Winslow Hall Opera

Last season at Winslow Hall, we put on 6 performances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to great critical acclaim. Rupert Christiansen’s review in The Daily Telegraph was headed “Newcomer shines in a crowded field”, and the online review is listed below, alongside others.

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Lucia di Lammermoor, Winslow Hall Opera, review: ‘wonderfully involving’

Despite being a difficult opera to pull off, Winslow Hall’s production has genuine merit, says Rupert Christiansen.

Last to enter this year’s country-house-opera field is Winslow Hall, where a brief season runs until the weekend. It’s held in a marquee in the back garden of a magnificently elegant town house, attributed to Wren, some ten miles north of Aylesbury, recently bought and restored by the restaurateur Christopher Gilmour.

Winslow Hall Opera is now in its third season, and given the spitting distance to Garsington at Wormsley and to Nevill Holt, it will be interesting to see if it establishes itself in a crowded market.

The visitor experience is endearingly friendly, and the PVC marquee provided an unexpectedly good acoustic environment. But there’s room for improvement if the management wants to attract people in search of a glam evening out.

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I was, however, surprised and delighted by the quality of the performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor — not an easy opera to pull off by any means. Here the artistic team had a clear sense of what it could and could not achieve, and on this solid foundation, presented something of genuine merit. In the three principals, indeed, Winslow Hall had a cast which Opera North might envy.

The lyric Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis made an enchantingly fey Lucia, more than making up in charm and commitment for a couple of pardonable skids at the very top of her voice and a little smudging of the coloratura. The quivering sensitivity of her opening aria contained the seeds of her subsequent murderous madness, tactfully enacted and imaginatively sung; the girl’s helpless dilemma was intensely felt. She must perform this role again soon.

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Pablo Bemsch made a dashingly handsome and soulful Edgardo, firm of phrase and vibrant of tone in both the duet with Lucia and his final lament. If he could only project more tenorial swagger, he could develop an excellent career.

Much the same could be said of the Romanian baritone Vasile Chisiu: the voice is of first-rate quality, but there wasn’t much individuality to his characterisation of the slimily villainous Enrico.

The minor roles were valiantly taken and the student-amateur chorus was lusty. Oliver Gilmour conducted a perfectly good band with a sound instinct for tempo and dynamics, and on the platform stage David Penn devised a simple, resourceful and refreshingly unpretentious production against a blown-up photographic backdrop of the Lammermoor hills. Deirdre Clancy’s well-cut costumes added considerably to the overall effect.

I enjoyed the performance enormously — what a wonderfully rich and involving opera Lucia is.

Michael Tanner: Why I prefer Donizetti to Strauss

Though both the Proms performances of Elektra and Salome, and the Winslow Hall production of Lucia di Lammermoor get full marks

  • 13 September 2014 – The Spectator
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Lucia di Lammermoor, Winslow Hall Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Three operas this week, each of them named after its (anti-)heroine: one of the heroines (the most sympathetic) murders her husband, one of them spends her time successfully plotting the deaths of her mother and stepfather, one insists on the murder of a prophet who refuses her advances, and has an orgasm as she kisses the tongue of his severed head. Very much standard operatic fare. Two of them belong in the grand tradition of German high romanticism, one to the Italian tradition of bel canto melodrama of the first half of the 19th century.

Unfashionably, I much prefer Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, indeed to any of his operatic works with the exceptions, perhaps, of Intermezzo and Capriccio. Whereas Strauss’s bloodcurdlers were given to packed houses in the Royal Albert Hall, with all the publicity attendant on the Proms and on Strauss having been born 150 years ago, Lucia is being staged in a marquee at Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire. This production has suffered from a disastrous lack of publicity, but I would earnestly advise anyone interested to make the journey, the last two performances being on 13 and 14 September. It is a triumph, almost without qualification. The staging is unobtrusive but perfectly effective, all the dramatic moments in a work full of them emerging with an impact I haven’t experienced before.

The three principal singers are outstanding, and indeed in the case of Lucia already well known: Elena Xanthoudakis has made a well-received disc of bel canto arias, but what one might fail to gather from that is that she is a passionate actress, almost alarmingly identifying with the role. Giving an original account of the mad scene, she begins with hysterical mirth, which intrudes from time to time as she muses on her fate, always using her large and supple voice to intense expressive effect. But her inamorato is just as remarkable: Pablo Bemsch from Argentina has the right kind of voice for Edgardo. He never yelps, every sound he makes is beautiful and he acts with unexaggerated fervour. And the Romanian Vasile Chisiu as Enrico makes an unsympathetic role interestingly complex by the warmth of his tone; his voice is large and focused. But all the singers, including the chorus, are fine, and so is the full-bodied orchestra, under the baton of Oliver Gilmour, who produces a rhythmically incisive account that still gives his cast all the opportunities they need for urgent communication.

