The festival that came out of COVID-19 stronger than ever promises to hit the heights once more.
Situated near Winchfield in Hampshire, West Green House Opera may be smaller than Glyndebourne, Garsington or the Granges, but it delivers high quality performances while ensuring that the intimacy and beauty of the venue remain selling points in their own right. Unlike any of the other players, West Green House’s festival is built around gardens that can be visited almost all year round, and so arriving early is to be recommended to make the most of the setting, which includes water and walled gardens as well as a beautiful lakeside area.
In 2021 uncertainty over COVID-19 led West Green House to hold the majority of its performances not in its Green Theatre, but on a stage that had been built out from the small island that occupies the centre of the lake. The lakeside where people normally picnicked thus 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. In fact, it was all so beautiful that West Green House promptly decided to stick with the new format!
It developed the concept further in 2022 by giving people the choice between watching the opera from the table where they dined, or picnicking elsewhere in the grounds before moving to tiered seating for the performance. This choice will remain for the 2023 season although the marquee from which people will watch the opera has been further developed. The stage that is built out from the island had to be put together very quickly in 2021, but with a little more time to plan in 2022 Victoria Newlyn’s production of L’elisir d’amore was able to make real use of the surroundings by setting the action on a river cruise and seeing Dulcamara rowed across the lake before climbing aboard. With further plans to consolidate the structure in 2023, we can expect even more integration of staging and setting this year.
The festival lasts a mere ten days, but much is packed into that time as two full-scale productions rub shoulders with several other performances and events. The first main production is of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (22 and 23 July). It may seem a bold choice to opt for a musical rather than an opera, but it is one of the very highest quality, and West Green House has a proud tradition of including musicals within its season, having delivered concert performances of Guys and Dolls, Gigi and High Society in recent years. It is presented by what might be dubbed West Green House Opera’s ‘dream team’, comprising director and designer Richard Studer and conductor Jonathan Lyness, who have had such successes at the venue as Ariadne auf Naxos (2015), Un ballo in maschera (2017), Madama Butterfly and Candide (both 2018), Die Fledermaus (2019), La rondine (2021) and Le nozze di Figaro (2022). Studer’s strength has always rested on his ability to produce simple yet effective stagings that maximise upon what is already inherent in the opera, and one can picture how the onset of darkness during the performance will be exploited to create an increasingly chilling, but undoubtedly multi-faceted, experience.
“…it delivers high quality performances while ensuring… the intimacy and beauty of the venue…”
The second main production features that perennial operatic pairing of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (29 and 30 July). It will be directed by John Ramster, conducted by John Andrews and designed by Bridget Kimak. Ramster’s Eugene Onegin here in 2021 was extremely successful at using the setting to contrast the wholesomeness of nature, where good honest peasants till the soil, with the corruptness of society, where balls see emotions run high and duels formalise the killing of people. One can imagine him similarly contrasting the apparent simplicity of village life with the sinister love triangles and jealousy that lie beneath the surface. With the former opera taking place in the light and the latter after the picnic interval in the dark, the whole evening is also likely to feel like one huge descent into chaos and suspicion.
On 28 July Thomas Guthrie, a former Jette Parker Young Artist Stage Director who has also directed for Longborough Festival Opera, presents a concert staging of Offenbach’s 1867 version of Robinson Crusoe. Sung on this occasion in English, and loosely based on Daniel Defoe’s classic (although the work owes as much to British pantomime as to the book itself), the opéra comique is the tale of a hopeless romantic who runs away to sea only to be shipwrecked. His fiancée Edwige and her two servants set out to find him and themselves fall into trouble involving drunken pirates and waltzing cannibals! The piece features some delightful tunes, which will be conducted by David Parry, a healthy dose of political chaos and a lot of laughs, and with much of the drama occurring on a desert island it is hard to picture a more suitable setting than West Green House’s stage on a lake.
On the opening night of the season, Guthrie presents Constanze or The death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the eyes of the love of his life (21 July). Weaving together song, dance and puppetry, it will tell the story of the dramatic last months of Mozart’s life from the perspective of the woman for whom he wrote some of his most heart wrenching music. This one act piece is designed to be enjoyed under the stars and will begin at 20.45, with dining taking place beforehand from 18.00.
Away from the Theatre on the Lake, an evening entitled Oz & Armonico Drink to Music (25 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. In a completely unique programme directed by Christopher Monks and presented in cabaret style, narrator Oz and Armonico Consort will investigate the spurious links between wine from around the world and Baroque music. Featuring the work of composers including Bach, Purcell and Vivaldi, plus some of the most upbeat Baroque dance music from South America, it promises to be a highly entertaining evening. The concert ticket price includes wine and nibbles.
Last year West Green House Opera’s formal Young Artist Covers Programme commenced, allowing the venue to extend its invaluable mentoring of young artists during their early careers. Now, thanks to sponsorship from patrons, West Green House is able to offer a second cast of principals the chance to master a completely new role. In this way, they will learn not only the musical score but also the dramatic presentation, and shadow the principal cast throughout the rehearsal and performance period. This means that, even if what happened with Carmen at Longborough Festival Opera last year when six cast members tested positive for COVID-19 on the morning of the first performance, the show can go on (as it did on that occasion). The programme culminates with a showcase in London, and the artists will also present a midday concert of arias and duets on 23 July in the Pavilion on the Theatre Lawn. This means that there are some days when it is possible to come to West Green House for more than one event, while there are several opportunities for an overnight stay that would enable attendance at at least two magnificent performances at this most enchanting of venues.
• West Green House Opera’s 2023 season runs from 21 to 30 July. For further details and tickets visit its website.