Seen at Grange Park Opera June 24, 2015

Samson et Dalila -Samson (Carl Tanner) Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner)  and Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) contemplating what haircut to get © Robert Workman

The story, taken from the Book of Judges, about a classic haircut is well-known. We are all familiar with that sinking feeling and loss of potency after a horrific hair makeover. But in the face of defeat Samson, just like the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, found strength and ultimately victory. Come to think of it, Samson is one of history’s first suicide bombers and his self-destructive act appeared to have God’s blessing. What the Lord made of Saint-Saëns’s opera on the subject is not known, but its success lay for a long time in the balance.

Grange Park Opera’s new production of Samson et Delila contains some powerful singing and a very good orchestra to boot.

Why did Camille Saint-Saëns devote so much time to creating this work? Many of his most famous compositions seem effortlessness: the 4th and the 5th piano concertos, the Carnival of the Animals, the Danse Macabre and the Organ Symphony also show off his versatility.
Samson et Dalila started out as an oratorio and was performed at a number of private concerts. In the 19th century the use of a biblical subject for an opera was frowned upon in France, Great Britain and probably in most other European countries. After the humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 Saint-Saëns for some reason decided that he had to rework the oratorio and ignore the censors and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the Christian faith.
But when Samson and Delilah was finally ready to be performed in 1877 nobody in France was willing to stage it. With the help of Franz Liszt it was therefore first seen in Weimar. Then it took 13 years before anyone in France showed interest and another 4 years before the country’s foremost company, Opéra de Paris, staged the work!
Certainly not an easy ride for an already very well respected pianist, organist and composer. In the end Saint-Saëns had reason to feel vindictive because the opera became a resounding success and in Paris alone it was performed 500 times during the next 30 years.

Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman

Samson et Dalila is now the only one of Saint-Saëns’s 12 operas that is performed on a fairly regular basis, but I had never before seen a production. I cherish my recording with Placido Domingo and Elena Obraztsova singing the title roles and Daniel Barenboim conducting. I made my mind up that I was not going to be unfair and expect the production at Grange Park Opera to musically reach those heights.
I needn’t have worried about the music, because all the musicians are equal to the task. But I want to take issue with the director of this production. Setting the opera in Vichy France during the German occupation doesn’t add anything to the action other than the most obvious. In the ballet scene it turns out that Delilah is a film star and instead of dancing we see the singers reacting to the action in the (oriental sounding) film that they are supposedly watching. I would still have preferred an orgiastic (bacchanale) ballet, but this solution is acceptable, because it is quite a sensible cost saving. But if the director wants to make a modern or even contemporary parallel why not portray the Philistines as Arabs, Palestinians (like Opera Flanders did) or ISIL. That last option could truly have been controversial and more relevant. I could do without swastikas and nazi saluting chorus members in opera production for a little while.

But the positives prevail over some poor directorial decisions. In the end the music comes first and overall the singers deliver  the goods. Ex-bounty hunter Carl Tanner may not have the dashing looks but he has the CV to claim the part and certainly displays both the ‘helden’ tenor voice and the firm ease required in the love duet.
Sara Fulgoni sounds darkly seductive and at the same time possesses the regal air of the film star she is meant to be. She builds up the tension and expectations very well with long phrasing,  before pulling out all the lyrical stops in the famous aria and subsequent duet  ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’.
The youthful High Priest (Michel de Souza) is a man without a conscience and Christophoris Stamboglis as the Old Hebrew is as rock solid as the Masada fortress.
There are still clear elements of the original oratorio (Bach and Händel come to mind) in the first act and some of the rather static scenes can be blamed on the composer’s and the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire’s shortcomings. There are two choirs (Hebrews and Philistines) and the (mainly) young singers in the chorus get a marvellous opportunity to gain acting and singing experience.

Gianluca Marciano conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with restraint but certainly doesn’t underplay the Wagnerian mellifluence and pomp. Grange Park Opera is very lucky to have such a fine orchestra as its house band.

