The French for twilight is crépuscule, a word which conjures up that gleaming, twinkling time of day which is neither light nor dark, when the Goddess Nyx starts her magic dance. And Garsington Opera puts on a witching hour like no other with the thrilling sound of music and song from its pastoral outpost in Wormsley, Buckinghamshire. If you’ve been before, you’re already an addict. But if you haven’t, here are my top 10 reasons why you need to visit Garsington Opera.
It’s turning 30
2019 is a celebratory year, with Garsington turning 30. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride opens the season, with Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw leading and Paul Curran directing. Jonathan McGovern returns in the title role of Don Giovanni, and in celebration of Offenbach’s bicentenary, mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp joins director Martin Duncan and conductor Justin Doyle in Fantasio. And finally, we can look forward to Louisa Muller’s production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw with soprano Sophie Bevan and conductor Richard Farnes.
There isn’t a bad seat in the house
No restricted views in this 600 seat-auditorium, thank you. I was lucky enough to sit in a centre box last weekend for a stonkingly good view of the stage during Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (more on magic flutes at the end of this post), but all seats rock it in Garsington.
Bird song is included in the ticket
I always refer to the Glyndebourne country opera house as a sauna. It may work acoustically, but once I step inside the auditorium, the arcadian experience ends. Garsington’s Opera Pavilion, on the other hand, is at one with its surroundings, floating within the landscape. It’s a very clever piece of architectural prowess, a pop-up opera like no other, designed by Robert Snell and modelled on the Japanese kabuki theatre.
The music inside also seems to scale, soar and envelop whilst giving a sense of cosiness and intimacy. And as if on cue, the birds join in the chorus, a chirruping and happy accompaniment to the orchestra. It’s quite simply, magical.
Even the landscape brings a dose of drama
It’s a bucolic setting which will take your breath away. Garsington’s home is the 18th century Wormsley Estate in the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire. The park has 2500 acres of ancient woodland with a lake, a deer park, an organic farm and a cricket ground with a mock-Tudor Pavilion.
Arrive early and head over to the enchanting two-acre Walled Garden on the Wormsley vintage bus. Originally designed by Richard Woods in the mid-1700s, it was given a facelift by Penelope Hobhouse in 1991. You can meander around the rose garden, the croquet lawn, the historic wells, the pergola and the mini outdoor theatre with your own magic flute of champagne.
Mum’s the word
The inaugural game at the Wormsley Cricket ground was attended by the Queen Mother in 1992 together with Prime Minister John Major and Sir Michael Caine. Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, Imran Khan and Mike Gatting are some of cricketing legends to have played here. It’s referred to as one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the country, having been modelled on the Oval in London.
Getty is crackers for art
Outdoor sculptures greet you as you walk around the gardens of the Wormsley Estate. And if you dine on the Island Pavilion, you’ll come head to head with Jeff Koons’ Cracked Egg.
It’s steeped in History
Garsington Opera was founded in 1989 by banker and violinist, Leonard Ingrams. Its inaugural home was in the 17th century Garsington Manor near Oxford, prior to moving to its new digs in Wormsley in 2011.
Wormsley was once home to Colonel Adrian Scope who was born here in 1601, He was the 27th of the 59 commissioners who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Poor Scope was later hung, drawn and quartered. The estate passed down to the Fane family who kept the seat until 1986 when it was sold to Paul Getty. The billionaire restored the 18th century house on the estate, adding a library and an impressive collection of books dating from as far back as the seventh century. The Library holds a first edition of The Canterbury Tales and a first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Wormsley is now owned by Paul’s grandson Mark Getty, founder of Getty Images.
It’s a Feast for the all the senses
There are plenty of dining options at Garsington starting with pre-performance canapés in the Champagne Bar or Afternoon Tea in the Wormsley Cricket Ground. There’s an 85-minute interval during the performance during which you can either have a three-course dinner in the Cricket Pavilion or in the Island Pavilion.
The 3-course dinner in the restaurant overlooking the Cricket Ground is designed by Michelin Star chef, Michael North and catered by Feast. You can pre-order all the food online (including a Feast picnic). If privacy is what you seek, you could bag yourself a private tent and bring your own hamper of goodies.
Bring the (well-behaved) kids
There’s nothing stuffy about Garsington, so it’s the perfect place to introduce a younger audience to opera (although I wouldn’t bring anyone younger than 12). There are pre-performance informal talks for each of the operas after which key members of the artistic and production team take questions from the floor.
You could sleep like a Duke or Duchess
If you’re visiting Garsington, why not treat yourself to a night at Cliveden, a mere 20 minutes away? Cliveden can arrange a picnic hamper as well as luxury car transfer to and from the opera.
This May 19th, a certain American actress spent her last night in the hotel before going on to marry her Prince in Windsor. Once home to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, it was subsequently owned by a Prince, a Countess and Dukes and Duchesses. In 1961, Waldorf and Nancy Astor moved in. 1963 was the scandalous year when John Profumo met Christine Keeler at Cliveden’s poolside.
Die Zauberflöte at Garsington
I imagine Mozart would have had a good chuckle from the wings of Garsington Opera’s stage during the first night of the composer’s comedic masterpiece Die Zauberflöte. And I don’t mean a demonic Tom Hulce guffaw. No, I think Mozart would have enjoyed the bird chorus in the ancient woodland outside Garsington’s opera house, for he himself had a pet starling who would accompany him on the piano.
And it wasn’t just the birds on top form on opening night. Directed by Netia Jones and with Christian Curnyn in the pit, Die Zauberflöte was beautifully executed both visually and acoustically.
The Magic Flute was Mozart’s final curtain call, premiering in 1791 just two months prior to his untimely death. Mozart conducted and Emanuel Schikaneder, the opera’s librettist, took on the role of Papageno. It’s a crowd-pleasing opera, with arias so popular that I’ve had to endure a couple of these during excruciatingly terrible school concerts (think ‘Queen of the Night’ aria sung by a ten year-old).
Thankfully for us, the dark crown was worn by Chinese soprano Sen Guo who stepped in at the last minute to take over Íride Martínez. Guo may be diminutive in height, but she certainly packed a mighty punch with her tempestuous ‘Der Hölle Rache.’
She was joined by Louise Adler, winner of the Audience Prize at the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the Year, who sang Pamina with both power and a lightness of touch. Dapper British tenor Benjamin Hulett made his Garsington debut as Tamino (he wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Wormsley cricket pitch), whilst Jonathan McGovern returned as the jocular and touching bird-catcher, Papageno.
But this Magic Flute isn’t all fun and games. Freemasonry takes centre stage with the good, the bad and the ugly all coming in threes, the number represented by the masonic triangle. We’re treated to three priests, three ladies-in-waiting, three boys on rollerskates, and even three topiary-skipping bandits. The Palladian country house backdrop in Act I is etched in masonic geometry and in Act II, the setting is a Lodge. The Masonic references all make sense. After all, Mozart and his librettist were both members of the Lodge and the piece was deliberately packed full of Masonic symbolism when it was written.
I expected to see Marlon Brando brandishing his godfatherly style of Freemasonry to a stageful of what appeared to be cookie cutter replicas of Mr Smith from The Matrix. No Brandos tonight, but we did get a terrific James Creswell who delivered a rich and full-toned Sarastro.
The Garsington Opera 2018 season has limited availability but do call the box office for returns. Public booking for the 2019 season opens on March 19, 2019.
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