In such a convincing performance, the greatness of Donizetti’s opera is manifest: hardly a perfunctory bar, economical in its means, admittedly odd in its structure — the second half just two protracted death scenes — but incessantly gripping and emerging still fresh despite its having been raped and pillaged more, perhaps, than any other opera.

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Australian soprano is stunning in Lucia Di Lammermoor

Stuart Macbeth praises the performances of soprano Elena Xanthoudakis in this production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Winslow Hall Opera, Winslow, Buckinghamshire

  • 25 September 2014 – The Oxford Times

There’s an inviting, convivial atmosphere about Winslow Hall, celebrating its third season of opera with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Picnic tables are spread out around this large country house, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The Hall’s owner strolls the grounds in tartan trousers, welcoming people in a plummy accent around the marquee, where the action takes place.

Inside, seats are pushed up against the orchestra pit, making for a lively and intimate space. The set is a hinged panel about 30 feet long, displaying a monochrome view of the Highlands. The panel periodically opens to allow cast members through, and reflects coloured light from above. It’s sparse — but so, I’d imagine, would be the scenes in 17th-century Scotland where the opera is set. As a result the emphasis falls squarely on the singing, which is superb.

The orchestra also deserves a special mention. It’s a nice touch when the house’s owner introduces the conductor as his brother.

The star of the show, however, was Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis in the title role of Lucia. Lucia is a woman with so many men interfering in her business that she doesn’t know what to do with herself, and eventually descends into madness. Xanthoudakis’ acting is superb, bathed in blood red light from above. Her voice is clear and loud and she sings the opera’s celebrated mad scene with panache, helped by excellent acoustics.

There were a few grumbles among the audience about the lack of English surtitles. But to me — and I frequently lost track of the plot — it all adds to the atmosphere of being part of an exclusive club. This was like travelling back in time to catch the early days of established events like Glyndebourne or Garsington Opera, and experiencing them at their purest.

After a slightly boozy picnic, I’m swept away by Donizetti’s music. And with tickets priced only slightly higher than the best seats at the New Theatre, this is a great way to experience live opera.

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Alexander Chancellor: Winslow Hall shows you don’t need fancy sets to make opera enjoyable

In fact, it may be much better without them

  • 27 September 2014 – The Spectator
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A couple share a bottle of champagne at Glyndebourne. Can Christopher Gilmour's Winslow Hall become the fourth ‘G’ of England's country-house opera scene?

Winslow Hall is a large and handsome country house in Buckinghamshire, built in 1700 by Sir Christopher Wren, which Tony Blair nearly bought in 2007 when he was looking for an imposing residence appropriate to his station in life as a retired prime minister. The people of Winslow, the small town near Buckingham in which it stands, were understandably alarmed by the prospect of having the Blair family in their midst; but fortunately for them, Tony eventually decided not to buy the house, possibly because its unusual location on a street in the town would have made security a problem. Instead, it was bought four years ago by Christopher Gilmour, one of the five children of The Spectator’s former proprietor and editor Sir Ian Gilmour, the Conservative politician and cabinet minister who subsequently became a life peer as Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar.

Ian’s reign at The Spectator was one of the most distinguished in its long history, but that is by the way. His sons have also achieved a lot. The eldest, Sir David Gilmour, is an excellent writer and historian; Andrew is a senior official of the United Nations; Oliver is a successful conductor of classical music; and Christopher has made his name as a restaurateur. I don’t think of him as particularly rich, but perhaps he is richer than I imagine; for he not only bought a house that looks very expensive to maintain, but also decided almost immediately to start an opera festival there. He loves opera, which is fine. But it is hard to think of a quicker way to lose money than to stage opera without an Arts Council grant.

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I have long been puzzled by the proliferation of country-house opera festivals in this country. Opera is not a native art form in ‘das Land ohne Musik’, and it is burdensome and expensive to put on. Yet there seem to be more such festivals in Britain than anywhere else on earth. I suppose we should mainly blame Glyndebourne for that. John Christie created the vogue for country opera as an elitist summer entertainment — dinner jackets, picnics on the lawn, and so on — and since then several other country-house owners have sought to follow suit. The most famous ones all begin with ‘G’ — Glyndebourne, Garsington, The Grange. The Gilmour fantasy is to be the fourth ‘G’. I suggested to Christopher Gilmour on the telephone that this might be folie de grandeur. It was folly anyway, he replied. He had lost a lot of his own money on the enterprise. It had been incredibly difficult and exhausting to set up, and yet it had all been worth it. And when I went this month to the last performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s great opera Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor), a couple of days before the Scottish referendum, I could see why.

