It has become something of an annual tradition for us to go to one of the outdoor operas at West Green House Gardens near Hartley Wintney in Hampshire and, last night, it was “Don Giovanni”. The gardens are a regular haunt for me in any case as they are quite stunning and provide inspiration and camera-food from the minute they open each spring until the Christmas opening when the shop, barn and greenhouse are made magical with an array of stunning and unusual Christmas decorations that are for sale. Visiting the gardens for a stroll around and afternoon tea has been an intrinsic part of summer for years now and even inspired a series of paintings that I did 6 or 7 years ago and which were available from West Green at the time. It really is one of my favourite places and all of 15 minutes drive away.
The annual Country House Opera held there is the highlight of it all and the one year we didn’t go, due to a clash with our holiday, we really felt the “hole” in our summer season. I’ve always been an opera fan and outdoor opera, in any case (such as those performed in outdoor theatres in Holland Park and so on) can be quite magical. What I enjoy most about West Green’s take on opera is its intimacy and its lack of pretentious over-kill when it comes to stage and scenery. As they proudly declare to the audience by way of an introduction to the performance, their spin on each production is usually as close as it could possibly be to the original intention of the composer and the type of setting for which the opera would have been written, in days when courtyards and the gardens of country houses would have been a most typical place for opera to be performed. Placing the opera back into its historical context, on the lawns of a garden overlooked by the busts of gods and emperors in the niches of the walls, surrounded by walled gardens, water gardens and a lake… somehow it all feels like exactly the right setting in which to enjoy the high-drama, high-emotions, and often earthy comedy, that is opera – and all the better for being accompanied by a sub-plot of geese flying overhead, the evening co coo coo co coo of wood pigeons and (last night) the unexpected boom-fizz of a nearby fireworks display.
To set the scene more fully let me also explain that, at West Green, you are not exposed to the night sky during the performance so there is no threat at all of impromptu rain
shower. The Green Theatre is effectively a large marquee lit by chandeliers, with tiered seating and a more than adequate stage and orchestra pit. This is made all the more magical by the fact that its approach, in the dimming light, is through the gardens bedecked with lanterns.
By the time the performance starts, you have already spent an hour or two enjoying those gardens in the privileged mellowness of the late afternoon sunshine that usually arrives long after the gardens have closed to the public. Strolling along the maze of gravel paths as the aliums and sweet peas are made luminous by the setting sun, you make your way to collect your picnic and return to your spot by the lake to enjoy – in our case – a bottle of prosecco and an intimate spot beneath lanterns strung on trees next to a bridge leading to a miniature island with an oriental gazebo that could have come straight out of The Willow Pattern.
The lake edge is generally dotted with couples who have made claim to the more intimate spots with a view, just as we always do. Larger gatherings of friends and family set-up whole areas of convivial dining on rugs or huge tables set with elaborate decorations and chandeliers. Other groups play it safe with the weather and share large marquees or smaller Indian marquees decorated with candles and strung lanterns. More groups still turn greenhouses into amber-hued diningrooms a-sparkle with wine glasses and chandeliers in the candlelight. The evening air hums with the sound of gentle conversation and laughter. A hand-bell is rung to warn that it’s almost time for the performance to start and so a procession through the gardens begins to form, by which time the just-set sun allows the lanterns to take over and so the gardens look quite different again, also the heady scent of flowers always seems to become so much more potent in the evening light, even more so as dresses brush against the edges as guests make their way to their seats.
The performance itself, as ever, took me aback for being the equal of any I have seen on a larger stage. A quick thumb through the programme is enough to tell you why; this may be a small and largely unheard of venue but the composite CV of its cast is extremely impressive, these are no amateurs and they all mix West Green in amongst a busy schedule of other engagements that span some of the most famous opera houses in the world, presumably because they enjoy performing there (and I can see why)! The stage set may be simplistic but it works and ensures that all attention is fixed on the performance itself. This year – and to add to its rustic charm – there was a small glitch with lighting in the second half so that they had to take a few minutes pause to attend to the electrical supply, but this was all handled and received with good humour and a hearty cheer was raised by the audience when the rear-stage lights came back on again, so all part of the fun!
West Green has a tradition of picking operas that are that little bit less run of the mill and
their selection often includes at least one, per year, from my list of “would most like to see” so that opening their newsletter in January quite often causes me to whoop with delight. Two years ago it was “Dido and Aeneas” which rates as one of my top two most-listened-to operas but which I had never managed to see on the stage and so that was a thrill. The choice, this year, was between “The Merry Widow” or “Don Giovanni” but, for me, there was no hesitation as I have always wanted to see the latter, well ever since watching the film “Amadeus” and the use of the music from Act II to accompany the scenes in which Salieri haunts Mozart by coming to his door to commission a requiem mass dressed to look like the composer’s dead father; dark and brooding in the extreme, I couldn’t wait to see that piece played out on a stage. Marc Callahan played the infamous lothario, Don Giovanni, to perfection and the performance as a whole was superb and wonderfully well-acted, comic and entertaining, quite aside from the singing which was top-notch!
The rest of the evening always plays out with an hour-long interval in which you can return to your picnic spot for desert and another glass or two of wine. Now completely dark, lanterns hung between trees pick out the edge of the lake and are doubled up in reflection. Strange new landscapes emerge as coloured lights in deepest pink, scarlet and blue pick up the shapes of trees and play with the water jets in the water gardens. The whole of the landscape takes on a surreal edge and a magical quality like living in a child’s world of coloured lollipop trees. The flower beds have altered yet again, darker shapes receding and lighter foliage, and particularly white flowers, looming forwards like giant faces from the undergrowth. And the scent of it all…how do I begin to describe it, the scent of a night garden is just wonderful, a heady mixture of floral scent, warm moist earth and something else that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Back down the path beneath hoops of foliage, the shiny red apples now overtaken by brightest white lights, ready to retake your seat for the second half. Then the grand finale, rapturous applause and a final walk through the gardens, including the traditional pilgrimage in single file through the arch into The Nympaeum with its narrow channels of water flowing downhill on either side of the steps and, at the top, a view across the lawn to a grotto colour-lit into something from a dream.
A final stroll through the walled garden and back to the lakeside to collect our things. We follow roughly the same route through the garden, after the performance, each year and yet the walk never grows stale; new planting and ever new lighting effects make sure of that. In the space of one evening, you are left with the distinct impression that you have witnessed the garden itself change its costume more than once; in effect becoming part of the theatricals taking place in its midst.
What is left in the cool light of day is the sense of having lived a waking dream. The gardens at night leave a magical impression that lingers long after the event and whilst I expect and intend to see many an opera in the future, in all sorts of places, what I don’t expect is to ever enjoy a venue more than West Green because what it has achieved in its garden setting is a sort of perfection that requires no improvement.
West Green House Gardens http://www.westgreenhouse.co.uk