Wednesday 6 July 2022

Celebrating its fifth anniversary, Waterperry Opera Festival promises a delightful and entertaining season all round! Tony Cooper reports

Audiences picnicking at Waterperry Opera (Photo Robert Workman, 2019)
Audiences picnicking at Waterperry Opera (Photo Robert Workman, 2019)

Waterperry Opera Festival - celebrating its fifth anniversary this year - runs from Friday 12 to Saturday 20 August at their delightful home at Waterperry Gardens on the Waterperry Estate just a stone's-throw away from Oxford. Interestingly, the Gardens were established by the English horticulturist, Beatrix Havergal, in 1932. Here Ms Havergal ran a residential horticultural college for women and when she retired in 1971 the college shut down. A year later the School of Economic Science purchased the Waterperry Estate including Waterperry Gardens which it runs to generate revenue for the school.

In total there are eight rich fertile acres of landscaped ornamental gardens comprising an alpine garden, formal knot garden, herbaceous borders, riverside walk, rose garden and water-lily canal. There are also five acres of orchards and two collections of saxifrages which are accredited with ‘plant heritage’ under the National Plant Collection Scheme.
Now opera rules the pristine-mowed lawn and under the stewardship of Guy Withers (Waterperry Opera’s chief executive and artistic director) a repertoire of eight imaginative productions will be seen this season over eight glorious days. And over the relatively short time-span of five years, Waterperry Opera has established itself well by offering innovative and imaginative productions harbouring bold and challenging ideas.

However, establishing themselves and putting down roots has not been without its problems over the past few years and their modest festival team has certainly shown zeal, grit and sheer determination to keep the true essence of the festival alive for audiences of all ages.

Headlining this year’s festival is Mozart’s timeless comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, following the success of last year’s offering, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love [see Robert's review]. One of the most famous operas of all time, Figaro is ideal for those new to opera while aficionados of the genre lap it up like no other!

Promising a bold and adventurous production, the scenario follows Figaro and Susanna as they prepare for their wedding with titled employers, interfering family members and unwanted suitors asking the most pertinent question: Will they make it down the aisle?

Directed by Isabelle Kettle with set design by Charlotte Henery, the production (conducted by festival music director, Bertie Baigent who was recently appointed principal assistant conductor at the Rotterdam Philharmonic, see our article) showcases some of the UK’s most emerging operatic talent while inviting audiences into the hustle-and-bustle of preparations for the big day. Throughout the course of the evening, one will gain a revealing insight into the true nature of the relationship between upstairs and downstairs.

Waterperry Opera: children watching a family production
Waterperry Opera: children watching a family production

And making its UK professional première at Waterperry this season is a women-led production of Ana Sokolović’s virtuosic a cappella opera, Svadba, directed by Rebecca Meltzer and conducted by Lada Valešová [see Robert's interview with Lada] with set design by Grace Venning.

Sung in Serbian, Svadba is a coming-of-age, tour-de-force piece exploring the lives of six women as they discover how to navigate the poignant transition from adolescence to adulthood. The action takes place the day before the wedding of Miliça who’s out and about on the town celebrating with her best friends.

With complete abandonment and raw energy, Sokolović’s breath-taking score envelops one in a whirlwind of ritual, music and dance with the production offering a celebration of culture, ritual, friendship and community. Waterperry has always been pioneering in its overall thinking and programming therefore choosing such a vibrant and exciting work as Svadba confirms this reputation. The company’s also reviving two of its most-beloved sell-out productions: the interactive family-friendly favourite - Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf - lasting a mere 30 minutes but a little gem nonetheless ideal for youngsters experiencing classical music for the first time. This revival is particularly special as British Sign Language performer, Paul Whittaker, will be returning to Waterperry after receiving plaudits with Hansel and Gretel at the 2021 festival. Paul, as in Humperdinck’s classic, will be integrated into the storytelling alongside the musicians and, indeed, performers.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Waterperry Opera

Waterperry’s critically acclaimed production of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park deservedly returns for another showing bringing Jane Austen’s much-loved novel to life. An intimate production with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton it puts audiences bang in the centre of the action and will be seen in equal parts: laugh-out-loud funny! shed-a-tear sad!

And as a prequel to The Marriage of Figaro, Jonathan Dove’s Figures in a Garden also gets a Summer’s outing, too. Drawing on musical ideas from Mozart’s operatic score, Dove explores alternative scenarios for Lorenzo da Ponte’s mixed bunch of characters. The production sees a collaboration between aspiring young dance students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and young and upcoming local musicians from Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra.

The season also includes a performance of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared, a dark and formidable 45-minute song-cycle of unrequited love scored for tenor, alto, three female voices and piano. It will be staged in the relaxing and inviting ambience of the Garden Glade by Waterperry’s tranquil Lily Pond.

A scenic sunset double-bill concert entitled Wagner at Twilight, conducted by Bertie Baigent, promises a nice relaxing affair, too, comprising a couple of Wagner’s small-scale masterpieces - the Wesendonck Lieder and the Siegfried Idyll - performed in the stunning natural beauty of Waterperry’s Garden. The Wesendonck Lieder is set to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of one of Wagner’s patrons with whom he’s reputed to have had an affair. This intimate concert juxtaposes music expressing the purity of nature and the turbulence of human emotion: themes which are at once contrasting and yet both intensely Wagnerian.

The passion and yearning of the Wesendonck Lieder text inspired some of Wagner’s most sensuous and dramatic writing which later morphed into parts of Tristan und Isolde while the Siegfried Idyll was composed by Wagner as a birthday present to his wife Cosima after the birth of their son, Siegfried, in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning 1870 by a small ensemble from Zürich’s Tonhalle Orchester (which, incidentally, included conductor Hans Richter on trumpet) on the stairs of Wagner’s villa at Tribschen (now part of Lucerne) in Switzerland. Maestro Richter quickly learned the brief trumpet part and, reportedly, sailed out to the centre of Lake Lucerne to practice so as not to be heard.

Dreamlike, Cosima awoke to its opening melody which later found its way into Siegfried, the third opera of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Richter, incidentally, was the favoured conductor chosen by Wagner for the first complete performance of The Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876.

And last, but not least, a new commission entitled Flora by violist Anna Semple and dancer Emily Collinson offers a multi-disciplinary 20-minute work exploring gesture and femininity through both music and dance performed, most appropriately, in the Mary Rose Garden. What a treat!

Affordable tickets are available including discounts for under-30s and under-16s, blue light cardholders, registered disabled, blue badge holders and benefits support (NHS, DLA, UC, JSA, PIP) as well as FREE tickets for under-16s for selected shows.

For booking and more information visit or follow the Waterperry opera trail on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@waterperryopera, Twitter/Instagram). Box Office number, 07776 749 175

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