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No Go Arias

by on 26 June 2020

June Sans Tune

No Go Arias

Retrospective by Mark Aspen

Chilled champagne, evening sunshine, glamorously dressed ladies, gardens full of flowers and … the most superb opera.  This is what June should be all about.

Yes, yes, we all know it rains, dilutes the champagne, hides the sun, drenches the ladies and crushes the flowers, but this is all the fun of the fair when it comes to the English penchant for creating theatre under the most unlikely circumstances.

This time last year Mark Aspen Reviews sent its incisive opera critic, Suzanne Frost, a lady whose skills were honed in the (indoor) opera houses of Germany out to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to risk the English summer.  To our relief, “the weather gods were on our side”, in Suzanne’s own words, and soon she was entranced by the “very special magic” of the open air.

Hansel And Gretel

The piece was the grim Grimm story Hansel and Gretel transformed as Engelbert Humperdinck’s children’s opera “sweet in its simplicity yet rich in melodies” and performed with all its typical inventiveness by the English National Opera.  This one had a panto-style dame as the Witch (who shaves his legs with whipped cream) a full children’s choir and “sinister looking witches in dirty rags carrying broomsticks and sulkily sucking on lollipops”.  While the gingerbread house’s blinking flickering lights have “the irresistible appeal of an amusement arcade to a gambling addict”, back at home Hansel and Gretel’s mum is guzzling baked beans while dad is “relieving himself in the bushes of Regent’s Park”!

20180609_164119To get back to the genteel decorum evoked by my opening, with the chilled champagne, glamorous ladies etcetera, it surely has to be the country-house opera.  Glyndebourne is outstanding of course, but tickets are as hard to get as for an international at Twickenham.  However, less than an hour’s drive down the M3 from the RFU’s home takes you to Winchester and the incomparable Grange Festival.  It’s beautifully balanced choice in its yearly trio of operas, presented in its setting in the faded grandeur of a Georgian Greek-revival mansion, is always superb.  Last June’s programme followed the Grange Festival’s successful tripartite formula of: operatic tradition, in Mozart’s ever-popular Le nozze di Figaro; operatic fun, in Verdi’s only comic opera Falstaff; and operatic beginnings in Handel’s baroque masterpiece Belshazzar.

FigaroPromo5There are of course two famous operas based on Beaumarchais’ story Le Barbier de Séville, Rosinni’s knock-about romp, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (brilliant produced the previous year at The Grange Festival) and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, somewhat darker in its approach to the certainly non-21st-century themes.   Count Almaviva is planning to exercise droit de seigneur on Figaro’s bride, Suzanna, while “the pubescent pageboy, Cherubino, fired up with the rising sap of teenage testosterone” is “goosing the gals below stairs, and mooning after the ladies above stairs”.  As Almaviva, “Toby Gerling’s powerful baritone voice and forceful strutting body-language paint a picture “of a bull-necked pugilist”, while “Wallis Giunta clearly relishes the breeches role” of Cherubino, explaining his hormone affliction in the “hauntingly captivating” aria ladies you know what love is.  The set had “the muted mellowness of an Old Master, something a bit sinister that smacks of Caravaggio”.  Oh, and there were lots of flowers.

FalstaffPromo1The “big, boisterous, brilliant” Falstaff was, in contrast, set in a modern hotel pub by the river at Windsor.  When Verdi was eighty years old, he wrote Falstaff to revive the boredom of his retirement from a lifetime of writing tragic opera.  What a shame, this is a comic masterpiece based on the larger-than-life character created by Shakespeare, whom Verdi idolised (Shakespeare not Falstaff).  The show was undoubtedly stolen by Robert Hayward playing Falstaff as “an old roué, but a big-hearted one taking a punt” without “any intention of growing old gracefully”.  Haywood stood out as his “ruby-rich clear bass-baritone floods the opera-house with easeful energy”.  (You can currently hear him on-line playing Moses in Schönberg’s Moses und Aron with the Komische Oper Berlin.)

