Notes on...

Country house picnics (with some ace opera attached)

The English approach to opera and the open air betrays our national discomfort with the art form

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

I stole a blanket last night. Rather a nice one, in fact. I feel bad about it, of course, but guilt is less inconvenient than pneumonia; and after trying to blow-dry my waterlogged dinner jacket with the winds howling through Garsington Opera’s ‘airy’ pavilion, it seemed like pneumonia or the blanket were the options.

Forgive the melodramatic, self-justificatory tone. That, too, has its roots in the evening’s diversions, which included a performance of Intermezzo, Richard Strauss’s melodramatic and self-justificatory autobiographical account of a marital misunderstanding. It’s an odd piece, lovely in some ways, trite and misogynistic in others.

Some decades ago, after a May Day ball in Oxford, I learned that poncing around wet and muddy fields in evening dress is misguided; a category error, even. I vowed not to do it again. But now my early summer is occupied with little else than poncing around wet fields in evening wear. Garsington, Glynde-bourne, Grange Park — and that’s just the home counties. I can now find challenges for my dry-cleaner much further afield, in Longborough, Iford or Bampton.

Country house opera suits opera critics because the levels of invention and talent are commonly very high, despite meagre resources. It also suits the British public, who, though they remain uncomfortable around opera, certainly feel at home with boozy picnics in questionable weather.

But you needn’t stay in Britain for summertime opera. You may even travel to countries where they have a summer. Coincidentally, some of those countries are entirely comfortable with the idea of opera, so there’s no need for picnics. In Salzburg, for example, going to the opera is both natural and desirable. The festival puts out a red carpet on opening nights. There are even paparazzi, though God knows where they send the photographs. A more spectacular natural setting may be found in Bregenz, where the stage is lapped by the mountain-ringed Lake Constance and performances are only occasionally disrupted by James Bond types infiltrating fictional criminal networks. Across the border in Bavaria lies Bayreuth. Here the edifying spectacle of Wagner’s operas — and the unedifying one of his feuding descendants — may be enjoyed in a tailor-made setting.

In Italy, the choice is equally rich, with wall-to-wall Puccini in Torre del Lago and more mixed fare flourishing in the adapted handball stadium that houses the Macerata Opera Festival. Americans, too, have grown comfortable around opera, though this may have less to do with the art of sung drama than with the coincidence that opera tickets remain an excellent way not only to tell others how much money you make, but also that you have a certain je ne sais quoi. East-coasters may find their je ne sais quoi at Glimmerglass, nestling by a lake in the hills of New York State, while west-coasters may enjoy the sunny delights and artistic flights of Santa Fe Opera, whose various airy pavilions will never know a Siberian wind.

This year, though, I’m sticking with the home counties. I have a blanket to return, after all.

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  • Dogsnob

    A waterlogged dinner-jacket.

    The Horror.

  • Precambrian

    Never really been one for opera. I shall stick with chamber music – less of an assault on the eardrums.

    • Sparafucile

      Just ignore his (?) recommendations of Strauss opera, and anything even-more recent, and you’ll be fine.

  • Callipygian

    Santa Fe is a long way from the West Coast, being in the mountains of New Mexico.

  • Mnestheus

    Try Syon: you can retreat , picnic and all, to tables in the orangerie should the weather turn, and the performance seating is under glass as well..

  • Sparafucile

    West-coasters may … enjoy Santa Fe?

    Santa Fe happens to be about as far from the West Coast (even at its closest point) as Bayreuth is from England.

    And, Guy — do we really want to know what you were doing traipsing “around wet and muddy fields in evening dress”? Or did your parents have a wickedly evil sense of humor when they named you?

  • LindaIGarcia

    ….All time hit the spectator Find Here