LONGBOROUGH FESTIVAL OPERA – the first 30 years

As a young man Martin Graham dreamed of bringing opera to his sleepy home patch nestling in the Cotswolds, and Richard Bratby’s beautiful new book describes the exciting thirty years since that dream began to come to fruition.

“Longborough Festival Opera – the first 30 years” details the Grahams’ invitation to Travelling Opera to present productions in the grounds of their house at Banks Fee, on the outskirts of Longborough, it tells of Martin’s hands-on building of a functioning opera-house and his struggle with the local council objecting to its existence and subsequently to the pink colouring of its fa├žade, and later of his victory over HM Revenues and Customs over VAT-exemption (something which benefited arts organisations nationwide).

It was not long before visits from travelling companies became unnecessary, with the formation of the thriving organisation which gloried into Longborough Festival Opera. During the 30 years since, LFO has expanded to include educational outreach work, community involvement, and a settling into an annual pattern of four productions each summer, some revivals, others brand-new presentations. The company survived the Covid pandemic, erecting a heated, acoustically comfortable temporary big top for performances as soon as lockdown restrictions were eased, and is now basking in its status as one of the leaders among members of the country-house opera genre.

It proudly possesses an asset of which none of those other enterprises can boast, a pit extending under the stage to accommodate an orchestra of 70, very much in the manner of the Festspielhaus in Wagner’s Bayreuth. For Wagner has been a long-time passion of Martin and Lizzie Graham, and over the years they have seen their vision of  staging that composer’s epic four-opera Ring cycle become reality.

The beginnings were tentative, single -night stagings of the “mini-Ring”, Jonathan Dove’s adroit condensation of the tetralogy to be performed over two nights, commissioned by City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Among the performers when Longborough staged it was the Bayreuth veteran Donald McIntyre as Wotan.

Then, opera by opera, the complete version was unveiled, until in 2013, the bicentenary of the composer’s death, Longborough was the only professional company in the UK to stage a complete Ring cycle – three in fact. Another brand-new cycle has been building since, and will be seen in its entirety in 2024. Already a huge amount of international interest has been aroused.

Richard Bratby’s survey focusses on this Wagnerian triumph, with its chapters prefaced by apt quotations from the composer’s Ring libretto. There have been other Wagnerian offerings along the way, namely Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Tristan und Isolde, but Bratby perpetrates a misunderstanding when he quotes one of his revered mentors as writing “Longborough Festival Opera… has rounded off its Wagner canon”. If LFO has presented Rienzi, Lohengrin and the desirable but impracticable Mastersingers, then I must have blinked for many hours.

Before we leave the Wagner theme, Bratby pays deserved tribute to the remarkable Longborough Festival Orchestra, which, under the musical direction of Anthony Negus, who learned his craft at the feet of the Wagnerian genius Reginald Goodall, has developed into surely the country’s most adept Wagner orchestra. “Fixer” of this invaluable asset is Philip Head, formerly a leading first violinist in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and whose well-thumbed contacts book has enabled him to engage musicians from the CBSO, Stratford’s Orchestra of the Swan, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the English Symphony Orchestra and elsewhere.

By homing in on Wagner, Bratby has allowed himself space to pay only lip-service to other composers featuring on LFO’s playlist. He quite rightly mentions the recent Korngold “Die Tote Stadt”, which certainly earned the company copious brownie points, and the delicious” L’Elisir d’Amore” characterising Longborough village itself, but there is no room for such memorable productions as a “La Traviata” conceived as a biopic of Marilyn Monroe, in which the captivating Anna Patalong played the doomed heroine Violetta portraying another doomed heroine; nor for 2022’s Carmen, which introduced a new character, Don Jose’s mute, ever-present mother, mesmerically played by long-time LFO stalwart Maria Jagusz.

There are a couple of other quibbles: this treasurable book is lavishly illustrated, but not every fascinating image is captioned; also, the long dining intervals get a mention, but no discussion. I know they are a characteristic of country-house opera, but are they always realistic? I have twice gone into print questioning the sense, for example, of having a 90-minute supper interval (the length of a pre-VAR football match) before punters return for the final 25 minutes of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen (such a winner here in the Cotswold countryside).

But I niggle. Richard Bratby’s book is a wonderful celebration of a jewel in the crown of the Cotswolds, of Gloucestershire, and indeed of the country’s operatic offer – and all without a penny of public funding.

*Available from Longborough Festival Opera LFO.org.uk

Christopher Morley

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