Among the UK’s country house opera destinations, Longborough stands out as possibly the most audacious, unlikely and lovable. Near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds (beware: sat-nav black holes), it was founded as Banks Fee Opera in 1991 by its owners Martin and Lizzie Graham, Wagner devotees who have converted a barn into a Palladian-fronted theatre; last year it became the first privately-funded opera house in the country to stage Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, a magnificent effort duly recognised with a nomination for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.
This year’s festival got off to a flying start with Puccini’s Tosca. As with the Ring, the production proves that wacky concepts and costly sets are not necessary to create compelling drama. Take a row of pillars that can suggest church, palazzo and fortress, some steep slopes to be fallen down or jumped off, and a billow of dry ice; add a few very fine singers; and we have lift-off.
Richard Studer’s direction and designs hint at the Mussolini era without labouring the point. Rather than relying on spectacle, the entire drama is focused on the opera’s toxic love triangle of diva, artist activist and malign dictator, portrayed respectively by the soprano Lee Bisset, the tenor Adriano Graziani and the baritone Simon Thorpe; the characters emerge as very believable people caught up in events for which none of them are cut out.
Bisset’s Tosca – as she reflects in her aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ – really has lived for art and love; she is naïve enough not to suspect at first that her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured. She wants a quiet life with the man she loves; instead, faced with blackmail and rape, she first considers suicide, then turns murderer. She finds her weapon embedded in a loaf of bread – and afterwards wipes off the blood and puts it back.
Musically there are thrills aplenty. Bisset’s soaring soprano inhabits the full gamut of the role’s expressive possibilities: she has fabulous power at the top of her considerable range and her beauty of tone carries her from flirtation to fury, desire to despair. Graziani’s tenor is a fine match for her voice; his performance warmed as the evening went by, glorying in roof-raising high notes and culminating in a no-holds-barred account of ‘E lucevan le stelle’.
Thorpe’s Scarpia does not quite echo them in terms of vocal power, but his character is convincing: physically imposing, but psychologically weak, this dictator is a pathetic bully boy who does his dirty work by proxy. In the pit, the conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps the pace gripping and the score’s drama paramount.
The set’s rather cumbersome mix of steps and rakes, the cut-down orchestration and chorus, and some slightly ropey amplification – notably for Act III’s offstage shepherd boy and the Act I finale’s pre-recorded canon effects – are a tad problematic. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.
The 2014 festival continues with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Handel’s Rinaldo. Next year: Tristan und Isolde.