View the 2015 programme


Grange Park Opera  photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Grange Park Opera photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


It is a perilous business running an opera company (even if it is only during the summer season) and perhaps even more so if you are dependent on incredibly generous, private donors. But Wasfi Kani clearly knows how to make the wealthy depart with their money for something as ephemeral as an opera performance. Grange Park Opera was founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani and she remains the lynchpin. The location certainly plays a big part in the success of the whole operation

English Heritage’s property The Grange at Northington is surrounded by a landscaped garden and lush Hampshire countryside. An excellent setting for some heavy duty opera and a light picnic. The house has a Greek revival facade which could double as a backdrop for quite a few productions. The partly stripped and distressed Georgian interior are brought back to life every year when the bar and the restaurant are opened for the season.

Highly relevant Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten’s last opera, seen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23 June 2015

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten Garsington Opera at Wormsley Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Benjamin Britten composed Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s much admired novella, knowing that he didn’t have long to live. He prioritised composing the opera over the need to undergo open-heart surgery.

In the spring of 1973 he finished Death in Venice and only then admitted himself to hospital. After the operation he was still too unwell to attend the opening night. The pressure that Britten put himself under to finish the work is quite revealing and relevant to the interpretation of the work. Did he have something to get off his chest?

Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice (1971) I saw as a young adult. Particularly Dirk Bogarde playing the novelist Gustav von Aschenbach made a lasting impression. The director’s marvelous use of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony inspired me to explore Gustav Mahler’s music and I am grateful to Visconti for that. I found out that Thomas Mann had based some traits of the Aschenbach character on Mahler, who he had once met. Mann learnt of Mahler’s death while working on his novella in Venice in June 1911 and it greatly saddened him. Britten was also a great admirer of Mahler’s music.

But when I revisited Visconti’s film a decade ago I found it sentimental, slow and morally quite hard to stomach. I was not familiar with Britten’s opera, but to say that I was apprehensive about seeing an opera on the same subject is an understatement. Luckily Garsington Opera persuaded me to experience their splendid new production. Now I know that Britten together with his librettist Myfanwy Piper composed an adaptation of the novel that intellectually is much more satisfying than Visconti’s film.

Benjamin Britten was still recovering from heart surgery and a stroke when Death in Venice had its world premiere in June 1973. Britten’s assistant Steuart Bedford was given his international break. Bedford proceeded to conduct the first recording of the work as well with Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, for whom the role was created, in the lead. Bedford is alive and well and now musically in charge of Garsington Opera’s new production. I can’t think of anyone else who is better suited for the job.

William Dazeley (Elderly Fop), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Gustav von Aschenbach – Paul Nilon – The Traveller – William Dazeley © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Some of the members  of the Garsington Opera Orchestra have been performing together for some 20 years but they only get together for  three months a year. They certainly don’t sound like a temporary band and they need to be on their toes for Britten’s work. The score is quite tricky with exotic rhythms and dodecaphony thrown in for good measure. I know, the restraint is deliberate but in my ears various bits seem a touch too ‘under orchestrated’.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there is only one passage with an orchestral tutti and the fragmentation doesn’t always seem to serve a real purpose.

Sreuart Bedford has total confidence in the work, paces it calmly, adds fluency and holds it all together, while at the same time guiding some of the less experienced singers and dancers.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Garsington Opera at Wormsley  photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The libretto is quite faithful to Mann’s surprisingly complex novella. Gustav von Aschenbach ( Paul Nilon) suffers writer’s block and decides to visit La Serenissima where surely the inspiration will start to flow. On board a ship to Venice the ageing novelist meets a simpering, extremely irritating fop who fancies strapping young men. At the end we discover that we have seen a mirror image of von Aschenbach’s fate. He will become a foppish figure himself.

As soon as Aschenbach arrives in Venice messengers of Death begin to pop up everywhere. The sinister gondolier who takes Gustav to the Venice Lido surely is Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Then there is the hotel manager, the hotel barber and various other ill-boding and even menacing characters that are all performed by one and the same bass-baritone. At Garsington these roles were taken by the excellent and versatile William Dazeley.

