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Waterperry Opera Festival 2020 – Review: Così fan tutte and Ariel

Last updated on August 17th, 2020

This week was one of firsts: I was introduced to the delightful Waterperry Opera Festival; picnicked in a socially-distanced lawn pod listening to Mozart’s Così fan tutte; sampled some of British composer Jonathan Dove’s genius amongst the butterflies and the bumblebees; and got lost in Waterperry Gardens, the festival’s enchanting backdrop. It felt like a classic British summer but with the addition of one-way systems, social distancing and a few face coverings dotted here and there, all a nod to the curious times in which we live.

Waterperry Opera Festival, Cosi fan tutte

Cosi fan tutte (image Waterperry Opera Festival)

Like so many in the performance arts industry, Waterperry Opera Festival in Oxford had to postpone its original 2020 lineup, but thankfully for us, they plotted and sired this mini-festival instead. Following sell-out seasons in 2018 and 2019, it’s not surprising that tickets for this summer’s offering were snatched up before you could say toi, toi, toi.

Così fan tutte

Mozart’s slapstick, fiancée-swapping comedy headlined the festival. Waterperry’s amphitheatre stage was swapped for a semi-staged setting in front of the house. The opera was sung in English with a version by Guy Withers, the festival’s Artistic Director. Bertie Baigent was on baton and harpsichord duty together with an orchestra of seven.

Waterperry’s Cosi  was a modern-day affair. 18th century Naples was transplanted to the English countryside. Don Alfonso (the excellent Oskar McCarthy) played the parish vicar, hatching his Machiavellian plot with Despina (Zoe Drummond) who exchanged her maid’s uniform for gardening overalls (which makes perfect sense given the bucolic setting).

Waterperry Opera Festival, Cosi fan tutte

Cosi fan tutte at Waterperry Opera Festival (from left: Zoe Drummond, Isabelle Peters, Beth Moxon, Bertie Baigent and Damian Arnold)

It was a screwball, funny game of kiss and chase between a quartet of lovers which included Aussie Damian Arnold (Ferrando) and Brits Nicholas Morton (Guglielmo), Beth Moxon (Dorabella) and Isabelle Peters (Fiordiligi).

What struck me about Waterperry Opera Festival’s creative was how young it was. There wasn’t a grey hair in sight. And the youthful on-stage energy radiated into a rip-roaring production, a much-needed tonic in these grey and uncertain times.

The cast served Mozart well. Drummond made a strong impression, effervescent and enchanting as the gardener cum love adviser and singing with a creamy tone. Both Moxon and Peters warmed up in the second half to deliver sparkling performances.

Waterperry Opera Festival, Cosi fan tutte

Così fan tutte (from left conductor Bertie Baigent, Damian Arnold, Nicholas Morton, ) Image: Waterperry Opera

The men lit up the stage. In their attempt to deceive their sweethearts, our male protagonists morphed from soldiers into Albanian estate workmen, complete with YMCA-inspired tashes, overalls, hard hats, and naked torsos. Villazonesque Arnold and musically muscular Morton were the perfect camp pairing and provided much of the evening’s comic relief.

Waterperry Opera Festival picnic

Is this the new normal? Picnics in a socially-distanced pod.

We took our seats in socially distanced pods with audience members grouping in their own household or support bubbles. But the segregation did not impact on the real sense of conviviality as we all sat in the delightful company of birds, bees and the distant sound of thunder. And as if on cue. the heavens opened as the performers took their bows to a standing ovation. The spirits of Waterperry Gardens were casting their magical spells on us all.

Jonathan Dove’s Ariel

Earlier in the day, we were escorted to Waterperry’s Rose Garden for an exhilarating 25-minute recital. Composed by Jonathan Dove and directed by Waterperry Associate Artistic Director, Rebecca Meltzer, Ariel  is the sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest, giving us a glimpse of what might have happened to Shakespeare’s spirit following his release from Prospero.

Ariel, Jonathan Dove

The talented Miss Daniella Sicari in Jonathan Dove’s Ariel.

It was an operatic monodrama with no instruments. Australian and British Soprano Daniella Sicari was actor, singer and musical instrument. She mimicked the sounds of the sea, performed somersaults, and brought a cheeky flavour to the spirit who laments at not being human. It was an ethereal and sensual piece which explored the relationship between master and slave and provided a bewitching precursor to the Mozartian main course.

Waterperry rose garden

Peek-a-boo. The Waterperry Rose Garden in which we listened to Ariel.

About Waterperry Gardens

Guests to the festival were invited to come early and enjoy the Waterperry Gardens. Made famous by Beatrix Havergal who established her School of Horticulture for Ladies in 1932, Waterperry was a visual treat, complete with 8 acres of beautifully landscaped ornamental outdoor spaces including formal gardens, orchards, a rose garden, waterlily canal and my favourite, the Silent Space garden.

Waterperry Gardens, Silent Space Garden

Waterperry’s Silent Space Garden

Waterperry Gardens, church

The medieval church at Waterperry Gardens.

There was also a garden centre, farm shop, a medieval church, children’s play area, a gallery, museum and tea shop. You can bring your own picnic to enjoy with the opera or pre-order a picnic hamper from the Tea Shop. More information here.

About Waterperry Opera Festival

Waterperry Opera Festival was founded in 2017 by Rebecca Meltzer, Guy Withers and Bertie Baigent. The festival offers affordable, accessible and socially relevant productions, created and performed by a diverse community of artists which bridge the gap between performer and spectator.

Waterperry Gardens, amphitheatre

The opera festival normally takes place inside the amphitheatre.

The 2021 Waterperry Opera Festival is on from 12 to 15 August. The main productions will be staged from the outdoor amphitheatre and will include Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love,  Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel  and Purcells’s Dido and Aeneas. Jonathan Dove returns with Greed. 

Tickets will go on sale in Spring 2021. Subscribe to the newsletter for more information.

Waterperry Opera Festival | Website | Waterperry, Oxford OX33 1LA





A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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