Situated near Winchfield, West Green House Opera is a wonderful enigma. Small by the standards of many summer opera venues, there is actually much to see courtesy of the stunning gardens, and while it is well established (this is its eighteenth season), it still feels like a hidden gem. Upon discovering it, you’re torn between telling the world what they are missing out on, and wanting to keep such a special ‘secret’ to yourself.
Unlike Glyndebourne, Garsington and the various Granges, West Green House is built around gardens that are open all year and constitute a visitor attraction in their own right. As such, arriving early is highly recommended to make the most of the setting, which includes water and walled gardens and the beautiful lakeside area where everyone picnics. On a good day when the sun reflects on the water and illuminates the various shades of green that lie all around, the beauty of this place would be a match for anywhere in the country. Night time scenes are no less impressive when the gardens are illuminated, making a return visit to the lakeside area after the opera something of a must if you are attending an evening performance.
The opera season lasts a mere nine days, but much is packed into that time as two full-scale productions rub shoulders with other performances and events. Each summer the glass and steel opera house, known as the Green Theatre, is placed on the opposite side of the gardens to the lake, and past directors have proved astute at playing on its intimacy (it seats 400). For example, last year Victoria Newlyn directed a spirited and effective Così fan tutte, and in 2015 Richard Studer directed a breath taking Ariadne auf Naxos. Thanks also to some remarkable performances from Rebecca Nash (Ariadne), Jonathan Stoughton (Bacchus), Nicola Said (Zerbinetta) and Rosie Aldridge (The Composer), parts of the evening felt just as moving and accomplished as anything to be found in any of the world’s major opera houses.
It is therefore exciting to see director Studer, soprano Nash and also conductor Jonathan Lyness reunite for this year’s production of Un ballo in maschera (22-23 July), and if they recapture anything like the magic seen two years ago the evening will be very special. The other main production in the season is Die entführung aus dem Serail (29-30 July), which continues the venue’s strong tradition of securing world class singers. Here, American soprano Heather Engebretson, who has appeared as Barbarina and Sophie (Werther) for the Royal Opera and at many of the world’s other leading houses, plays Konstanze. The interest also continues with Spanish director Rafael R. Villalobos making his UK debut, and young conductor Oliver Zeffman being seen in the pit with the Melos Sinfonia.
Besides these two operas, the final week of July sees many daytime events being held in the garden’s Lakeside Pavilion. Donizetti’s one-act opera, Rita, will be presented on two occasions (26 and 29 July) and will be conducted by James Sherlock. It is a little known work, but in the story Rita is a powerful landlady who is not averse to a little husband-beating, and director Morag Joss, best known for writing psychological thrillers, plans to make full use of the rather macabre plot. Other events include a celebrity lunch (27 July) in which Dr David Starkey, following on from his 2013 BBC series on the subject, will speak on ‘Music and monarchy: The rise and fall of the English musical tradition’. There are also two Midday Music events (23 and 30 July) and one of the delights of this year’s festival is that there are three days on which it is possible to enjoy one of these or Rita alongside one of the main productions in the Green Theatre.
There is also one further event in the larger venue. On 28 July is Celebrating Gershwin, which will feature such hits as ‘Strike up the Band’, ‘Lady be Good’, ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the composer’s death at the tragically young age of 38, and this show to honour his achievements is specially produced for West Green House Opera. It features the combined talents of theatre director Patrick Sandford and musical supremo Harry the Piano, and a cast of outstanding performers.
The West Green House Opera season runs from 22 to 30 July 2017. For details of all events and tickets visit the West Green House Opera website.