Friday 5 April 2024

West Green House Opera: new artistic director Tom Elwin introduces the 2024 season

Thomas Elwin as Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at West Green House Opera in 2021(Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)
Thomas Elwin as Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at West Green House Opera in 2021(Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

West Green House Opera returns this Summer for its fourth season in the magical theatre on the lake. Running from 19 to 28 July 2024 the season features Verdi's Falstaff, Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla and Puccini's Suor Angelica. As ever, one of the non-musical attractions of the festival is the setting, with Marylyn Abbott's gardens form both a spectacular operatic backdrop and a source of pre-opera delight.

The opera company also has a new artistic director, Tom Elwin. Best known as a tenor, he was Lensky in West Green's 2021 production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin [see review on OperaToday] and his roles last year included Gennaro in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia with English Touring Opera [see my review], Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme also with ETO and Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore with Wild Arts [see my review].

For Tom, one of the important features of the festival is having a thread of loyalty to their artists running through. At a time when UK-based singers are able to work less at companies like ENO and WNO, Tom feels it is important to offer opportunities to singers. This continuity of support brings benefits to both; Jenny Stafford, who sings the title role in Puccini's Suor Angelica this year was Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in 2021 and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci last year [see my review]

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Dulcamara (Richard Walshe) makes his entry - West Green House Opera 2022
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Dulcamara (Richard Walshe) makes his entry - West Green House Opera 2022

This year will be just the fourth time the company has performed on the lake-side stage. The decision to have the stage on the island in the middle of the garden's lake was very much a COVID-related one and not without challenges, but Tom feels that the beauty of the setting make the challenges worth facing and it is this lake-side setting that makes West Green House Opera unique. The garden setting also turns going to the opera into a lovely afternoon. The garden is small enough to feel that your are enjoying opera within a National Trust property rather than a theatre set in the countryside.

This year's festival opens with a gala concert featuring John Andrews conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra with soloists Soraya Mafi and Nicky Spence. The first opera production is Verdi's Falstaff, directed and designed by Richard Studer and conducted by Jonathan Lyness. Studer and Lyness have a long association with the festival dating right back to its early days. The production features Simon Thorp in the title role with John-Kristof Bouton, Galina Averina, Carolyn Dobbin, Trystan Llyr Griffiths and Lorena Paz Nieto.

An intriguing concert offering is the collaboration between wine-expert Oz Clarke and the Armonico Consort, for an evening devoted to music and gin! There will be Purcell, Handel and Dowland with soprano Eloise Irving and countertenor William Towers, plus Oz Clarke on the history of gin.

Stephen Higgins conducts Puccini's Suor Angelica in a production directed by John Ramster, with Jenny Stafford in the title role and Susan Bickley as La Zia Principessa. And before the opera, Peter Medhurst is giving a talk on Puccini and his women with live musical illustrations. Tom points out that Suor Angelica is a challenge for any company with its casting requirement of 14 female singers and at West Green the cast will include past and present participants in the West Green House Opera Young Artist Programme. This years Young Artists will also be presenting their own lunchtime concert as part of the festival.

The final staging of the season is Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla, directed by Victoria Newlyn and conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren  (who directed and conducted Rossini's La Cenerentola in 2019 and Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore in 2022 at West Green). The strong cast includes Dominic Sedgwick as Figaro, Nico Darmanin as Almaviva and Katie Bray as Rosina.

Tom had sung at West Green and the company had supported him, but it was still a surprise when they approached him about taking over as artistic director [the company has something of a tradition of using singers in artistic roles, Yvonne Kenny was artistic advisor to the company in the early days and Kirsty Hopkins, from The Sixteen, was the previous artistic director]. Tom thinks that this new role is interesting both for him and for the company, as he brings a singers point of view to the artistic directorship having sung as a principal both in the UK and abroad. He is aware of the singers' point of view.

He is currently involved in planning the 2025 season which will have a Shakespeare theme with productions of Verdi's Macbeth, Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate and Bellini's Capuletti e Montecchi. Tom points out that whilst there are plenty of opportunities still for UK-based singers with lyric voices, those with fuller voices can miss out so he feels that offering opportunities for Verdi's Macbeth is important.

Our discussion returns to the importance of supporting singers, and his new role at West Green has given Tom a chance to step back and look at the industry. Life is difficult for a freelancer, and there is the requirement to practice without knowing what might come next. 

West Green House Opera's theatre on the lake
West Green House Opera's theatre on the lake

Tom emphasises that he remains a singer alongside his West Green role, but that his voice has been changing. Last year saw him singing Donizetti and Puccini roles for the first time, and he sang Alfredo in a film of Verdi's La Traviata with Opera Glass Works which will be released later this year. And he finds this repertoire suits his voice and he would happily sing Rodolfo and Alfredo for the next few years. That said, this year sees Tom taking a step in another direction too. He has done a lot of opera, but not done much song since his period training at the Royal Academy of Music, but in early 2025 Tom will be releasing his debut recital disc. Watch this space.

  • Opera Gala Concert - BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews, Nicky Spence, Soraya Mafi - 19 July
  • Verdi: Falstaff - 20, 21 July
  • Young Artists' lunchtime concert - 21 July
  • Oz Clarke & Armonico: Gin & Phonic - 23 July
  • Puccini: Suor Angelica - 26 July
  • Rossini: Il barbiere di Sivigla - 27, 28 July

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