Belshzz4In contrast, the “sybaritic sensuality” of Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar came almost as a shock, an Old Testament epic that overwhelmed with its Baroque voluptuousness.  This first ever successful production of Belshazzar as an opera was a triumph.  On a set inspired by Breughel’s Tower of Babel, which “turns to reveal the sumptuous golden walled palace”, the King of Babylon wallows in “an unbridled drunken orgy of sex … as the Persians besiege the city”.  Everything happened on a grand scale in this opera, propelled by magnificent choruses and informed by lithe acrobats and aerialists, acting in multiple roles “kept busy repeatedly changing costumes to become Babylonians, Jews, Medes or Persians”.  As Belshazzar, “muscular tenor” Robert Murray was “relishing acting the reckless Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
Pdespot” and countertenor Christopher Ainslie (who played Ottone in The Grange Festival’s Agrippina  and Oberon in A Midsummers’ Night’s Dream at ENO) portrayed Cyrus the Great with “considered audacity”.  But Claire Booth, as Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris used her “expressive soprano vocal colour” to get to the heart of the opera’s message.  She is a three-dimensional character facing so many overlapping dilemmas.  Who’d be a mum?

Alas, this June will be a famine for those who usually feast the (possible all six) senses on country-house opera, with food for the soul not returning until 2021.  So let’s prepare for next year.  Unless you want to go and see the new boy on the block (Nevill Holt Opera with its brand-new theatre, but that is in Leicestershire), there are five options from the western side of London that are doable within a day.

If we start again at the RFU Twickenham, the nearest is the Holland Park Opera, about ten miles away, but you are better off on the bus.  So get your face mask on ready, as it is to be first off the blocks next summer on 1st June.   New productions include Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, but you will have to wait until 2022 to see 2020 planned programme with Rigoletto and The Merry Widow.

West Green Opera, a quick thirty mile flip down the M3 at Hartley Wintney, is probably going with Puccini’s La Rondine next June, but we need to wait until this August to find out.  It is in a lovely bijou garden, so worth waiting for.

Gasington Opera, forty miles up the M40 at Stokenchurch, commissioned British composer David Sawer’s The Skating Rink for 2020, but this can still be seen on the wonderful OperaVison website.   We are yet to discover what delights are planned for 2021.

GrangeAerialThe Grange Festival, fifty miles away, but as we said less than an hour’s drive down the M3, is always a delight, and artistic director Michael Chance, has kept it simple, its 2020 is being moved in its entirety to 2021.  So Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Massenet’s Manon Lescaut await our presence.  Meanwhile though you can take a look at The Grange Festival’s baroque excellence on-line with Handel’s Agrippina from 2018.

Getting to Glyndebourne is trickier; it’s seventy miles away out in the Sussex countryside.  Sadly for 2020 even the Glyndebourne Tour has been cancelled.  We will know in mid-July what is planned for next year.  However, a fantastic piece from last year is currently on-line, Glyndebourne’s quirky take on Handel’s Rinaldo, the crusaders come to St Trinian’s … with a bit of S&M and stacks of countertenors!


Sorceress Armida; Jacquelyn Stucker,
Almirena; Anna Devin,
Rinaldo; Jake Arditti,
Saracen King Argante; Aubrey Allicock,
Goffredo; James Hall,
Christian Magician; William Towers,
Women; Catriona Hewitson,
Siren 1; Chlo

Come next June, which of the five should you go for?  The Grange Festival is my choice, the grandest of venues, but tucked away in depths of Hampshire, it has elegance and flair, and Michael Chance’s brilliant choice of operas.  And of course there is champagne, sunshine, and Alchemilla mollis in the evening dew.  June can’t come round again too soon.

Mark Aspen

June 2020

Photography by Clive Barda, Simon Annand and Bill Cooper









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