisis has made many people dream up ideas that they would not otherwise have tried, and he feels that there is no time like the present to try things out. 

The new festival puts two essentials together, Summer and music, and Jonathan frankly admits that they have been able to take advantage of the fact that many other festivals around have not presented their full Summer programmes. Also, the lack of performance opportunities has meant that, despite organising things in less than three months, they have been able to draw together a wonderful group of singers, instrumentalists and production team. Jonathan feels lucky that such people were available, and he is excited by the plans.

Jolyon Loy
Jolyon Loy
The opera will be fully staged by Thomas Guthrie, who has staged Dido and Aeneas more than once including doing it at the Barbican with puppets! [see the review on the Arts Desk]. Jonathan sings with Thomas, and they have a good working relationship, whilst sets and costumes will be designed by Ruth Paton who has worked with Thomas before. With such a short lead time, Jonathan sees it as important that the team involves people who know each other and have an affinity with each other.

The opera will also be fully danced, and the production's choreographer Ukweli Roach is someone with whom Jonathan went to school! Jonathan was blown away by the way he moved, and they have kept in touch. Ukweli has both worked as an actor in films and dances in the modern dance world. For Dido and Aeneas, Ukweli will be working with members of his company BirdGang, and Jonathan liked the idea of performing Baroque music with a contemporary dance twist, and he points out how little dance activity there is in modern baroque performance. Again there are other links and affinities with the team, as one of Ukweli's dancers took part in a Monteverdi project with Thomas Guthrie for Spitalfields Festival. The result is intentionally something of a multi-media event, and Jonathan says that it will be eye-opening.

As with any outdoor festival, there is the ever present question 'What if it rains?', and Jonathan comments that you are not an Englishman if you don't have that question in mind. They have planned performances for Friday (4/9/2020) and Sunday (6/9/2020), and are asking people to try and keep the Saturday free so that if the weather either day is unmanageable the performance can be moved to Saturday. If the weather is really uncooperative, then they have the possibility of a space inside the house where they could offer a series of socially distanced recitals to an audience of around 30 to 35 people at a time. 

The festival's founders Jonathan and Betty have worked together as singers and move in the same circles, they are also an item which has meant that the festival has rather taken over their life from waking to sleeping! But Jonathan describes the process of creating the festival as a pleasure, so far, and he is finding it enjoyable being on the production side of things for once. Thomas Guthrie has been amazing and has given them lots of advice, including talking about the instrumentation for the opera (to the small ensemble, with single strings, they are adding percussion).

The performance will take place in front of a brick wall of the house with the audience in a semi-circle. They have already done some acoustic tests and the sound is similar across the whole space, and there will be a stage built out for the performers.

The Vache Baroque Festival
Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas
Katie Bray as Dido, Queen of Carthage. Jolyon Loy (Aeneas), Betty Makharinsky (Belinda), Angela Hicks (Second Woman), James Geidt (Sorcerer), Esther Mallett (First Witch), Sarah Anne Champion (Second Witch), and Rory Carver (Sailor).
Director: Thomas Guthrie, music director: Jonathan Darbourne, choreographer: Ukweli Roach, designer: Ruth Paton, sound producer: Dan Samsa

Friday 4th September, 7.15pm with grounds opening from 4pm
Sunday 6th September, 7.15pm with grounds opening from 4pm
Running time of Dido & Aeneas: approximately 1 hour with no interval.
The Vache, Vache Lane, Chalfont St. Giles, HP8 4SD

For more information visit

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Words and line: Stuart Jackson and Jocelyn Freeman's fine recital disc, Flax and Fire, moves from Purcell to Britten, via Liszt, Wolf and Schumann - Cd review
  • Born in Cyprus, trained in London, the name Kemal Belevi is perhaps not well known but this disc from Duo Tandem is full of delightfully evocative pieces - CD review
  • On disc at last: Ethel Smyth's late masterwork, The Prison, receives its premiere recording in a fine performance from American forces - CD review
  • Outdoor engagement and energy: the Corran Quartet in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in an Islington courtyard - concert review
  • The close of an amazing season, and a farewell: the last Opera Holland Park of 2020 - concert review
  • 2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA - interview
  • Engaging dexterity: Bach's English Suites from the young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu  - CD review
  • A short yet magical experience: Interstices from Brother Tree Sound  - CD review
  • In the tavern of sweet songs: settings of classical Persian poetry in Edward Fitzgerald's English versions by contemporary composer David Lewiston Sharpe - Cd review
  • The Prison: conductor James Blachly on how an American conductor & orchestra finally brought Ethel Smyth's late masterwork to disc - interview
  • Towards German romantic opera: Carl Maria von Weber's struggle to create modern German opera - feature article
  • 'Home


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