Iford Arts: ‘A Fairy Queen’
Early Opera Company, Tim Nelson
Iford Manor. 3 August 2016
Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon, was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. He created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classical-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor house, with terraces of formal architectural bits and bobs including a tiny recreated Italian cloister.Since 1996, the cloister has been home to summer opera productions, presented by Iford Arts. Their latest season concluded with ‘A Fairy Queen’ presented by Iford Arts and their regular orchestra from Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company.
Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen is notoriously difficult to perform or stage. The music, designed to accompany the masques that form part of the various acts, only lasts long enough for half a normal concert. Performed complete, with Betterton’s rather awkward version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it seems to lasts for ever. I remember the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival Continue reading
Although perhaps not quite reaching the social cachet of Glyndebourne or Garsington, the opera season at Iford Manor is always a delight, both for the setting and the standard of the music. A few miles south-east of Bath, the manor house is surrounded by the famous Peto garden, with an Italian cloister that is turned into a delightfully intimate opera house for the season. Unlike their companion’s ‘posh frocks and picnic’ focussed events, the dress code is ‘smart casual’ and picnicking opportunities come before, rather than during the opera, with a welcome coffee and biscuits filling the 20 minute interval. All this encourages a welcome focus on the music, rather than the surrounding social razzmatazz.
This year’s early music opera was Handel’s wonderful Agrippina, one of his most approachable operas despite, or perhaps because of, having been written when Handel was around 24, at the end of his enormously productive three years in Italy. This period produced some of his finest music, as reflected in the fact that Agrippina borrows extensively from Handel’s previous works – and, in turn, many extracts were later borrowed for later works. Continue reading
One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.
The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.
The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.