Grange Park Opera 2012

I’ve had so much I’ve wanted to blog about in the last couple of weeks, and absolutely no time to do so. Work’s been insanely busy, and at the same time I’ve been out of town for opera on both of the last two weekends, and trying to fit my aforementioned insane work schedule around various early finishes to make it to performances of the Royal Opera’s new Troyens (the subject, I hope, of my next blog post – if I can only find the time). But first I must write about my last two Sundays, which I spent in Grange Park Opera’s idyllic home in rural Hampshire, seeing Madama Butterfly and The Queen of Spades.

I love Grange Park Opera, not least because unlike most opera companies, they still consider me a spring chicken, and I qualify for their Meteor scheme (cheap tickets for young people) which cuts off at 35. Last year the limit was 40! As long as they keep that scheme as it is till next year – and an enquiry at the box office suggests that they will – so I can see I puritani and Dialogues des Carmelites for an affordable price, I’ll continue to love them for making me feel young.

Perhaps the most eccentric of the better-known UK summer opera festivals – they have a resident Dalek, for one thing – Grange Park Opera casts some of my favourite singers on a regular basis, and as long as they continue to do so, I hope to continue my relationship with them when my access to cheap tickets ceases (which is exactly the idea of the Meteor scheme – to tempt a long-term continuing audience).

The eccentricity and the casting decisions are, obviously, further reasons for me to love them.

There is still a little way to go on some fronts, however. I can’t review the Butterfly in any detail on account of having friends in the cast, but what I will say is this: the singing was brilliant, but the staging was, let’s just say, not up to the company’s usual standards. I’ve seen more interesting stagings in fringe theatres on zero budget (and with ticket prices which fairly reflect the circumstances). Revived from a production created two years ago for the company’s Rising Stars young artists’ programme, this looked cheap and undirected. And when you’re capable of putting on something as good as the concurrently-running Queen of Spades (or indeed last year’s Tristan und Isolde) that’s a misrepresentation of the company to those for whom Butterfly may be their only Grange trip of the year.

So I’m extremely pleased to have been back the following week to see Queen of Spades, which was outstanding. On my travels a few months ago I had a chance meeting with the Ghermann, American tenor Carl Tanner, which led to me promising him I would go, and further interrogation of the cast list whetted my appetite beyond measure. Booking tickets through the Meteor scheme leaves one rather in the hands of fate when it comes to seat allocation, but hey presto, I found myself a third of the way along the front row! I was in just exactly the right spot there – for the electric moment when Lisa first succumbed to Ghermann, for the gentlemen of the chorus advancing on Ghermann as the voices in his head to egg him on in his obsession with the three cards, and so much more.

Antony McDonald’s designed as well as directed this new production (looking at his credits, I note I’m much more familiar with him as a designer than as a director) which perhaps accounts for how integrated and coherent the whole thing felt. The set had an outer and an inner chamber, the former decorated in smart white and grey, and the latter open at one side and mounted on a revolve so it was sometimes a room (dark and claustrophobic) and sometimes just an exterior wall matching the other. The contrast between breezy and oppressive was brilliantly realised, and the detail – especially in the chorus scenes – was finely drawn.

Yes, I had some quibbles. The masked ball of Act 2 Sc 1 just didn’t seem like the sort of party an Empress (which Empress? a change in period made the answer to this question a little hazy) would turn up to, and everybody was in commedia dell’arte-inspired costume – putting Yeletsky in whiteface and a giant ruff does not underline his aria with dignity. And in the penultimate scene, McDonald also had Lisa shoot herself instead of throwing herself into the canal, then remaining crumpled in one corner of the stage for the whole of the final scene – it was horrifyingly powerful, and a haunting image, but must have been a trifle uncomfortable for the leading lady…

The singing was, for the most part, wonderful. Carl Tanner’s Ghermann was riveting of both voice and presence. Anne Sophie Duprels – one of those sopranos whose very presence on a cast list makes me go weak at the knees – could have been taxed by the role of Lisa in a bigger house, but not here – she was passionate, vulnerable, captivating. Lisa’s Act 1 aria and the ensuing duet with Ghermann were one of the most gripping pieces of pure human theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

I was a little frustrated by the Yeletsky, Quirijn de Lang – I liked him very much EXCEPT in his aria, when I wanted more evenness and bloom. Anne-Marie Owens seemed less physically frail than some Countesses (in all honesty she didn’t quite seem old enough) and came across more world-weary and frustrated than out-and-out terrifying as I’ve usually seen the character played in the past. Roman Ialcic was a first-rate Tomsky, robust of voice and full of energy. The supporting cast was uniformly strong, and the chorus and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (GPO’s first collaboration with them, I think) terrific under conductor Stephen Barlow.

