It's doubtful if the drinking song from La Traviata has ever been sung to the clinking of teacups, but the Cheltenham Music Festival's Fine Tea Tasting and Opera event was something of a first in every respect. Not many concerts of operatic excerpts are preceded by a short film about the processing of leaves from Camellia sinensis assamica. But Mackwoods, whose single-estate tea leaves from Sri Lanka were being infused here, were out to educate us in the art of tea-drinking.
How much would the taste in our mouths affect what we heard, or the other way round? Would an excerpt from Carmen bring out the smokiness in the Labookellie Broken Orange Pekoe? Or might the intensity of an aria from Bach's St John Passion heighten the astringency of Dolloswela Pekoe? Faced with a bewildering array of leaves, strainers, infusers, supping spoons and flashy spittoons, we were led by a team of experts flown in from the family plantation in Sri Lanka.
In between the half-dozen teas, Gareth Hancock accompanied the Australian soprano Gillian Ramm and New Zealand tenor Shaun Dixon in a selection of solos and duets. Not a whisper from Madama Butterfly (wrong country of origin, wrong tea ceremony), naturally. The links between music and char, however, were tenuous to say the least. Actually, Mimi might have benefited from a nice hot cuppa as Rodolfo sang of her tiny, frozen hand ("Che gelida manina"), while the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro must have wished she could read the tea leaves as she longed for happier times in "Dove sono". Ramm's subtle characterisation of a rejected woman and her ease in Mozart's exquisite melodic line made it all the more emotionally charged, leaving a bitter taste. That was the aria, not the tea, of course.
Tea cultivation and high culture make for a curious brew, though there was some subtlety to the numbers and – matching the mint tisane, at least – a genuinely fresh flavour. But to complement the company's 160th anniversary blend, a connoisseur's beverage, what about Vincent Youman and Irving Caesar's jazz hit "Tea for Two"?
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