It was performed in a marquee in the garden, with a scratch orchestra and singers, mostly dressed in kilts, that I’d never heard of, with no sets but a backdrop screen of Scottish hills, and it was magnificent. Oliver Gilmour, who conducted with great authority, had hired the singers for poignantly small sums of money — the world seems to be full of excellent underemployed opera singers — and they were terrific, especially the Greek soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, who sang Lucia not only brilliantly but also with huge elegance, charm and dramatic power.

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Glyndebourne set a standard of excellence in performance that its successors have tried to follow, often with impressive results. But Winslow Hall opera was something of an eye-opener for me. It showed that you don’t need fancy sets to make opera enjoyable — in fact, it may be much better without them — and especially that you don’t need imaginative modern productions aimed at making operas ‘relevant’ by changing their historical contexts. Such productions can actually drain operas of meaning and make them much harder to engage with.

The Lucia of Winslow Hall was a wholly satisfying event. It was modest in its budget, but successfully ambitious in its aspirations. And the audience included almost nobody in a dinner jacket. I really think that if country-house opera is to prosper in future, dinner jackets should be forbidden. Meanwhile, assuming that the Gilmours aren’t bankrupt by then, the Winslow Hall opera festival will return next year, probably with an opera by Verdi. It has so far received very little publicity, but it is thoroughly deserving of our support.

Yehuda Shapiro, Lucia di Lammermoor at Winslow Hall opera

  • November 2014, Opera Magazine

No sooner had Cameron and Miliband made their frantic unionist visit to Scotland than the Borders came to Buckinghamshire with Lucia di Lammermoor. Technically, this was not quite country house opera, since Winslow Hall, a superb red-brick edifice designed by Christopher Wren, looms over the southern entrance to the small market town of Winslow; that being said, despite its proximity to both Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, it feels worlds away from the commuter belt. The house was bought in 2010 by the restaurateur Christopher Gilmour, who in 2012 hosted Stowe Opera’s Figaro, before mounting Carmen in 2013. The auditorium, backing directly onto the house, is a sturdy rectangular tent with steeply-banked seating for just under 300 people.

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As yet at least, the company provides a less manicured—and more genial— experience than Glyndebourne or Garsington. The ticket desk suggests a village fete, you need to pop across to the pub for a cup of tea, and the garden, with its canvas gazebos (picnic hampers can be ordered), is more shabby chic than Sissinghurst. Early September brought a run of six performances, with tickets at £62 or £75, including a charity donation to Medical Detection Dogs.

A 90-minute dinner break came after the wedding scene, but this Lucia, directed by David Penn and conducted by Oliver Gilmour (brother of Christopher and formerly principal conductor of the Bulgarian State Opera), sustained powerful momentum—very much a tight tragedy rather than a highlights opera. In Deirdre Clancy and Sam Steer’s decor it took place before folding screens that carried a monochrome photographic panorama of hills and reversed to plain cerise, while the costumes, with Enrico and the gentlemen of the chorus in kilts, were suggestive of the Edwardian era.

Simply clad in cream, Elena Xanthoudakis sympathetically conveyed Lucia’s highly- strung naivety. At her wedding she managed to hold herself icily together until the contract was signed; the subsequent Mad Scene, at such close quarters, was genuinely harrowing. Xanthoudakis’s clear lyric sound has striking immediacy, and her fluent coloratura grew naturally out of its musical and emotional context, with even the cadential top notes transformed into (truncated) exclamations of shock. Her Edgardo, the Argentinian tenor Pablo Bemsch, an alumnus of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker programme, sang with consistent style and beauty and unforced pathos—he will no doubt make a fine Werther in due course. His gentle, almost studious stage persona contrasted with the splendidly saturnine Enrico of Vasile Chisiu, powering through his lines with mellow, vibrant tone, but sidelined after the interval by the omission of the Wolf’s Crag scene. Chris Foster’s acute use of the text brought Raimondo alive, Laura Kelly made a suitably concerned Alisa, and both Gianluca Paganelli (Arturo) and Ed Bonner (Normanno) seized their moments to the full. Initially, there were a couple of rough edges in the orchestra, but the mainly youthful chorus made a strong and focused impact from its first notes.

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