WHAT DO YOU DO FOR CULTURE up there? those southern folk (mostly Londoners) ask when I tell them we live in the Borders.
Ignoring the fact that we are but an hour’s drive from fine theatres and concert halls in both Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne, there is plenty of lah-di-dah going on locally, I respond caustically.
Last weekend, for instance, a touring opera company staged outdoor productions of Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro on successive nights in the grounds of one of the great Northumbrian castles at Ford.
Unfortunately it chucked it down, both nights!
Undaunted, I shared, with the composer, music critic and writer BERNARD TRAFFORD and our wives, a picnic supper under tarpaulin as the torrent tried to wash us away. It seemed, therefore, appropriate to ‘pool’ our resources and our thoughts in a joint review of the performances. . .
BERNARD: While I’ve been writing this, the sun has shone as our young visitors swam in the chill but wonderful waters of Hethpool Linn, then swiftly obscured its golden face while rain and wind lashed the countryside. Still, such rapid change has characterised this part of summer 2021, not only in Northumberland but across the UK.
BANKSY: The review, Bernard. Concentrate! So far you’ve done swimming and sunshine and the summer of 2021 but no mention of opera.
BERNARD: I mention the weather, Banksy, to demonstrate the resilience demanded of the good folk of Godzone – in addition to their excellent taste – in supporting Ford and Etal Estates’ admirable first venture into open-air opera.
Anyway, as I was saying. . . having been confined to the south for the duration of Lockdown II we Traffords were alerted to the prospect of this musico-dramatic feast by Banksy’s wife, Gemma. Apparently they felt compelled to warn we two once-trained musicians (known occasionally to attend the opera at Covent Garden, Garsington and even Glyndebourne where, my dears, evening dress and gaudy cummerbund are simply de rigeur) – that we might be less than impressed by a small-scale production on a temporary stage whose audience would be at the mercy of Northumberland’s weather.
BANKSY: Get to the point, for Godzone’s sake, Bernard! I want to publish this before Christmas!
BERNARD: Ahem! Banksy, sharp-eyed old newshound that you are, you misjudged us. Opera Brava, the company staging the Barber on Friday and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro the following night, is a well-established company dedicated to bringing opera to beautiful settings around the country and quite used to braving the unkindness of British weather.
More important, they are providing performing opportunities to professional singers, players and crew for the first time in more than a year, thanks to COVID. That aspect alone would have been reason enough to support the performances: but such ventures are also about bringing great art to varied and sometimes remote places. And when I say great art, I mean the best of the repertoire performed at the highest professional standards.
BANKSY: The highest? Really? Even outdoors, with rain coming down by the bloody bucketful? The weather was bad enough for the Barber on Friday with a continual drizzle throughout the interval and all of Act Two. Not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of Best Dressed VoiceOfTheNorth columnist Eric Musgrave, admitttedly. He spent the night flitting through the raindrops taking photos of the event for his wife Jane, the Estate’s promotions organiser. But Figaro on Saturday was a drenching doozy!
BERNARD: Certainly the standard was high: we attended only on the Saturday, so can only judge Figaro. Nonetheless, much as I love normally to hear Mozart’s full orchestration, I suspect the skillful adaptation for piano, string quartet and three wind players would not have disappointed Amadeus himself. Indeed, Cherubino’s aria Voi, che sapete (Tell me, you ladies) was captivatingly sung by Aimee Daniel and worked admirably in the reduced scoring, with its imitation of a guitar accompaniment. Similarly, all nine characters on stage successfully covered the relatively few sections for chorus: so, unless you knew the piece well, you would have been unlikely to miss it.
BANKSY: Look, Bernard old boy, I like a singsong as much as the next man but feeling the rain running down my neck into my underpants while the big drops rapidly cooled our mugs of Gemma’s finest smoked fish chowder (recipe available on application) is NOT my idea of fun.
BERNARD: Admittedly the dreadful weather took its toll. I can’t be sure, but I think that the discreet amplification (which also allowed the singers to hear the orchestra) dropped out from time to time: maybe the driving rain penetrated the electrics somewhere?
BANKSY: It took its toll all right! No sign of our mate Keith Hann, author of The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera, either? I bet he was just down the road, warm and dry and enjoying a bottle of something-or-other while watching the East Enders omnibus! Too grand for Figaro at Ford! Still, he missed that scene-stealing moment during a darkened late scenery change when someone using a pole prodded the canvas roof over the orchestra to shift a pool of water and drenched the band? You didn’t need acoustics to hear the groans!
BERNARD: Don’t over-dramatize, Banksy! Only the woodwind section received a drenching, and that didn’t dampen proceedings. Mind you, a less-than-generous critic might say that the difficult conditions affected the Countess, who would have benefited from Figaro’s stepladder to help her reach some of the top notes! But the leading couple, Figaro and Suzanna (Ian Beadle and Stephanie Dodsworth) sang gloriously and made a convincing and lovable couple. The entire cast gave their all, made the most of the unique surroundings of Ford Castle’s beautiful courtyard, maintained a remarkable level of ensemble through the tricky final act, and even applauded the hardy 70 per cent of the audience who, swathed in Gortex and plastic, had braved storm and tempest to the bitter (or, at least, very damp) end.
BANKSY: I have to say that while I was drenched both nights – and raced home for a hot shower and a brandy in warm milk to thaw me out before bed – I enjoyed it immensely and would do it again in a flash when my underpants have dried. We hung in there, Bernard, like true Brits!
BERNARD: But why wouldn’t we hang in there? It was a joy and a privilege to do so. Full marks to Ford and Etal Estates for having the courage to lay it on. Will you do it again, please?