Preview: Waterperry Opera Festival

It’s not every summer England sees a brand new garden opera festival coming to life. Waterperry Opera Festival is not only new, but innovative and ambitious, opening with a range of pieces broad enough to welcome a wide audience, deconstructing and disrupting the classic English summer opera formula (though picnics are still definitely encouraged). Four very different productions will be inhabiting Waterperry House and Gardens from 17th – 19th August 2018: Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the open air, an immersive version of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park, a musical retelling of Peter Rabbit for children in its own fairytale garden, and a free pop-up installation of Barber’s ten-minute jazz opera A Hand of Bridge. Happening at different times and in different places around the house and sumptuous grounds, with pre-performance talks and masterclasses also on offer, Waterperry’s approach to opera really does deserve the often-misused term ‘festival’.

Waterperry blue border

Gardens to rival Glyndebourne: but Waterperry Opera Festival will be radically different

As an opera venue, Waterperry is no stranger, often hosting touring productions, but this is the first time they have taken the plunge into their very own setup, inviting a bright, young and talented team to create a resident opera company in partnership with the Waterperry Estate. For forty years, Waterperry was home to the innovative Art in Action, a fine art festival which shared and celebrated the process, as well as the finished creation, of visual arts, with demonstrations of live painting, drawing and sculpture alongside exhibitions which attracted 30,000 visitors a year. Waterperry Opera Festival aims to draw further on this tradition of open engagement, breaking down the proscenium arch and inviting spectators to experience opera afresh from a variety of angles.

The setting is superb, well-established, and independent: founded by Beatrix Havergal, a pioneering and redoubtable lady who established the Waterperry School of Horticulture, and now owned by the School of Economic Science, who continue Beatrix Havergal’s tradition of public education in the gardens, while also using Waterperry House for study groups and philosophical retreats. Havergal laid the foundation of the glorious gardens we see today, which unfold over eight acres, boasting a dizzying wealth of potential performance spaces which Waterperry Opera Festival could explore over the next three years as their plans for the future develop.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni will take to the open air in Waterperry’s sunken stone amphitheatre, with a 13-piece ensemble from the talented London Young Sinfonia, conducted by Festival Music Director Bertie Baigent. Director Laura Attridge’s take on the dark sexual politics of this piece will be well worth watching, as will gifted baritone Jerome Knox in the title role which plays directly to his natural strengths as a singer and performer (my review of a previous, fabulous Don Giovanni starring Knox here). Watch out, too, for Nicholas Morton as Masetto. Pre-performance talks from the creative team will explain the process of bringing this challenging, yet familiar piece to life: in the age of #metoo, there is no opera more topical. Finally, if you read the words “stone amphitheatre” with trepidation, fear not: cushions will be available.

Waterperry amphitheatre

The Amphitheatre at Waterperry: a challenging, exciting performance space for cast and audience alike

The other large-scale work on offer will be a fully immersive version of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park, allowing us to explore the elegant Georgian surroundings of Waterperry House as we discover Jane Austen’s tale of love, deception and betrayal, with the production culminating in the Ballroom. Director Rebecca Meltzer will be aiming for a period-perfect production, bringing this piece ‘home’ visually to an architecturally ideal performance space, with Dove’s modern score harmonising consciously with the sound and look of an earlier era. Meltzer’s crisp, intellectually sensitive directoral approach should be ideal for Austen: gender sparks are likely to fly. Look forward to mezzo Flora Macdonald as Fanny Price, David Horton (fresh from a superb lead role at Iford – my review here) as Henry Crawford, and Lawrence Thackeray as Mr Rushworth.

Waterperry house three quarter

“Fanny! You are killing me!”
“No man dies of love but on the stage, Mr. Crawford.” 
― Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

From Beatrix Havergal to Beatrix Potter seems a natural step: Peter himself could hardly have resisted such a temptingly well-kept garden as Waterperry, and the green and formal setting for this piece, enclosed by tall hedges which you enter through a long, narrow path, exudes natural drama and mystery. Peter Rabbit’s Musical Adventure is a short experience designed for families to enjoy at lunchtime, with The Czigány Quartet from the Royal Academy of Music accompanying actor Oskar McCarthy with a bespoke mixture of Haydn and improvisation: it should be magical for children and parents alike, rain or shine (with the house as a backup venue in case of wet weather).

Waterperry Peter Rabbit

A garden fit for the naughtiest rabbit in literary history to make his musical debut

Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, is a tiny opera lasting just ten minutes which exposes the private inner monologues of two unhappily married couples playing bridge. Sally wants a hat; Bill hopes Sally doesn’t realise he’s unfaithful; Geraldine is watching all the love drain inexorably away from her life; David’s a fantastist – and a coward. Waterperry are letting their Young Artist Programme loose on this revealing domestic snapshot, with new talent both singing and directing: small, intimate, and psychologically confessional, this is definitely the ultimate contrast to the main stage fireworks of Don Giovanni, but could prove no less fascinating – and unsettling. Tickets are free (but do need to be booked).

It’s so exciting to see a new venture which is genuinely firing on all cylinders: bringing in two brilliant female directors to tackle serious and relevant pieces, reaching out directly to children and families, programming works old and new in a wide range of performance styles and contexts, showcasing exciting and proven young talent, and above all, welcoming audiences across the board. Whether you are a seasoned operagoer or a complete newcomer, Waterperry Opera Festival has plenty to offer you. The spread of performances across each day, and the ravishing beauty of the gardens themselves, makes for a comprehensive proposition, encouraging you to enjoy, stay and sample just a little more than you came for. There will be picnic hampers available to buy, as well as a bar and street food stalls; and, if you are packing your own picnic, don’t forget that Beatrix Havergal won multiple RHS Chelsea Gold Medals for her Royal Sovereign strawberries.

Waterperry wandering

Waterperry Gardens.  Autumn 2011


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