Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Watching (or rather, half-watching, because as always there was opera admin to do) the new ITV drama series Downton Abbey on the computer last night (via ITV Player) it was a delight to see glimpses of Bampton, and especially St Mary's church. Although most of the programme has been filmed at Highclere Castle, Bampton has been used for the village scenes. The scene of the Edwardian funeral emerging from St Mary's was curiously reminiscent of the rehearsals for our 2007 production (another UK première) of Georg Benda's Romeo and Juliet, a very early Shakespearian opera. The photographs are from the dress rehearsal on a fine Thursday night in July when the funeral procession of Juliet (Joana Seara) led from the church to the adjacent Deanery Garden. The pictures also show Ilona Domnich as Juliet's confidante Laura (sneaking an inappropriate smile in one of them). Sadly there are no photographs of the actual production: within 24 hours of this dress rehearsal Bampton was completely marooned by flood-waters following freak rain of devastating intensity. Consequently our first performance on the Friday night took place in the church itself rather than on the Deanery stage where our set stood soaked and forlorn; conductor Matthew Halls had to play the score on the church piano as most of the orchestra couldn't reach the village. Fortunately we had all the singers, but we had no electricity, and Juliet's funeral bier, carried around the church by four black monks by candlelight (a necessity, not an effect) was extraordinarily moving. For the 30 in the audience who managed to get there in these exceptionally difficult circumstances, it was an experience to be treasured. No-one has forgotten that evening! In particular the fact that electricity was restored at the exact second when Juliet woke up in the tomb (this is 18th-century Shakespeare with a happy ending) was uncanny.

Monday, 27 September 2010

It's time to be thinking again in a big way about our final Figaro performance coming up next week (Thursday 7 October, at 7pm) at St John's Smith Square, London. More rehearsals of course, and gathering of props and troops - plenty to keep us out of mischief. But before reporting on that, here are some delightful photographs of the three 'goddesses' in Arne's brilliant Judgment of Paris, an operatic gem which should be as popular (though somewhat different!) as Dido and Aeneas. The photographs are from our performance a week ago at an utterly wonderful country-house party in Hampshire where we were looked after and appreciated with great care. Demonstrating a full air safety drill are Joana Seara (our Cherubino in Figaro) as Juno, Serena Kay as Pallas (appropriately the "Virgin Goddess" according to William Congreve's libretto), and Ilona Domnich as the victorious Venus. Flying will never be the same!

Friday, 3 September 2010

We've already moved on to the next project, although of course we have a further Figaro at St John's Smith Square on 7 October - but coming up before then is the first of four performances of Arne's delicious masque, The Judgment of Paris. We're mystified why this brilliantly composed work is not better known, as the music is so inventive and the story of the celestial beauty competition has enormous comic potential. So our Cherubino, (Joana Seara), is now re-training to be an air hostess (Juno), along with her rival goddesses Pallas (Serena Kay) and Venus (Ilona Domnich). Pictured is the lovely 18th century Holywell Music Room in Oxford, which we visited this week for reconnaissance: sadly it's too small to take the Arne Air jumbo to Mount Olympus, so our November 7 performance there will be purely a concert, coupling the J of P with extracts from Arne's stirring Alfred. Tickets will be on sale very soon.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Despite it being possibly the coldest evening this summer, the sky was blue and the sunlight was brilliant, and the Westonbirt performance outshone even those at Bampton. Once again we were delighted by the warmest response of the audience both to the performance and to this version of Figaro. The pre-performance talk was, as always at Westonbirt, completely full, providing an opportunity to hear about Marcos Portugal's status and achievements. Temperature notwithstanding, the Westonbirt experience is very special, and the buildings and Grade I listed gardens are quite exceptional. This year the Italian garden has been restored (on-going) to extraordinary beauty and would itself have made a perfect setting for the garden finale of Figaro.... During the long interval the more intrepid picnickers remained outside to enjoy the gardens, but many took advantage of the sumptuous Victorian indoor dining rooms.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

We had very good rehearsals yesterday (Saturday) with all the cast happily adapting to the inevitably different layout and acoustic at Westonbirt. The acoustic is always amazing but it is a relief that moving the stage from our usual position has in no way affected the clarity of sound. Today (Sunday) although the weather may be changeable this morning, full sun is forecast throughout the performance with a clear sky. We look forward to another outstanding performance of this utterly endearing opera.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Four weeks on, and with a very happy holiday behind us, we now return to recreating Count Almaviva's castle of Aguasfrescas, this time on the delightful (and appropriately named) Orangery terrace at Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire. The heavy rain this week has been disheartening and on Wednesday when we transported the scenery from Bampton over to Westonbirt the rain prevented us from doing any more than storing it indoors. We'll have to make an early morning start tomorrow to build it in time for our rehearsals. Fortunately the sun is shining again and the forecast is fine for the coming weekend. It's always a delight going to Westonbirt where we have performed since 2000. We're hoping for a good audience, and a successful revival of this wonderful opera. The photographs show a sunny view from last year, and the damp state of play from earlier this week.

Monday, 26 July 2010

By now all the props are stowed in crates, the set is struck, the costumes washed and pressed, and all is over until our Westonbirt performance on 29 August. After three years of poor weather for our Bampton weekend, we were blessed this time with warm evenings (which was just as well as the Figaro performances went on until 10.45pm) and - most importantly - still air. The moon was a bit late rising (for which we chastised our lighting engineer Ian!), but otherwise conditions were perfect. We were delighted to welcome Dr David Cranmer from Lisbon, who has spent the past five years engaged on editing the manuscripts for these performances and who is now looking forward to promoting a new production of Figaro in Lisbon for Marcos Portugal's 250th anniversary in 2012. His pre-performance talks were enlightening and for us personally it was a great pleasure to meet him after years of email correspondence. The audiences were warm and enthusiastic, and the singers and orchestra were unanimous in their enjoyment and respect for this opera. It felt like a vintage Bampton weekend.