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…