Garsington Opera’s first specially commissioned community opera contains some memorable lines.‘There’s bad karma on the village green,’ they lament, in Sir Richard Stilgoe’s text, ‘they should work together like birds of prey.’
Stilgoe’s pithy ‘green opera’ was written specially for one of England’s famously greenest opera locations, the estate at Wormsley, Bucks, once home to American-born philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty. Garsington’s new piece depicts a zany Minister (scintillating tenor Dan Norman) who is obsessed with driving motorways through village greens andwho get his come-uppance when a rare newt is discovered under a boulder, scuppering his devious plans.
Everything flows from this – the fauna and flora who emerge like avenging Furies to campaignt against the project; the 20-odd obsequious and obnoxiously spinning ‘advisors’ – older teenagers (three from one family), who thanks to Orlando Gough’s particularly punchy new score (Gough also conjured up the sizzling Imago for Glyndebourne) proved the slickest singers of all; and ordinary folk (chorus of adults) who, led by two feisty protestors (Peter Willcock, Clare Presland) decree they are not putting up with any jumped-up Minister’s Chiltern-spoiling antics.
Cue a scene of 200 A.D. Romans – Centurions, Surveyors, and sundry musclemen – ready to slice a stony Roman (or ‘Roaming’) Road crow-like through prehistoric communities. It’s an interesting parallel, though not one revisited or followed through. If there’s a strength to Stilgoe’s and Gough’s tale, it’s in its consistency and thrust; its main weakness is the way in which certain strands are left dangling and unexplored.
That ‘stone’ – an vast immovable onstage carbuncle that thwarts Rome by causing ‘a roaming great kink’- will play a key part in the modern saga too. Rabbits, mice, squirrels and foxes all latch on to the forest of Junior School ‘trees’ (Apple, Oak, sundry fruit Blossom) which provides one of the most colourful sights in a vividly attired showpiece.
Star carrion are the Red Kites – recently, but sadly no longer, a feature of the sprawling Wormsley estate. Juliette Dudley, Sophie Haxworth and Oliver Winter hover eye-catchingly on adroit harnesses high above the events. Garsington’s former supremo told me red kites are notoriously inquisitive. Certainly these three were a nosy lot. Their role? Not immediately clear, apart from being comely, but with quite brilliant wing manipulation – Winter just as adroit as the two girls – they provided the Leitmotif of the whole evening: one felt they might produce a miracle.
And they did. Stilgoe’s masterstroke is the great crested newt (‘who can hold things back better than Canute’), discovered under the stone when the Ministerial team bring in cranes (surely birds too? A trick missed). Apparently something similar halted digging at Heathrow.
If credit goes anywhere, it should be to director Karen Gillingham. Getting so many actor-singers together in any kind of shape must be a vast task. But achieving this level of discipline and precision is of a wholly different order. And she achieves it.