Weather finally smiles on Ford Castle’s al fresco operas

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What’s this? Sunshine finally illuminates the backdrop for Saturday night’s performance of “Tosca”

After downpours drenched last year’s performances, and heavy raincloud threatened last Friday’s Carmen, Bernard Trafford reports, Saturday’s Tosca by Opera Brava was at last (and deservedly) rewarded by a glorious sunny North Northumberland summer evening.

 Full marks to Opera Brava and to Ford and Etal Estates for persevering with open-air opera in the courtyard of Ford Castle, the medieval stonework doing much to contain the sound, and the open western side offering long and spectacular views over the Milfield plain to the Cheviot Hills…

…when you could see them, that is. Ah, yes: it’s the perennial problem of al fresco performance in this country. To be sure, even shows in Mediterranean climes are occasionally struck by thunderstorms: but there, at least, audience and artistes alike tend to steam dry pretty rapidly. Whereas in the UK, the cold sets in and… you know the rest.

In August 2021, Ford and Etal Estates showed courage and vision in booking touring opera company Opera Brava to perform Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Though I always assert that the North-East climate is dry, if cool, those two nights threatened to prove me wrong. As the late David Banks and I wrote here afterwards, the rain barely stopped throughout both operas.

Thick cloud for Friday’s “Carmen”: but it didn’t actually rain during the show

This year, the organisers of Ford and Etal Estates’ Visitor Services, Shannon Denson and Jane Musgrave, moved Opera Brava’s visit to June, in search of better weather.  As the heavens opened on Friday, around half-an-hour before curtain-up, we might have been tempted to scoff: another soaking evening appeared in prospect.  But the rain stopped at precisely 7.29pm and, though it threatened all evening, it never returned.

So far, so good, then. But what of Tosca on Saturday? We Traffords were unable to go, but as horizontal sheets of rain swept across the plain at about 4pm, I had a feeling we’d been granted a lucky escape. But then, a miracle. Blue sky reigned instead of cloud, and a beautiful evening ensued.

The courage of organisers, performers and audience alike was richly rewarded: as the picture at the top illustrates, when summer comes to a Ford Castle opera, the setting is hard to beat.

That saucy minx Carmen carries on with a bullfighter and breaks the heart of Don Jose: but, my, what voices!

They cracked the weather, then: but what of the performances? To my mind (and according to my spies at Tosca), they were even better than last year’s. As before, the small cast of eight or ten soloists also formed a chorus at need: their excellent individual voices, without a discernible weak link, blended smoothly to create very effective crowd scenes. As for Friday’s main characters, Vivien Conacher was an appropriately shameless Carmen, the gipsy lilt of her Spanish-style love-songs both powerful and seductive. Don Jose, the naïve young soldier she ensnares, was played by Andrew Rawlings, a tragic tenor with effortless top notes (always a joy), while Ian Beadle’s alpha-male toreador (Escamillo) credibly turned Carmen’s head and humiliated Jose.

I’m assured that Tosca’s soloists, too, did not fail to please. Meanwhile, a tight band of musicians played a very convincing cut-down version of the full orchestral score: sets and lighting were simple but effective; and the sound was perfectly balanced, as far as I could tell, wherever in the courtyard one chose to pitch one’s picnic-chair.

This collaboration between Food and Etal Estates and Opera Brava is excellent, and Godzone is lucky to have it. Having laid the ghost of unrelenting wet nights, I very much hope that it will be repeated next year – and, indeed, that more people will trust and support it. It should certainly be a fixture in the area’s artistic calendar.

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