Winslow Hall is a large and handsome country house in Buckinghamshire, built in 1700 by Sir Christopher Wren, which Tony Blair nearly bought in 2007 when he was looking for an imposing residence appropriate to his station in life as a retired prime minister. The people of Winslow, the small town near Buckingham in which it stands, were understandably alarmed by the prospect of having the Blair family in their midst; but fortunately for them, Tony eventually decided not to buy the house, possibly because its unusual location on a street in the town would have made security a problem. Instead, it was bought four years ago by Christopher Gilmour, one of the five children of The Spectator’s former proprietor and editor Sir Ian Gilmour, the Conservative politician and cabinet minister who subsequently became a life peer as Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar.
Ian’s reign at The Spectator was one of the most distinguished in its long history, but that is by the way. His sons have also achieved a lot. The eldest, Sir David Gilmour, is an excellent writer and historian; Andrew is a senior official of the United Nations; Oliver is a successful conductor of classical music; and Christopher has made his name as a restaurateur. I don’t think of him as particularly rich, but perhaps he is richer than I imagine; for he not only bought a house that looks very expensive to maintain, but also decided almost immediately to start an opera festival there. He loves opera, which is fine. But it is hard to think of a quicker way to lose money than to stage opera without an Arts Council grant.
I have long been puzzled by the proliferation of country-house opera festivals in this country. Opera is not a native art form in ‘das Land ohne Musik’, and it is burdensome and expensive to put on. Yet there seem to be more such festivals in Britain than anywhere else on earth. I suppose we should mainly blame Glyndebourne for that. John Christie created the vogue for country opera as an elitist summer entertainment — dinner jackets, picnics on the lawn, and so on — and since then several other country-house owners have sought to follow suit. The most famous ones all begin with ‘G’ — Glyndebourne, Garsington, The Grange. The Gilmour fantasy is to be the fourth ‘G’.
I suggested to Christopher Gilmour on the telephone that this might be folie de grandeur. It was folly anyway, he replied. He had lost a lot of his own money on the enterprise. It had been incredibly difficult and exhausting to set up, and yet it had all been worth it. And when I went this month to the last performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s great opera Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor), a couple of days before the Scottish referendum, I could see why.
It was performed in a marquee in the garden, with a scratch orchestra and singers, mostly dressed in kilts, that I’d never heard of, with no sets but a backdrop screen of Scottish hills, and it was magnificent. Oliver Gilmour, who conducted with great authority, had hired the singers for poignantly small sums of money — the world seems to be full of excellent underemployed opera singers — and they were terrific, especially the Greek soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, who sang Lucia not only brilliantly but also with huge elegance, charm and dramatic power.
Glyndebourne set a standard of excellence in performance that its successors have tried to follow, often with impressive results. But Winslow Hall opera was something of an eye-opener for me. It showed that you don’t need fancy sets to make opera enjoyable — in fact, it may be much better without them — and especially that you don’t need imaginative modern productions aimed at making operas ‘relevant’ by changing their historical contexts. Such productions can actually drain operas of meaning and make them much harder to engage with.
The Lucia of Winslow Hall was a wholly satisfying event. It was modest in its budget, but successfully ambitious in its aspirations. And the audience included almost nobody in a dinner jacket. I really think that if country-house opera is to prosper in future, dinner jackets should be forbidden. Meanwhile, assuming that the Gilmours aren’t bankrupt by then, the Winslow Hall opera festival will return next year, probably with an opera by Verdi. It has so far received very little publicity, but it is thoroughly deserving of our support.