Inspired in part by the burgeoning success of Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden, Essex, where audiences flock to hear world-class music, a new venture launched nearby this month at the spectacular Tudor palace that is Layer Marney Tower. The Essex Summer Opera festival claims to be the first of its kind in East Anglia.
It’s the brainchild of conductor and cellist Orlando Jopling (founder of Tête à Tête opera), whose company, Wild Arts, toured the area with this cut-down Così fan tutte before it kicked off the festival – staged in an ancient, newly restored barn at Layer Marney, where only recently animals had contentedly chewed the cud.
Performed on a simple stage with no scenery, and accompanied by Jopling’s clever orchestral realisation for just seven highly skilled instrumentalists, there was nowhere to hide for the young cast, yet they responded with engaging energy and some superb singing. Director P Burton-Morgan collaborated with librettist Jeremy Sams to adapt his already witty English translation and make the problematic 18th-century plot more relatable by shifting the action to Cambridge University in 1972, a hotbed of hormones, feminism and student protest.
Undergraduates Ferrando and Guglielmo are besotted with sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, but philosophy professor Don Alfonso bets that the young women will betray their lovers. They must disappear and return (in Chantal Short’s extravagantly retro costumes) disguised as hip-thrusting rock stars, to put fidelity to the test, helped by worldly-wise Despina, who introduces the sisters to The Joy of Sex and urges them to relax and have a little fun. It was all done with a knowing, cheeky sense of humour, while never detracting from Mozart’s delectable score.
Outstanding in a strong cast was the rising star soprano Ella Taylor as redoubtable Fiordiligi, a voice of tempered steel, wrapped in a warm velvet cloak. Martha Jones, as Dorabella, sang with grace, charm and a naughty twinkle; bass Gareth Brynmor John made a forceful, generous-voiced Guglielmo, a nice foil to Richard Dowling’s pleasingly light tenor as Ferrando. Always reliable Eddie Wade was a wily Don Alfonso, alongside Joanna Songi’s crafty, resourceful Despina.
This was a very promising start to a project that aims to join the ranks of established country house seasons, filling a longstanding geographical void. Yet it also aims to stay affordable and accessible, attracting those who might be new to opera. I went on a relaxed performance day; there was no dress code, and even dogs joined the audience. This month, the company tours opera classics across Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, and next year is planning a nationwide tour before bringing Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love to Layer Marney Tower in June.
Next year, patrons travelling from afar should leave the car behind and take the train to Witham, where Layer Marney’s cheerful owner, Nicholas Charrington – instrumental in establishing the festival – will pick you up in his venerable London Routemaster bus and bounce you across the Essex countryside, scattering sheep as he approaches his Tudor mansion. You can’t help but arrive with a smile.
July 16, 2022 at 05:29PM Stephen Pritchard