Southern glory in tale of two opera houses: Compton Verney is still a dream as new Glyndebourne opens. David

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW in the South, British summertime officially begins. Figaro makes his marriage vows in Glyndebourne's new opera house while others will make, break or renew theirs on the lawns outside.

Glyndebourne is back, with a gala audience believed to have paid at least pounds 10,000 for founder status, signalling the start to the summer cultural season. After a year's closure, Glyndebourne boasts a pounds 33m new opera house after almost ridiculing claims of penury in the arts by raising the money privately.

Tomorrow in the Midlands, summer will not be starting. There too, there have been plans for a grand opening night in a magnificent new opera house designed by a leading architect; there too, a country house and magnificent gardens overlook a lake; it even has something of Glyndebourne's quaint inaccessibility, well off a main road and several miles from the vulgarity of a railway station.

But the Glyndebourne of the Midlands will not be opening this year, perhaps not at all. The contrasting fortunes of the two society opera houses could not be more marked.

The supporters of Compton Verney, who include the Prince of Wales (who has hosted fund-raising concerts there) and Lord Harewood, chairman of English National Opera, see the projected pounds 50m opera house as the centre of a Midlands culture circle including the Royal Shakespeare Company at nearby Stratford-on-Avon and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The grounds in the listed 80- acre parkland laid out by Capability Brown, and the decaying 18th century mansion attributed to Vanbrugh, offer a setting every bit as enticing as Glyndebourne's. And the proposed opera house, already designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen, would stage ballet as well, making it the first combined opera and ballet house to be built this century. Up to 3 million visitors a year would enter the 1,150-seater venue through a glass foyer overlooking the lake.

But this whole project has now stalled, failing to convince a local planning inquiry at Stratford-on- Avon earlier this month. Opponents, ranging from English Heritage and the Georgian Group to the Warwickshire Gardens Trust, say the scheme would dominate and divide a historic parkland setting, would destroy the remains of a medieval settlement, and the car and coach parking would have too big an impact.

Despite an impassioned plea from Michael Fitzgerald QC, on behalf of the Compton Verney Opera House Trust, calling the project 'a sublime art form in a sublime setting', the public inquiry referred the matter to the Department of the Environment. John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, will make a decision in the autumn.

If the Glyndebourne of the Midlands is cancelled it will largely be due to the persistent campaigning of one man, David Pratt, 49, chairman of Compton Verney parish council. 'Opposing something like an opera and ballet house opens you up to all sorts of criticism but we have to live here and although an opera house is an excellent idea, it should not be here, it should be in an urban setting with good public transport. I do not want a Glyndebourne of the Midlands.'

Mr Pratt, a freelance publisher, co-ordinated the objectors and forced the public inquiry.

Sir Kenneth Bradshaw, former Clerk of the House of Commons, now the project's administrator, said yesterday that he still hopes to open the opera house in 1998. 'Glyndebourne has set a magnificent tradition of opera out of big cities and people love to attend opera in beautiful country scenes.'

Glyndebourne's new season attests to this. The new 1,200-seat opera house is sold out for every performance and there are 600 on the membership waiting list.

Though the prize-winning design of the circular red brick opera house by Michael and Patty Hopkins lacks the intimate country house atmosphere that has been synonymous with Glyndebourne, other aspects are improved. The much larger auditorium has far better acoustics and can accommodate 50 per cent more people, which leads to cheaper prices, with 42 pounds 10 standing tickets available for the first time. The most expensive tickets are pounds 100.

Glyndebourne's owner, Sir George Christie, said opera-goers would quickly forget their fondness for the old building. 'In a year's time the majority of people will say the new building works and feels comfortable.'

But he would have been happier if the reopening had been accompanied by concrete news of a future for Compton Verney. 'More opera houses breed a bigger demand and the artistic standards rise.'

Sound test, page 23

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