Top of the pile of contenders for the title of 'The New Glyndebourne' is Garsington, which prospered last summer while the Sussex original was closed for rebuilding. A rambling manor house east of Oxford, with a splendid view of the Berkshire Downs, Garsington's first opera was a fund-raiser, staged on the lawn by a travelling company in 1989; this year's programme consisted of 20 performances of three productions - Strauss's Capriccio, The Barber of Seville, and Haydn's L'incontro improvviso - all sold out.
Before the performance, the trot round the gardens. Garsington's were laid out in the Twenties by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Here are trees planted by royalty, statues of deities, an Italian pool, and parterre studded with fastigiate yew - it's twee, dotty, charming.
Now read the programme. Serious ads, good corporate support (led by Morgan Stanley), an elite group of benefactors called the Constellation of Garsington, plus the name of everyone who has given more than 50p listed in the programme. Like Glyndebourne, this blatant attempt to make your audience feel appreciated is balanced by some serious musicology: in the case of the Haydn, an inventory of costumes - complete with buttons and bows, spangles and heron feathers - made for Eszterhaza, and an article by Albi Rosenthal on Haydn's girlfriends.
Next, food. Serious, too. Those who picnic with table-cloths and candelabra have colonised Garsington; and the discarded panelllng from Glyndebourne's old theatre has been installed in a barn, along with a franchised caterer. If you're lucky, you will spot the eccentric owner, Leonard Ingrams, tucking into melon or salmon in the corner.
Ingrams is a musical banker (a director of Flemings), blessed or cursed by an uncanny resemblance to his brother Richard, the founder editor of Private Eye. No doubt Leonard subsidised the early years of Garsington himself, but today it breaks even as a self-supporting charity. Garsington's audience evidently plans ahead; by March it is clear whether all 8,000 available tickets are likely to sell.
And the opera? Staged in front of a picturesque corner of the manor house, reducing the need for set construction, and enabling designers to rely on costumes and kelims. The audience of 400 sits, steeply raked, on scaffolding wrapped in canvas like a huge white parcel. On balmy nights, birds sing noisily from surrounding trees; after the interval, a large black canopy glides over the stage, improving the acoustic and the intimacy of the performance. At the end of the season, the construction is dismantled.
Ingrams has now taken Wasfi Kani, the young conductor of Pimlico Opera, on board as a director, but keeps the artistic genesis of each production as a separate entity. Choose the repertory, then the conductor, and leave him or her to do the casting: that's the Ingrams system. Rehearsals are modest - minimal by Glyndebourne standards. The prevailing view is that the standard has risen since Garsington decided to assemble its own productions, though this is only financially viable if you give enough performances to recoup the costs of rehearsal.
Staging its own productions also enables Garsington to specialise in slightly more adventurous repertoire than most country-house opera. Ingrams has plumped for Haydn, whose stage works are more like castle romps than emotional dramas. But at least the audience has heard of the composer, and such rarities entice the London critics, who now give Garsington the respectability that justifies a ticket price of pounds 65.
Ingrams would like to extend Garsington's repertory, perhaps to Janacek, but is adamant that he has no plans to build a permament theatre - planning permission would be unlikely in such a picturesque village. When his 1994 season ended, earlier this month, his biggest worry was an increasing number of neighbours objecting to the sound of music invading their gardens.
However, the gradual development of Garsington does give a good idea of how Glyndebourne began, and where Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon, has been over-ambitious to the point of miscalculation. Conceived as a Glyndebourne for the Midlands, the Compton Verney project is now seven years old, but is still on the drawing board, awaiting the result of a DoE inquiry before planning and fund-raising can begin. Surely it would have been up and running by now if it had begun as a courtyard company, developing a network of supporters and an artistic identity.
Another project with its back to the wall is Broomhill, an enchanting wood-lined 19th-century theatre a few miles from Tunbridge Wells, redeemed from obscurity by the tenor Kim Begley in 1991. The great and the good flocked to applaud Broomhill, and last summer's festival was memorable for Jonathan Miller's staging of Ariadne auf Naxos and a score-reading performance of a specially commissioned opera, The Juniper Tree by Andrew Toovey, plus jazz, folk, recitals. Too much, too soon - and a deficit of pounds 100,000. This year, Broomhill's fate hangs in the balance, with 26 performances alternating Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream with the opera by Britten, from 5 August. As usual, the car-park tells it all, for the Broomhill estate, left by bequest to 'the people of Kent', is currently used as a training centre by the regional health authority. Signs saying 'Blood Bank' and 'Institute of Public Health' shout at you as if you're on the way to hospital. Mrs Bottomley's reforms, which I hope will lead the health industry to hand Broomhill over to 'the people of Kent' for arts and leisure purposes, could be the beginning of a brighter future.
Generally, however, the future is likely to see more country-house opera favour scaffolding and choice at the trough. Peter Knapp, who runs Travelling Opera, certainly thinks so, for his company has just staged The Magic Flute and La Traviata at Banks Fee House, near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. Another stone manor house, this one with derelict gardens but a rolling view. In previous years, Banks Fee used the courtyard of its pretty stable block, seating only 200; this year scaffolding increased the audience to 400. Knapp thinks the improvement so substantial that he is considering hiring the scaffolding himself in future, setting up for a week each at, say, a dozen venues such as Sudeley Castle. The repertoire would probably favour only the top handful of operas, but since performing animals have become unacceptable, funfairs unsafe, and celebrity concerts like Dame Kiri at Blenheim have flopped . . . circus opera? Why not?
Garsington: 0865 361636; Travelling Opera: 0451 830292; Broomhill: 0892 517720;
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