This gem of an opera season in Hampshire reinforces the best of what a quintessential English summer evening can be
by Melinda Hughes
What an unexpectedly magical evening I had at Grange Park Opera the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee. The audience was roused to sing a both verses of God Save the Queen accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Italian Gianluca Marciano before curtain up on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
There are many opera festivals to take your pick from: Glyndebourne is the most established and the grandest, then there is Longborough Opera in Gloucestershire or Garsington at Wormsley, each producing wonderful operas with great singers – but nothing quite beats the intimate spirit of the Grange for its romantic Bohemia. This gem of an opera season in Hampshire reinforces the best of what a quintessential English summer evening can be.
Wasfi Kani OBE is the driving force, together with Michael Moody, behind this unique festival and over the past fifteen years they have managed to establish something extraordinary: bringing together a tightly-knit clan of wealthy and well-connected patrons who tirelessly support their ambitious plans not only for renovating a crumbling building but developing an opera company that harbours artistic excellence.
Companies such as ICAP and Laurent-Perrier have also ensured these plans are no longer just ambition, for I saw the best singers on the opera circuit today: Claire Rutter with her glorious dramatic voice and flawless technique as Butterfly, Stephen Gadd a rich-toned and touching Sharpless, Marco Panuccio as a vocally charged Pinkerton and Sara Fulgoni a wonderful Suzuki. Together with Andrew Rees as Goro they made a world-class team.
Arrive in good time and you can have champagne on the terrace of the seventeenth-century Grade I-listed estate overlooking the sweeping hills of Hampshire. It’s black tie, of course, and terribly smart but not like at Glyndebourne. No, this is much more familial and intimate. The house, in a charming state of on-going repair, has the most superb indoor theatre which to me seemed acoustically perfect. If you choose to picnic in the grounds, brave the unpredictable British weather and the ha-has you are promised a spectacular view. If not, then dining rooms reminiscent of a crumbling Neapolitan palazzo provide a delightfully decadent alternative. Food is provided by Sally Clarke and there is a large selection of wine and champagne.
I happen to have sung the role of Butterfly no fewer than 67 times for no fewer than five companies but I must say that conductor Gianluca Marciano brought out certain phrases from the English Chamber Orchestra that I had never noticed before in the scoring. He encouraged superb indulgent fermatas from the soloists as well as stunning pianissimi and truly exciting tempi. The energy and passion Marciano emits as conductor is one that I recognise as from the super-league and I predict he will be taking the podium at Covent Garden within five years. Watch out, Pappano, you have competition!
In contrast, the production directed by John Doyle was rather restrained and stark. I understood Doyle’s vision but felt that the denouncement from the Bonze and the passion of the big love duet at the end of Act One suffered from this Zen approach. However there was a stunning moment during the flower duet when Butterfly and Suzuki performed a geisha dance beneath falling petals, a longed-for visual treat. I can’t recommend a visit to the Grange enough.
This season sees acclaimed productions of Idomeneo, Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin and ends with a special fifteenth birthday party celebration with Simon Keenlyside on 2 July so there's plenty to choose from. ‘Beyond the romance and elegance you can see stars perform in the most extraordinary setting,’ explains an excited Wasfi Kani who graciously greets her operagoers during the extended dinner interval. Her energy and spirit are infectious.
The Grange has achieved something wonderful and magical. So set your sat nav, pack your hamper and head for Hampshire for a must of the British season.