Garsington Opera

Tony CooperRossini's Neapolitan masterpiece, Armida, was conducted by David Parry, music director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival Chorus.Tony Cooper

Garsington Opera lives on! After 21 years at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire its new home from next year will be Wormsley - the family home of the Getty's, nicely located on the edge of the Chiltern Hills about 15 miles from Garsington itself.

Garsington, however, will be dearly missed by summer opera fans particularly those that enjoy dining al fresco in the long interval in the lovely Italianate gardens designed by Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband Philip when they bought the estate in 1915.

If Lady O brought such majesty to the place through flora and fauna, it was merchant banker and opera aficionado, Leonard Ingrams - who purchased the property in 1982 - that made Garsington an opera-lovers' paradise!

He always wanted a house with large grounds to host a summer opera festival similar to Glyndebourne and at Garsington he found it. His dream was realised. But, at 63, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the wheel of his car while driving to his home after a performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne with his wife Rosalind.

Ingrams' passion was to give a platform to the rarer operas of Richard Strauss while the present artistic director, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, does likewise for Rossini. This year, therefore, one was treated to a rarity - Rossini's Neapolitan masterpiece, Armida, first performed at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, on 11 November 1817. Surprisingly, Garsington's production was the first in Great Britain. I wonder why?

But just like Glyndebourne in East Sussex, Garsington has presented some pretty impressive stuff over the years and although I've only been to the festival on a handful of occasions I've always enjoyed myself and, therefore, made doubly sure that I was there for the final fling at the Manor. I couldn't resist Armida and also took in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, which first saw the light of day in Aldeburgh's tiny Jubilee Hall as part of the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival.

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Such a lovely and inviting work, Garsington's production of Armida did it full justice. It proved to be a thoroughly lively and refreshing affair while ingeniously directed by Martin Duncan, whose production of Mirandolina last year was well received. He was recently appointed artistic advisor to the cultural director of the 2012 London Olympics.

The man in the pit was renowned Rossini interpreter, David Parry, showing off Rossini's dazzling and tuneful score to the full. A Norfolk inhabitant, he's music director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival Chorus and, indeed, conducted a marvellous performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony at this year's festival.

In fact, Norfolk was well represented as the company's chief electrician, Darren Male, was on his annual busman's holiday taking time off from his regular job at Norwich Theatre Royal. Scottish-born singer, Mark Wilde, a former UEA student, played Snout, while two of his fellow conspirators - Jonathan Best (Quince) and Sion Goronwy (Snug) - have all appeared in Norwich sometime or other with various national opera companies including Glyndebourne on Tour.

A wonderful romantic opera, Armida involves magic powers and, appropriately, an enchanted garden, with set designs by Ashley Martin-Davis attractive as the opera itself. Lady O would have most certainly approved.

The libretto - inspired by the 16th-century Italian poet Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberate - tells the story of the sorceress Armida who lures men to her island prison. She has been sent by dark forces to undermine the Paladin knights but, in good operatic tradition, has fallen in love with one of them, Rinaldo.

The title-role, one of the longest and most demanding of Rossini scores with difficult coloratura passages of every imaginable kind, was sung with bags of confidence and flair by the bright young British-born soprano, Jessica Pratt, who's well on course for a brilliant and globetrotting career. She simply excelled in the role while controlling the higher passages effortlessly. Her love duets with American-born tenor, Victor Ryan Robertson, as Rinaldo, came beautifully across in true 19th-century style.

The score further demands a trio of good tenors. In this case the Spanish singer, David Alegret, stylishly played knights Gernando and Ubaldo, Romania's Bogdan Mihai was absolutely stunning in his UK debut as Goffredo (leader of the Paladins) and British-born singer, Nicholas Watts, sang Eustazio, Goffredo's brother, with panache. The Greek bass, Christophoros Stamboglis, also excelled in the key roles of Idraote (King of Damascus, Armida's uncle) and Astarotte (leader of Armida's spirits).

Steuart Bedford found himself in the pit for Midsummer Night's Dream. An authority on Britten, he worked with the composer over many years and was his assistant in his own recording of the work, therefore his knowledge of the score is second to none. He brilliantly conducted a cast that included some of today's most promising young operatic talent. Andrew Staples (Lysander) and George von Bergen (Demetrius) and Anna St�phany (Hermia) and Katherine Manley (Helena) proved to be a love match for each other - in spirit and in voice - highlighting more than ever that true loves never runs smoothly. Thank God it was all a dream!

James Laing, rapidly establishing himself at the forefront of a new generation of British counter-tenors, was majestic in the role of Oberon while the young British soprano, Rebecca Bottone, in the role of Tytania, shined brightly like the North Star in a cloudless sky. Recently, she brought great attention to the role of Marie in Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna.

Daniel Slater, responsible for Garsington's outstanding production of La Cenerentola last year, directed imaginatively, while the production's set designs by Francis O'Connor were cleverly conceived and striking to say the least.

As you entered the auditorium one was greeted by a dream of a set looking a bit like Fagin's den. Comprising a stack of well-used beds at variable angles and grotty old mattresses it was also not a far cry from Tracey Emin or Steptoe!

The wedding party scene in the final act, however, was a transformation of such sparkle and delight that it was not dissimilar to those staged in the grand 19th-century pantomime tradition. This 'Dream' will long be remembered even after the dream has faded.

t The season opened and closed with the opera that launched Garsington - Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Next year's programme is already published. Here's the trio of goodies to look forward to: Vivaldi's La verit� in cimento, Mozart's The Magic Flute and Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. The festival runs from June 2 to July 5 and one person who'll be taking his seat will be Sir Terry Wogan, a big supporter of Garsington Opera.

Long may it live and long may it flourish at Wormsley!

t 01865 361636,