Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview – West Green House Opera’s 2024 season promises innovation in the most idyllic of settings

A ‘hidden gem’ of the summer opera season returns with an eclectic programme.

West Green House Opera

West Green House Opera (Photo: Sam Smith)

West Green House Opera is a summer festival that succeeded in making a virtue out of a vice. In 2021 uncertainty over the pandemic led it to hold the majority of its performances outside on a stage that had been built out from the small island on the venue’s lake. The new format worked so well that the festival decided to stick with it, and it has now become a unique selling point. Unlike any of the other players, West Green House Opera is built around gardens that can be visited almost all year round, and the current set up enables it to maximise on their beauty. 

In 2021 the lakeside where people normally picnicked doubled as the ‘auditorium’ as a series of marquees that remained open on one side were erected. Before, it was a joy to emerge from the opera to see the gardens all lit up in different colours, but suddenly the illuminated trees actually formed a backdrop to the action after it turned dark. With the occasional fish jumping in the lake, swan gliding by or duck flying overhead, it was hard to picture the surroundings being any more idyllic. 

Between 2021 and 2023 it developed the concept further by moving from four small to one large marquee, with some people still eating and viewing the opera from the same spot. Other developments included reducing the gap between the auditorium and the stage to retain the notion of watching the opera from across the lake while providing for a greater sense of intimacy. This year everyone will view the opera from tiered seating, while having the opportunity to picnic elsewhere in the grounds. Guests are welcome to bring their own or to order the specially designed West Green House Opera Picnic, while other dining options can also be booked in advance.

Over the years the surroundings have been used in the productions so that in 2022 Victoria Newlyn set L’elisir d’amore on a river cruise, with Dulcamara being rowed across the lake before climbing aboard. Last year in John Ramster’s Cavalleria rusticana, ‘Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto’ saw a statue of the Virgin Mary rowed on a barge across the lake before being brought onto the stage. This is before we even come to the serendipitous events such as a flock of Canada geese suddenly taking flight across the lake during the opera’s Intermezzo, as happened on opening night.

“…West Green House Opera is built around gardens that can be visited almost all year round…”

The festival lasts a mere ten days, but much is packed into that time as three fully staged productions rub shoulders with several other performances and events. The first main production is Falstaff (20 and 21 July), which will be presented by what might be dubbed West Green House Opera’s ‘dream team’, comprising director and designer Richard Studer and conductor Jonathan Lyness. Their successes at the venue have included Ariadne auf Naxos (2015), Un ballo in maschera (2017), Madama Butterfly and Candide (both 2018), Die Fledermaus (2019), La rondine (2021), Le nozze di Figaro (2022) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2023). Time and again, they have proven their ability to present simple yet effective stagings that maximise on what is already inherent in the opera, and one suspects they will be in particularly sure command of this comedy. It certainly seems likely that, with the stage surrounded by water, they will find an innovative way of looking as if Falstaff has been dumped in the river at the end of Act II. Those planning to see the opera on 21 July may wish to make a day of it, and also attend the Lunchtime Concert being presented at midday.

The second main production, The Barber of Seville (27 and 28 July), also features a production team with a proven track record at the venue. Director Victoria Newlyn’s previous triumphs at the venue include Così fan tutte (2016), La Cenerentola (2019) and L’elisir d’amore (2022), while conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren, a former English National Opera Mackerras Fellow, led the UK premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s Blue at English National Opera last year, and has previously conducted La Cenerentola at West Green House. His many credits at Opera Holland Park include Les pêcheurs de perles (2013), Il barbiere di Siviglia (2014), Lakmé (2015), La bohème (2016)La rondine (2017), La traviata (2018 and 2021) and Un ballo in maschera (2019), and he will also open its 2024 season with Tosca. 

In 2023 the season’s third opera was an (albeit dynamic) concert staging of Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe, but this year the final piece will also be fully staged. On 26 July West Green House presents Suor Angelica, the second of the three operas that comprise Puccini’s Il trittico, which will be directed by John Ramster and conducted by Stephen Higgins. The cast features past and present participants in the West Green House Opera Young Artist Programme, which has been a great success story in its own right, so a highly moving evening looks in store. 

The opening night of the season (19 July) sees West Green House welcome the BBC Concert Orchestra for the first time for an Opera Gala Concert. Conducted by John Andrews, who led Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci here in 2023, the concert will be a celebration of opera, filled with a host of popular classics and some special guest soloists.

Away from the Theatre on the Lake, an evening entitled Oz & Armonico: Gin & Phonic (23 July) will take place in the Pavilion on the Theatre Lawn, which enjoys a view of West Green House itself. The writer, wine critic and broadcaster Oz Clarke was a singer for many years, having sung with both the Monteverdi Choir and the Academy of St Martin’s, and over the evening will explore the relationship between gin, music and humans over the centuries. As Oz narrates the evening, which promises ‘music, gin, incredible facts and blunt fiction’ the Armonico Consort will perform the music of Purcell, Handel and Dowland with soprano Eloise Irving and countertenor William Towers. Ticket prices include two tasting glasses of gin, and the success of the evening seems virtually guaranteed since it follows a similar event last year in which Oz & Armonico investigated the spurious links between wine from around the world and Baroque music. 

• West Green House Opera’s 2024 season runs from 19 to 28 July. For further details and to book tickets visit its website. 

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