S&H Opera review

Messager: Fortunio, Grange Park Opera, July 2001 (H-T W)

Grange Park Opera, the brainchild of the conductor Wasfi Kani, the founder of Pimlico Opera and former chief executive of Garsington Opera, is only four years of age, but has already acquired cult status for opera fans. Whoever visits this festival for the first time and has no idea what to expect may be in for a cultural shock. Set within the most magnificent landscape of Hampshire, seven miles from Winchester, one is suddenly confronted by a huge Greek temple with Doric columns, called The Grange. Close behind is a smaller temple with Ionic columns, formerly the Orangerie, later a picture gallery (Eisenhower and Churchill met here on the 24th of March 1944, to discuss the D-Day invasion of Europe) and, since 1998, the home of Grange Park Opera.

The history of The Grange mirrors the rivalry between two of the most important English banking families, Drummonds and Barings, during the time of the Greek Revival in Europe around the end of the 18th century. The Baring estate adjoined the Drummond estate and with the arrival of the Greek Revival they wanted to outshine each other with the reconstruction of their country houses. Finally, Drummond gave up and, in 1817, Baring bought his estate. In 1804, William Wilkins, the architect of the National Gallery, had transformed the exterior of the original house into a Greek temple, while in 1820, C R Cockerell, the architect of the Ashmolean in Oxford, had been asked by Alexander Baring (soon 1st Baron Ashburton) to design the Orangerie. The estate changed hands in 1934, only to be bought back by John Baring (Lord Ashburton) in 1964. But as nobody had lived there for some time and as John Baring had no intention of doing so either, The Grange slowly disintegrated until it was placed under the guardianship of English Heritage. When Wasfi Kani approached Lord Ashburton with the suggestion of using The Grange for a short opera season and converting the Orangerie into a small theatre (with seats from the Royal Opera House before its renovation), she met with open ears. Even today, the improvised auditorium with its spooky atmosphere (the beautifully designed, but totally broken ceiling is covered with nets) only seats 366 people, while the stage has no facilities at all. But with the opening of the 2003 season, Grange Park Opera will have a brand new proper stage sunk deep into the ground, adjoining the Orangerie from the right and hidden behind the reconstruction of the facade of the 1830 Smierke wing. A new 90 degree, clockwise rotational auditorium will mirror the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, which had been designed by William Wilkins. "In order to develop levels of artistic excellence and to provide a secure financial base, Grange Park Opera launched a £4m appeal in March - £2m to equip and rebuild the theatre, creating Britain´s only 500 seat horseshoe opera house, and £2m to establish an Endowment Fund", says Wasfi Kani.

Meanwhile, artistic excellence had been demonstrated this season with the British premiere of Fortunio by the French composer André Messager (1853-1929) to a libretto by Gaston de Caillavet & Roger de Flers after Le Chandelier by Alfred de Musset. Sung in French with delicate English surtitles by Béatrice Lupton, this light-hearted Comedie Lyrique in four acts turned out to be a triumph, which ever way one looks at it. The story is simple, but effective: the tempestuous relationship between an elderly lawyer, his pretty, but in no way gratified young wife Jacqueline, a stormy army captain and finally - Fortunio, a young man from the provinces, who right from the start is madly in love with Jacqueline, but only succeeds after a great deal of turmoil.

A light curtain running in curves across the whole stage, whenever needed, allowed for different and simple, but effective designs (Francis O´Connor) for each act. The production by Daniel Slater never went over the top, despite sparkling with humour and wit, giving this excellently rehearsed cast endless opportunities for unusually natural acting and musical brilliance. Next to the conductor Harry Christopers, who seemed to have a special liking for this kind of delicate French music, Natasha Marsh (Jacqueline) turned out to be the star and primus inter pares. She reminded me of the young Felicitty Lott, an actress and soprano of a versatility without boundaries. The beauty of her voice, the charm of her presence promises a great future for this young Welsh singer. Equally convincing were the Italian tenor Lorenzo Carola (Fortunio), the Yorkshire bass-baritone Glenville Hargraeves (Lawyer) and the baritone Quentin Hayes (Captain).The rest of the cast including extras showed a professional commitment of rare calibre. How often does it happen that one leaves an opera evening happy, fully satisfied and longing for a repeat?

Hans-Theodore Wohlfahrt

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