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
“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 façade, 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
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
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
*Available from Longborough Festival Opera LFO.org.uk