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Chris Agius Darmanin (Jaschiu) credit Clive Barda
Lighting Designer Bruno Poet Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

A young Polish family staying at the same grand hotel fascinates Von Aschenbach. Very soon he realises that he has become infatuated with the teenaged son, Tadizio. In the novel and the opera Tadizio very much embodies the Greek ideal of beauty. Perhaps he is also Hermes, the God who guides the recently deceased to the afterlife. The contrast between Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects, or in other words measure and harmony set against unbridled passion and excess, is what also made Britten tick. Aschenbach’s dream sees Apollo and Dionysos battling it out to win the writer’s soul and the (unhealthy) sexual tension is not held back in this production. Aschenbach thinks he is self-disciplined and in control, but Dionysus (William Dazeley ) stirs his uncontrollable feelings and obsession with Tadizio.

In the book Tadizio never speaks and in the opera he also remains mute. Britten’s brilliant move is to turn the Polish family into dancers. To stress the boy’s ‘otherness’ he is often accompanied by pitched percussion instruments and quite taut music which contrasts with von Aschenbach’s more dynamic and diverse accompaniment . For the beach games and children’s play Britten creates an exotic sound reminiscent of the Balinese gamelan.

Britten also incorporated the sounds distinct to Venice. He took note of the popular songs and calls of the gondoliers and incorporated them in the score. During the boat trip a scrubbing brush is deployed very effectively on the snare drum to mimic a ship’s steam engine. There are many similar instances.

When a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice people start to leave but von Aschenbach chooses to stay so he can follow the Polish family around the city. The weather is sultry and his dreams become feverish and obsessive. After a rejuvenation make-over at the barber’s he looks like a fool. Tadizio for the first time acknowledges him but at the same time laughs at him. It all ends in tragedy. Or does it? Some people would argue that the ‘sick’ von Aschenbach gets what he deserves for being a pervert.

Britten  identified himself with von Aschenbach in many different respects. There are too many pompous Greek mythology references that perhaps try to present a more respectable, Hellenistic angle on paedophilia. But after the Jimmy Savile scandal and the avalanche of sex abuse trials we have a less forgiving view on these issues than people had 40 years ago.

Britten was without a doubt attracted to underage boys and his behavior at times showed a paedophilic inclination. There is no suggestion that he ever overstepped the mark and none of the boys (nor their parents) that he liked to host at home ever complained. It seems that Britten managed to successfully repress his sexual inclinations in that respect. Could it be that Britten’s insistence on finishing off his adaptation of Mann’s novella before undergoing the heart surgery was his way of dealing with sexual desires that he morally felt uncomfortable with? In a way Death in Venice, with all the moral questions it asks, is today even more relevant than 40 years ago.

Visconti’s film made Björn Andrésen ( in the role of Tadizio) quite famous and he was much admired for his blond and blue-eyed, cool Scandinavian looks. Celestin Boutin who gets to dance the same part in the opera is not bad looking either and he has a nicely toned body. Just like the other dancers he is clearly not a minor. Boutin has just completed his studies at Ellison Ballet in New York and here he gets to show off in many solos. Boutin doesn’t possess natural grace, but he compensates with muscular flexibility and athletic poise.

For female singers there isn’t an awful lot to do in this opera but the choir gets to mill around a fair bit. The staging is straightforward and economical. There is nothing wrong with that (except for the backdrop of the Venetian sky, which I find unconvincing). I loved the large white voile(?) curtains that can be pulled across the stage to create shadowy figures, secrecy and successfully evokes the rippling effect of lapping waves or the arrival of the dusty scirocco wind.

Paul Nilon as Gustav von Aschebach is without a doubt the star of the show. His characterization is excellent and he really inhabits the role, revealing new layers in scene after scene. The many recitatives are inspired by 17th century technique where the rhythmic profile is not determined. The singer is given quite a lot of freedom and Nilon nails it. The high lying lyrical lines pose no problem and his deep colouring is also very solid.