I am now kicking myself that I did not find the time to catch last year’s Rusalka by the same director and with Duprels (who returns to sing Blanche in Carmelites next year) in the title role. Kicking myself HARD. But I Googled McDonald’s CV and found he has a Grange Park Boris Godunov listed as an upcoming project in 2016 – that should be worth catching, as this comparatively tiny opera house continues to explore large-scale dramatic repertoire.

One more little plea to the company, if any of them are reading this. The Grange is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hugely expensive to get there without access to a car. A minicab from Winchester station costs a minimum of £20 each way, and the return train fare from London is over £30 full fare (£20 with my annual gold card). As a single opera-goer, that means my transport currently costs a little over twice as much as my ticket. When I get too old for Meteor tickets, GPO will cost me £200 a trip for ticket and travel combined, which will realistically limit me to one visit per year when sometimes, casting permitting, two or even three would be great.

I realise your operations are not on a large enough scale to lay on an audience bus from the nearest major station, as Glyndebourne now does for free and Garsington does for a fee – but would some kind of lift-share/cab-share noticeboard facility on your website be too much to ask?

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The great outdoors

Ah, British summertime! So far this year I’ve managed to remain largely in the comfort of my own home and office while rain has battered against the windows, observing friends and acquaintances commiserating with one another on Twitter about the weather for their first summer-venue opera trips of 2012. Today, though, I take the plunge – possibly literally, though I’ll try not to drown – as it’s opening night of the season at Opera Holland Park, where in the last couple of years I’ve come to feel something of a member of the family. And the weather is absolutely revolting. In fact, other than a week and a half of mini-heatwave at the end of May, it’s rained pretty much solidly since the middle of April.

Yes, given the climate in this country it seems a peculiar British eccentricity that so many of us choose to spend the summer traipsing round outdoor and semi-outdoor opera venues, often in full evening dress. Some, like Glyndebourne and Grange Park, at least have the advantage of a proper indoor auditorium, leaving only the peripheral considerations of interval picnicking and appropriate shoes and outerwear. And then there are those venues which are essentially glorified tents – like Garsington and Holland Park – where the temperature and the damp of the great outdoors are shared in full with the stage and auditorium, and where a torrential rainstorm pounding on a tented roof can render the performers almost completely inaudible both to the audience and to one another.

I was at a particularly memorable Holland Park Nabucco in 2007 in which the finale of Act 1 yielded completely to the noise of a rainstorm, and the start of Act 2 had to be postponed for several minutes. A Don Giovanni matinee in 2002 was inaudible from a few bars into the overture right up to the entrance of Zerlina and Masetto. Best (worst?) of all, in 2001 – on my birthday – I turned up there for a performance of La traviata only to find it cancelled because a wind storm the previous night had damaged the lighting-rig.

Things are, however, much better than they used to be at OHP. The current canopy roof, new in 2007, may be noisy when attacked by heavy rain, but at least it no longer flaps about as its predecessor did, and – I say this with heartfelt gratitude as a frequenter of the cheap seats at the edges – at least it’s now wide enough to be fit for purpose! What’s more, I’ve been increasingly impressed by OHP’s attempts to use the venue’s idiosyncrasies to artistic advantage. Here’s my review of their Don Pasquale last year, one of the last formal reviews I wrote.

Anybody reading this – indeed, anybody visiting the UK at the moment – might be forgiven for thinking this is all the weather ever does here. It isn’t. It’s just all down to luck. After tonight, the weather has a week and a half to dry itself out before my first of two visits this year to Grange Park Opera, in an idyllic spot near Winchester. Two years ago I recall sheltering from a deluge during the dinner interval of Tosca there, but the previous year Norma took place in 35-degree heat. And it isn’t until mid-July that I make this year’s first visit to Glyndebourne, where I’ve sat shivering in my winter coat (Billy Budd 2010) but have also experienced a delay to the start of a Figaro (on my first-ever visit there in 2003) because half the orchestra was stranded on a train the wrong side of a rail which had buckled in the heat.

For now, I’m thinking positive as usual. I’m off to see Lucia di Lammermoor tonight – how very kind of the weather gods to assist in bringing the sodden Scottish moors to the middle of West London! And unlike the smart country houses on the circuit, Opera Holland Park has the great advantage of imposing no dress code. Duffle coat and wellies it is, then…