Tom Sutcliffe enjoys the summer season


Sumer is ycumen in”, if you can believe it with this year’s vile weather. Even in England. The well-to-do in the home counties are demonstrating again how much they love culture by enjoying country house opera which is now to be found all over the place. Many posh people tell me they think opera is doing rather well now in the UK. To my surprise I find Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph adding to his credentials (as a propagandist for the right) by claiming we in Britain “are living through a golden age of operatic performance”. He is embroidering his pleasure writing up work of which he admits he knows nothing. One must appreciate any repentant sinner. A journalist who excels at knocking his political targets seems much more human when he enthuses with joy about a public good, even if access to such pleasure is limited by stratospheric ticket prices.

    The fact, however, is that all these extra summer festival performances no way near make up for the almost halving of English National Opera’s tally of performances compared with halcyon days in the late 1980s,  after Lord Harewood had helped engineer the creation of Opera North in Leeds. The Arts Council’s recent cut of £5 million in ENO’s subsidy makes it very hard to see how that company with its incompetent Board can ever return to the rude health it once boasted. ENO’s Board has managed to appoint a succession of not wonderful people to senior administrative and artistic positions – going all the way back to my friend Dennis Marks in 1993. In the British system our subsidised institutions all have Boards of the great and good at their head, who do not run the companies but make trouble for those who do – and just occasionally make a useful contribution, sometimes financial. Lord Goodman for instance was a brilliant and wise chairman who knew a great deal about all sorts of things including music, opera, theatre etc. But it is to Lord Harewood’s operatic devotion that we really owe the greatest debt.

    ENO receives much the same subsidy as that paid to the rustbelt town of Hagen in Nordrhein-Westfalen whose Stadttheater provides ballet, spoken theatre and a bit of opera for locals in the standard German way. By contrast here in the UK, Scottish Opera with no orchestra or full-time chorus any longer is a shadow of what it once famously was. Even Welsh National Opera faces financial difficulties. The live performing arts in the UK have been enduring a consistent debilitating squeeze in their funding ever since Mrs Thatcher made Sir William Rees-Mogg chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. But Heffer, as a presumed buddy of Jacob of that ilk, should be excused ignorance about the financial circumstances of our live performing arts because Tony Blair’s time in office was just as philistine as any of his successors reluctant to spend public money on culture.

    In fact, John Christie who started this whole thing in 1934 at Glyndebourne (himself from the landed gentry) was a schoolmaster at Eton and fully grasped the challenge of instilling love of opera into his charges and their families. In Britain opera was a moderately alien artform despite Henry Purcell. Covent Garden was known as the Royal Italian Opera after its third rebuilding. Subsidy was unknown until the second world war. Entertainment had to pay its way of course. Glyndebourne still proudly maintains that it gets no subsidy, though its touring is quite seriously helped with a modest contribution from public funds. In Britain in the 1930s opera was being toured all over the country (much more than it is now) by the Carl Rosa company founded by a Hamburg-born impresario in 1873. The Carl Rosa thrived alongside the more recently formed Sadler’s Wells Opera which alongside the Old Vic company (doing Shakespeare and classics) catered for the working classes in then slum areas like Islington and Waterloo.

    The London “season”, when eligible upper class females were presented at court to enhance their marriage prospects, had since the 17th century seen wealthy people take boxes in London’s monopoly licensed theatres where could be found, or owning seats for a whole season which guests could be invited to fill. People expected diversion after abandoning their homes buried in the country and congregating in London from April to July. Country life was fundamental for the upper classes with blood-sports in the autumn. London was a break with opportunities. Christie married to the opera soprano Audrey Mildmay felt a calling to convert the upper classes by instilling a devotion to this rare foreign performing art. In the original language for added authenticity, and dominished comprehension (in those days before surtitles).    

    Miraculously Christie did it. June and July are opera rich at many sites now. Leonard Ingrams (half brother of Richard Ingrams, founder and longtime editor of Private Eye) created Garsington Opera at his Garsington Manor in 1989. It still has the same name though now resident at the Getty mansion Wormsley near High Wycombe alongside its unlovely cricket pitch. Wasfi Kani’s Grange Park Opera formerly at Northover Grange now has its newly completed own operahouse at Bamber Gascoigne’s beautiful West Horsley Place, Surrey with its Restoration-era facade. And the ruin of Lord Ashburton’s Barings mansion near Alresford, Hants now also thanks to Ms Kani boats its own operahouse in what was formerly an Orangerie and then a Library where The Grange Festival flourishes (artistic director Etonian countertenor Michael Chance). Northover Grange, unroofed by Lord Ashburton when he repurchased this extraordinary first
concrete-clad countryhouse-cum-Greek temple, was sufficiently important for the tax-payer to put the roof back on. At Longborough near Moreton-in-Marsh a former chicken shed houses what is thought by many to be the best place in Great Britain to enjoy Wagner wonderfully and idiomatically conducted by former Welsh National Opera head of music Anthony Negus – Elisha to Reginald Goodall’s Elijah! No misguidedly innovative stagings will be tolerated there by Martin and Lizzie Graham who have realised their dream to widespread applause since 1991 when they got going with what was then called Banks Fee Opera. And the model is further followed at Nevill Holt Opera at Market Harborough. In August Iford Arts (which used to opera in a cloister) takes up residence at Belcombe Manor to perform L’Elisir d’Amore.

    Contrary to Heffer’s judgment in print, Bartered Bride at Garsington Opera was a very mediocre production – with some quite decent singing and (as Heffer states) solid impressive lively conducting by Jac van Steen. The staging modernised and suburbanised this delightful rural saga – which was bizarrely sung in Czech by a cast without a single native speaker. Offenbach’s Fantasio was sung in English translation but proved to be a justly forgotten work by the master – most of whose best bits had been wisely canibalised for Tales of Hoffman or elsewhere. Lively cast, though with excellent stars – Graeme Broadbent’s King of Bavaria, Timothy Robinson’s Marinoni, Hanna Hip in the title trouser role, Jennifer France as Princess Elsbeth, and topping everybody else Huw Montague Rendall as the Prince of Mantua (25-year-old son of two wonderful singers, Diana Montague and David Rendall). Martin Duncan made the staging as lively as possible.

    Just a brief note about Glyndebourne’s novelties this summer. Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust had its points, but somehow lacked both energy and conviction partly because of Richard Jones’s grey-seeming production and Robin Ticciati’s fussy conducting. Christopher Purves made a meal of his dominant role, Mephistopheles of course. But Allan Clayton, however pretty his tenor, simply did not bring Faust to life. The trouble with Cendrillon (about which I enthused some months back) is the serious miscasting of Danielle de Niese (Mrs Christie) in the title role. Innocence is not her style, and she is too old for the part. Nor were other substitutes in Fiona Shaw’s production of this charming beautiful Massenet much of an improvement. The show was revived by an assistant. Since casting for the festival seems less persuasive than for the tour, I must insist it really is time for Gus Christie to get Glyndebourne its own casting director – rather than share the services of Pal Christian Moe with other major companies. Tour tickets are much cheaper. Snap them up.