Finally I would like to thank the sun for making an appearance. Yes, the natural light really adds a special ‘summery feel’ to the staging, something that never could be achieved in an ordinary theatre. Venice was Britten’s second (after Suffolk) favourite place and there are moments when the serene magic of that city seems to radiate across the stage.


Patrons in evening dress strolling and picnicking GARSINGTON OPERA at Wormsley © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL



Every year over a period of seven weeks Garsington Opera at Wormsley park (just off the M40 between Oxford and High Wycombe) stages four different operas. The whole costly operation is run completely with the help of private funding and donations by foundations.

Garsington Opera’s Pavillion at Wormsley Park (owned by the Getty family) was designed by architect Robin Snell and is worth a visit in itself. The construction is very clever and was surprisingly ‘cheap’ to build ( £1.8 million in 2010). Incredibly the auditorium can be put up and pulled down in a matter of weeks, but It has remained in place since it was first built. The Pavillion does have a Japanese feel to a it (particularly seen from  afar) with huge transparent fabric wall panels that welcome the natural summer ambience and provide natural light for the staging. In the unlikely event that you get bored during a performance, the garden views  visible from the auditorium offer a splendid alternative. The long interval gives you ample opportunity to picnic and explore the parkland setting with a rose arbour,  cricket pitch, lake, island pavilion and roaming deer.

Stressed fabric sails enhance the acoustic and the orchestra pit is placed in the  ha-ha which would go some way to explain the finely balanced sound.




Re-enactment Battle of Waterloo July 20, 2015

Order of Battle Allied Forces
Order of Battle Allied Forces

I am watching thousands of men armed with muskets and baker rifles, hundreds manning canons, all firing blanks at each other. With my binoculars I can also spot quite a few young ladies (Amazons?) dressed up as Grande Armée and allied soldiers. The French cavalry charges and the ground shakes as hundreds of horses and their riders add a bit of speed, sword and sabre to the spectacle. After a short while the smoke from the blanks envelops most of the battlefield. When the temporary mist caused by the black powder lifts, the spectacle can truly commence. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! This surely is the most ambitious re-enactment battle ever staged.

The show takes place on the actual battlefield where 200 years ago Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington confronted each other for the first and very last time. I find it incredible that the ‘Iron Duke’ and the Emperor never actually met in person. If you are interested in all things Napoleonic (Wellington never appealed to the general public in the same way) you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo. For two evenings only (the 19th and 20th of June, 2015) one of Europe’s most famous battles was portrayed by 6,000 re-enactors in front of a crowd of 120,000 spectators.

Charging Cavalry
Charging Cavalry

I probably don’t need to point out that these re-enactment battles can never come close to the real thing. During the Napoleonic era battlefields quickly became gruesome fields of slaughter with limbs getting ripped off by bouncing canon balls and grapeshot causing equally nasty injuries, if not death. At Waterloo, which was a relatively small battlefield, bodies would have quickly piled up and dead or wounded horses would have formed obstacles for both the advancing French and the defending Allies.

Napoleon’s strategic brilliance modernized warfare but the technology (weaponry) remained ‘old school’. Incredibly, some weapons (I am thinking of lances) had not changed much since the Middle Ages, but despite this the French lancers proved to be surprisingly effective at Waterloo. Their three meter long pikes often turned out to be more deadly than the pistols, sabres and swords that the cuirassiers and dragoons wielded to no avail when faced with Wellington’s infantry squares.

Battle formation and camp followers
Battle formation and camp followers

Particularly the re-enactors on horseback look like they are having quite a bit of fun charging through the rye field. They get to hack the poor fusiliers with their swords. OK, it is just pretend, but viewed from ground level it must give you an idea of how vulnerable you are. The horses are very well behaved and don’t appear to trample anybody. However it is rather difficult to practise mock combat with sharp lances and accordingly the lancers have no role to play in this re-enactment. Nobody wants to see real blood flowing and we all know this is a big show, despite the fact that it is presented under the guise of a commemoration. And accidents do happen. The guy playing Marshall Ney fell off his horse the first night and broke his arm (see my photographs) and only reappeared to witness the victory parade of the Allied forces on Sunday.

Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield
Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield

What does come across fairly realistically at this portrayal of the battle is the effect on the fighting that the smoke from the guns must have had. During the re-enactment the 100 canons and the 2000-3000 muskets created quite a bit of mist that occasionally hampered the visibility for the spectators. It is quite easy to imagine that 200 years ago the smoke produced by 400 guns and 100,000 muskets firing continuously for 10 hours must have enveloped the battlefield in a thick fog that would have hampered both armies at various stages.

Oh well, 200 years have passed and nobody who is alive now, will have met anyone who fought at Waterloo. Many people were, until recently, not even aware that their family fought in Belgium for the Allied cause. Throughout the year the French have been reminded of their defeat at the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean (Napoleon never adopted Wellington’s name for the battle). The Belgians minted a commemorative coin which the French rejected. French politicians have turned out to be sour losers. But so was Napoleon who fled from the battlefield and then blamed everybody else for the crushing defeat.

Napoleon and his generals
Napoleon and his generals

There was a point during the show that I came to realize that all the people that I could see around me – 60,000 in the grandstands in addition to the 6000 re-enactors out there on the battlefield – more or less equaled the number of soldiers that were wounded or died during the battle of Waterloo. The crying, the wailing, the groaning from the mortally wounded would have been soul destroying. It seems rather pointless to try and mimic that drama, but the soundtrack (with dramatic music) seemed to give it a try.

Wellington certainly didn’t celebrate his victory with a glass of champagne. Apparently he collapsed in a heap on his bed after the battle and cried over the loss of so many friends and colleagues. Only after that did he pull himself together to write his now famous dispatch from Waterloo. So, next time leave out the music, the commentator and sound effects! Just leave it to our imagination.

The re-enactment event has been a huge success in so many different ways. It was worth seeing all this just for the costumes. The time and money the re-enactors put into getting the uniforms and the paraphernalia just right is admirable. Many of them have been saving up for this occasion for the past five years. It is also worth bearing in mind that all these good people gave up their time for free to participate in this event. The organizers did provide the food, the tents and the black powder. But this spectacle could only take place because re-enactors came from all over the world to take part in it.

Allied bivouacs
Allied bivouacs

I loved walking around the bivouacs and at the French camp I spoke to re-enactors from the Czech and Slovak republics, Germany, Belgium and France. The Allied bivouac hosted an even greater multinational force. I met re-enactors from Portugal, Canada, USA, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium and even some from Sweden and Finland.

In 1815 the Swedes didn’t participate in the battle, but the troupe representing the Älvsborg regiment were undeterred by this inconvenient historic detail. They were determined not to miss such a major event so obligingly the organizers incorporated them into the scenario. One of the Swedes confided to me that back home re-enactment events rarely attract more than 200 participants.

This business of portraying different battles is not just a nerdish obsession of a happy few. It has become quite a movement and tens of thousands of people get involved in Europe and North America in various events during the spring and summer. I believe these enthusiasts – who can spend a fortune on jackets, shakos and plates alone – truly help to keep some of our war history alive. By spending time more or less living the life of a bygone soldier they can enrich our understanding of what it was really like to be in battle and help us to appreciate the incredible resourcefulness of soldiers 200 years ago.

I have in the past made a number of radio programmes about Napoleon and Waterloo for Finnish and Swedish media and believed I was fairly knowledgeable on the topic. But I have learned more about the Napoleonic wars from talking to re-enactors and visiting their bivouacs over one weekend than I have from watching Andrew Roberts pompous, and at times poorly argued and self-serving TV series on Napoleon, currently airing on BBC 2.

Journalist, photographer and social commentator.