The name of Steuart Bedford is synonymous with the music of his mentor, Benjamin Britten. Not only did the London-born conductor steer the ailing composer's last works through their early performances during the seventies (he unveiled Death in Venice at Aldeburgh and gave the stage première of Owen Wingrave at Covent Garden), he also recorded a substantial number of them for Decca with the likes of Janet Baker, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk.
Alongside the Britten realisations of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, he conducted definitive first recordings of both Death in Venice and Phaedra. Bedford's own Suite from Death in Venice, made with Britten's blessing, is a sensitive distillation of the opera's unique orchestral sound that deserves a wider currency.
Two decades after the composer's death, Bedford was appointed artistic director and conductor for the Collins Classics Britten Edition (currently available from Naxos), the pinnacles of which were benchmark recordings of two further operas: The Turn of the Screw, with the late Philip Langridge as Peter Quint, and Albert Herring.
The Britten opera with which the 71-year-old conductor is most closely associated is one that got away when the Collins project collapsed, although Bedford did work closely with the composer on his own recording of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Alfred Deller and the LSO. This June, during midsummer fortnight, he will be returning to his signature work when he leads a strongly-cast production for Garsington Opera that features Rebecca Bottone as Tytania and the young counter-tenor James Laing as Oberon.
Curiously, despite Bedford's long-standing association with Garsington, this is the first Britten opera he has conducted there. ‘They don't often do Britten', Bedford explained to me. ‘The only one of his operas they've had there previously was Albert Herring, and I was conducting something else that year. They seem to like the way I do Mozart, whom of course I love to conduct, so they've invited me back all the time for that.' The tally is certainly comprehensive: since 1993 Bedford has taken charge of Le nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo, Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni, Lucio Silla, La finta giardiniera, the hybrid Der Stein der Weisen and, across no fewer than three seasons, Così fan tutte.
Given the al fresco beauty of Garsington Manor, it seems surprising that the Festival let so many years elapse before turning to Britten's Dream. It is, after all, the most obviously appropriate of all operas for such a setting, and they've had its foremost interpreter on their books year after year. Whatever the reason for its past neglect, the stars have now aligned and the show will finally go on. ‘We have a wonderful cast for this one. We started rehearsals last week and it looks extremely promising.' It is unlikely to be revived in future years, though, so this is probably the only chance to catch it. ‘Garsington rarely revives a production. The John Cox Così is the only time I've known it happen.'
I remarked to Steuart Bedford that some years ago a performance I attended at ENO of the Robert Carsen production was announced as being the 100th time he had conducted A Midsummer Night's Dream – and there have been more since, in collaboration with a wide range of directors. Does the style of a production have any bearing on how he interprets the score from the pit? ‘Not in a major sense. There are minor differences depending on what's required by way of stage movement, and sometimes when the production does something unexpected it means you bring a slightly different colour to the reading. But with A Midsummer Night's Dream it's enough of a challenge just to get across what Ben wrote in his score.'
Daniel Slater is in the director's chair for Garsington, but Bedford is not revealing much about his production ideas. ‘You'll have to wait and see! It's certainly not going to be what you'd imagine. The Carsen was original and rather fun, and so is this. Slightly different and very exciting.'
Aside from Mozart and Britten, what are Bedford's other musical affinities? For a gala concert in his honour last month at Garsington he chose a programme that included Beethoven, Fauré, Brahms and Wolf, ending with a cycle of songs by his grandmother, the composer Liza Lehmann. Everything there is characterised by subtlety and refinement, so that must be a clue to his wider tastes. ‘It's all music I love, and it seemed to go well together as a programme.'
Bedford has made several recordings of Holst's music too, including his opera The Wandering Scholar, so maybe the composer of The Planets was a significant figure for him? ‘Not really, although I have conducted most of his work. And for a CD I made of his vocal settings I fished out a set of songs that had never been recorded before. But no, the one composer I would love to conduct more of is Richard Strauss, which is why I'm so excited about doing Salome in San Diego later this year.'
In 2011, Garsington Opera will relocate to Paul Getty II's Wormsley Estate, set in the Chilterns just off the M40. ‘I'm not sure if I'll be involved with Garsington in the future. It's early days to be saying so, but I have nothing lined up there for 2011 at any rate. There's nothing unusual in that; new managements tend to like to bring in new blood. It may well be thought I've been there too long – I could quite understand that. But if they ever did decide to revive the Dream I'm sure I would do it.'
Steuart Bedford is quite content that his name is so indelibly associated with one composer. ‘Perhaps I'd be worried if they were pigeon-holing me with a lesser figure than Britten. I can't complain.'
- A Midsummer Night's Dream opens on 17 June and plays through to 2 July. You can get more information at www.garsingtonopera.org