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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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