Michael Tanner

Dorset delight

An annual event I'm ashamed not to have caught until now

Dorset Opera dates back to 1974, but I have only just been for the first time. The quality of what I saw and heard was such that I’m annoyed with myself, ashamed even, for not having been before. The annual effort begins each year as soon as the Bryanston School holidays start; everyone involved in the performances lives in the school accommodation: that includes the star singers, the conductors, directors, the chorus, largely consisting of young people from around the country, and the orchestra, freelance professionals; and no doubt many more.

They assemble on a Saturday and the – this year – five performances take place during the second half of the second week. Until this year there has only been one opera, often a familiar one, but some courageously obscure choices, including UK premieres. The Coade Theatre, in which the performances take place, is a delight. It seats 500, the orchestra seemed comfortably disposed and the acoustics are excellent.

I went on the last day, when, heroically, Tosca was given at 2.30 p.m. and Otello at 7.30 p.m. Josephine Barstow, a seasoned Tosca herself, directed the first of these, and did what all directors used to do, until they began to think theirs was the most important input: she made the action lucid at every point, got the singers to react to one another plausibly, and made good use of the smallish stage and few props. I haven’t seen many Toscas that were so convincing and absorbing.

The title role was taken by Lee Bisset, who made a strong impression on me as Sieglinde last year at Longborough. With a strong, steady voice, plenty of temperament, but also a sly sense of humour in the few places that permit it, she will surely soon be in the world’s leading opera houses.

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