Monday, 7 June 2010
The peony at Garsington
Armida's magic garden, at least in Martin Duncan's Ikeaish production of Rossini's opera which I've reviewed for The Arts Desk, can't compare with the real thing to the side of the Garsington stage. From the makeshift auditorium - coming down at the end of this season for the last time before the company is transplanted to the Wormsley Estate - you can glimpse the peony bed, current pride of Lady Ottoline Morrell's parterre (which is a glory in itself: 24 square beds cornered by Irish yews). I hadn't gone out of my way to see my favourite flower in its brief flourishing, for which Penshurst or Hidcote are perfect, so this was serendipity. Here the peony blooms en masse beneath the north wall.
There are two varieties in this bed, both fitting into the herbaceous category (I've asked Clare Adams at Garsington to check with the gardener).
The glorious white, I think, is the Duchesse de Nemours
and a couple of beds to the south there are two more subspecies (identity TBC).
Passing regretfully over the roses trailing round the dovecote, I shouldn't overlook the poppies in another parterre bed.
Of course nothing can quite compare with coming across a whole mountain valley of wild peonies, as we did in the Sibillini mountains of Italy some years ago now. But the flower's short life, the beauty of its shoots, leaves and buds, leave me fascinated. I wish I'd caught the yellow tree peony at Glyndebourne in its full glory. Here it was a little past its best.
For one awful moment I thought that the radical gardening scheme there had removed it altogether; it had simply been transplanted. But I'm not alone in deploring the relative nudity that's beset Glyndebourne over the past couple of years. Why remove the roses and the herbaceous profusion?
No such problems exist at Garsington, which just gets better all the time (or maybe it's because this is the first occasion where I've been there in the June high noon of gardens). Good news, Garsington General Director Anthony Whitworth-Jones told me, is that they're taking the head gardener with them to Wormsley, though she'll still be carrying on her stunning work at Garsington.
Will I miss this venue? Well, I've only been for four of the 22 seasons, and it was always a mixed experience. The braying nouveau-riche contingent used to be uncontrollable after their interval champers - the horribly overplayed production of Strauss's Intermezzo was the worst casualty - and still much of the talk which resounds over the lawns is of hedge funds and banks. But Garsington did provide one of the most essential and visually inventive productions I've seen, a real Strauss rarity - Die Liebe der Danae with the glorious Orla Boylan and Peter Coleman-Wright. Shan't forget its ballroom dancing queens or the motorway that led out to the Elizabethan garden. Ariadne was a messy horror, so I wasn't expecting much from the same director's Armida. But musically it had great moments, and I'm in danger of turning into a Rossinimaniac. I knew there was great music in Armida from the recently-reissued Sony recording, with a relatively young Renee Fleming in her prime 17 years ago and superb musical direction from Daniele Gatti.
On Saturday, Bristol-born soprano Jessica Pratt wowed us all. But the tenors, good though two of them certainly were, didn't quite come up to the singular mark of the Chelsea Opera Group's find for Guillaume Tell, the achingly musical Mark Milhofer.