The Chiltern hills in Wormsley are alive with the sound of music. This Buckinghamshire haven, where Garsington Opera has its home, is England at its most seductive, the sort of place where pastoral dreams are made. And the vocal fireworks that burst from Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia last Thursday were spectacular as well. Yes, Garsington Opera, you had me at hello.
A tale of two houses
Garsington Opera started its lyrical existence in a place called, you guessed it, Garsington, in Oxfordshire. It was founded in 1989 by banker Leonard and his wife, Rosalind Ingram. They used the idyllic backyard of their manor home to stage classical music productions, which eventually morphed into one of the country’s great country opera festivals: Garsington.
A pleasure pavilion
In 2011, Garsington Opera moved to its new home, 25 minutes across the Oxfordshire border into Wormsley Park, in Buckinghamshire. A 2700-acre estate and 18th century country house, Wormsley Park was the former home of philanthropist billionaire, Sir Paul Getty and is now home to his son, Mark.
And what a breathtakingly beautiful estate it is. Getty Sr loved cricket so much, he installed a replica of the Oval in the estate, dubbed one of the most beautiful cricket pitches in the country and inaugurated by The Queen Mother. The grounds also feature an 18th century two-acre walled garden, a croquet lawn, a Deer Park, and my favourite, the Opera Garden.
A Floating Opera Pavilion
Designed by British architect Robin Snell, the ‘pop-up’ Opera Pavilion takes its inspiration from Japanese floating palaces and kabuki theatres. It holds 600 comfortable seats, and the orchestra pit is nestled in what once used to be a ha-ha. (Non-Brits may not know what a ha-ha is, so click here for a definition!)
It’s a stunning and clever piece of architecture, allowing the dramatic landscape to seamlessly infiltrate the stage and the audience beyond. Opera Holland Park may have its resident peacocks, but Garsington Opera has its own birdsong chorus. Sitting inside this auditorium is to be at one with music, song and nature, and it is quite simply magical.
The season, which starts in June and ends in July, includes four productions and one large community opera. The 2017 line-up includes Handel’s Semele, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. The final production is Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik. There is limited availability on most performances, but be quick as some of them end this week. You can book tickets by clicking here. Tickets are £135 – £200 (includes a non-obligatory donation of £70).
Turks, Cinzano and Dolce Vita
I tucked into Garsington’s production of Il Turco in Italia on Thursday, and what a delicious treat that was! This was my first live Il Turco, but I was already a fan of the Franco Zeffirelli version with Maria Callas, directed by the great conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni (whose grandson Paolo is a friend and has escorted me to some delightful evenings at La Scala and Arena di Verona.)
Rossini’s opera buffa has a complicated love plot, with a chic 1950s Naples as its backdrop. The set is a palette of cool greys, but the shenanigans that go on are anything but muted: this is one spicy evening with tugs of war and words, cross-dressing, a vengeful husband, a lustful Turk, and voluptuous Neapolitan women, reminiscent of Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale. A ship’s sail comes crashing, literally, onto the set, and soprano Sarah Tynan delivers an incandescent performance.
What to expect from your day at Garsington
Your day at Garsington Opera is a quintessentially English country opera house experience. Aim to arrive early, around 3.30pm, so that you can walk around the gardens (try to include a hop on the vintage bus and a tour of the walled garden). You will want to settle into your picnic tent, if you have one. You will certainly want to have a pre-performance glass of bubbly.
Garsington is to be savoured: switch your phone off and breathe. It’s going to be an evening to remember.
Garsington is as much about the culinary experience as it is about the music. An integral part of your evening is the 85-minute interval during which you have dinner. You could also jump start your taste buds early and opt for Afternoon Tea overlooking the Cricket Ground (£14 per person) or pre-performance canapés (£6.95 per person) in the Champagne Bar (or you could have these delivered to your picnic tent).
You can bring your own picnic or have one delivered to a pre-booked area. If you didn’t pre-book a table or tent, don’t worry as one of the porters will show you to a free table, and you can be escorted to your picnic area in a golf buggy.
Don’t do what my husband Mark did and come straight from meetings in a suit. Non, non et non! Dressing up is part of the fun.
Most men wear black tie (and I saw some paired with trainers!) and ladies wear cocktail dresses/suits or long dresses. Make sure you bring a layer for the evening though, as it does get fresh at dusk. Blankets are provided inside the Opera Pavilion for those who feel the chill, but the space is enclosed so don’t worry too much. Wear flat shoes, as it’s hard to navigate in heels on the lawns, and you really will really want to enjoy the delightful gardens.
Magic in the Moonlight
If you ever fancied yourself in a whimsical Merchant Ivory film, complete with drama, rooms with views wherever you gaze and a grand finale, then this is as good as it gets. As we walked back to our car, drunk on music and spellbound by our surroundings, we whispered to billowing trees that we would be back again next year.
So, it’s hello Garsington, how wonderful to meet you, and goodbye until we meet again.
2018 Season at Garsington Opera
Public booking opens for the 2018 season at the end of March 2018. Productions will include Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’, Strauss’s ‘Capriccio’, Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ and Sawer’s ‘The Skating Rink’ (commissioned for Garsington).
Getting to Garsington Opera
We drove to Garsington, which is approximately 45 minutes away from West London. Parking is free. You can also get to Garsington by train (from London Marylebone) and then by bus transfer from High Wycombe train station.
For more information on Garsington Opera, click here.