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Grange Park Opera 2009

The Grange is an early 19th Century Greek revival house located near Winchester and for the past 12 years has been the home of Grange Park Opera. It’s an idyllic setting which, like Garsington and Glyndebourne, presents opera to well-heeled suburban audiences at premium prices.

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There’s much more below the surface of the organisation, though, with the dynamic founder of the festival, Wasfi Kani, combining this rarefied activity with a much more down to earth project. Since 1987, Kani has been running Pimlico Opera, whose main work takes place in H M Prisons up and down the land.

Projects have included a production with the prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables in HMP Wandsworth. This year, it’s back to Wandsworth for West Side Story.

Grange Park Opera may cater for an entirely different corner of the social mix but what runs through this amazingly diverse work is a passion for bringing the great works to the respective audiences. This year, the programme at the Hampshire base includes operas by Bellini, Janacek and Cavalli, with a concert version of The Flying Dutchman and an evening with Ray Davies thrown in.

Norma is one of the great works of the bel canto repertoire but is performed surprisingly rarely. Grange Park’s production will be headlined by Clare Rutter, ENO’s recent Aida, with another Coliseum stalwart, Sara Fulgoni, as Adalgisa.

The opera tells the story of the druid priestess Norma, who finds herself betrayed by her Roman lover Pollione. It’s a glorious score, with the haunting Casta Diva, made famous by Maria Callas, the best-known number.

The Janacek will be the charming picture book story The Cunning Little Vixen, one of the Czech composer’s loveliest scores. David Alden will direct the young Irish soprano Ailish Tynan in the title role in what is sure to be a Summer eve’s delight.

Most appetising of the line-up is the UK premiere of Cavalli’s 1667 Eliogabalo, which chronicles the life of a bizarre Roman emperor who claimed never to sleep with the same woman or wear the same clothes twice. In fact, this colourful character was bi-sexual and the opera is run through with ambiguity and intrigue.

David Fielding, the acclaimed director/designer (best remembered perhaps for the stunning designs he brought to Nicholas Hytner’s long-running ENO Xerxes), recently described the opera to me as “like Quentin Tarantino on stage.” He aims to exploit all the contrasting decadence and beauty of Cavalli’s work to create an unforgettable operatic event.

Among the earliest of opera composers (he was a pupil of Monteverdi), Francesco Cavalli wrote dozens of gorgeous works, and Eliogabalo is no exception, with an endlessly inventive and heartbreakingly beautiful score. Recently he’s come back into vogue, with Covent Garden mounting its first production of one if his works only last year (David Alden’s very colourful take on La Calisto).

This new production in Grange Park’s small but perfectly-formed theatre has Christian Curnyn, the early music specialist with a rapidly growing reputation, as conductor. The Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupic plays the flamboyant emperor with the exciting young soprano Claire Booth as his love interest.

Eliogabalo was never produced in Cavalli’s life-time and had to wait until 2004 for its premiere, when Rene Jacobs mounted it in Brussels. This year’s Grange Park production promises to be one of the operatic events of the year.

Norma opens on 3 June and Eliogabalo on 4 June. The Cunning Little Vixen plays from 17 June. You can see a preview of Eliogabalo, as well as a general introduction to Grange Park Opera on Youtube.  Full details at www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

- Simon Thomas


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