There are few things more English than getting kitted out in full evening dress in the middle of a summer’s day, packing a picnic hamper and heading to the opera. The sheer eccentricity of the idea both baffles and bemuses friends from abroad… yet they’re eager to share the experience for the country house opera circuit here is something you can’t quite experience anywhere else. There really is a wealth of opera to choose from and I’ve picked out some festival highlights from both the UK and from the international scene.

Glyndebourne © Mark Pullinger
Glyndebourne
© Mark Pullinger

Glyndebourne is the crown jewel in the country house opera season and it’s the first to open each year. There are three new productions this year. Annilese Miskimmon’s interesting take on Madama Butterfly, provocatively relocated to post-war Nagasaki, has already been seen on tour. She draws out the cynical nastiness of the plot well in Act 1, although Act 2 was more conventional. The centenary of Debussy’s death is marked with a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by music director, Robin Ticciati. Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is eagerly anticipated, an opera strangely neglected by UK companies but it caused a real stir at Wexford where it was praised as “a score of sumptuous, passionate lyricism”. There are two Handel revivals to enjoy – David McVicar’s outrageously entertaining Giulio Cesare and Barrie Kosky’s superb take on the oratorio Saul.

<i>Madama Butterfly</i> © Clive Barda
Madama Butterfly
© Clive Barda

Garsington offers a varied season opening with a new production by Netia Jones of The Magic Flute with outstanding young soprano Louise Alder as Pamina. After its well-received production of Intermezzo, the festival returns to Richard Strauss with the “conversation piece” Capriccio, directed by Tim Albery and with Miah Persson classy casting as the Countess caught in a love dilemma between a poet and a composer. Henry Waddington as Falstaff is reason enough to see Bruno Ravella’s staging and Garsington is giving the world premiere of David Sawer’s The Skating Rink, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño.

© The Grange Festival
© The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival presents Handel’s Agrippina by Walter Sutcliffe, along an English version of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio from veteran director John Copley. More familiar fare comes via Rossini’s The Barber of Seville led by Josè Maria Lo Monaco’s Rosina. Former tenants Grange Park Opera are now happily at home in West Horsley, with Stephen Medcalf’s production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera the pick of its 2018 season. Longborough Festival Opera, in Moreton-in-Marsh, has built its reputation on Anthony Negus’ conducting of Wagner and the strongly cast new Flying Dutchman should continue that trend.

Summer opera in the UK doesn’t have to come with a country house and a picnic attached. Opera Holland Park has an enthusiastic audience, eager to lap up rare Italian verismo which is the house speciality. Two seasons on from Mascagni’s Iris, they turn to his Isabeau, a version of the Lady Godiva legend first performed in 1911. Anne-Sophie Duprels and David Butt Philip lead the cast in Martin Lloyd-Evans’ staging. OHP also stages its first Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos – in a co-production with Scottish Opera, while La traviata and Così fan tutte feature attractive casts.

Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg
Salzburg
© Tourismus Salzburg

Internationally, Wagnerites make a bee-line for Bayreuth each summer. However, this year there is no Ring cycle (Frank Castorf’s controversial staging taking its final bow last season) so Yuval Sharon’s new production of Lohengrin, which pairs Roberto Alagna with Anja Harteros, is the main attraction. Salzburg Festival is teeming with goodies this year, not least a new Queen of Spades conducted by Mariss Jansons, Romeo Castellucci directing Salome and Les Arts Florissants tackling Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.

Aix-en-Provence is an idyllic location for a summer opera festival. Audiences there will be familiar with the work of Katie Mitchell and Simon McBurney and they have new productions on offer for the 2018 festival. Mitchell turns her attention to Ariadne auf Naxos, while Simon McBurney directs The Magic Flute, a production familiar to ENO and Dutch National Opera audiences. The smart pick, however, could be Mariusz Treliński’s new staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, as the soprano Ausrine Stundyte has already garnered rave reviews singing the role of Renata in Zurich.

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence © Mark Pullinger
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
© Mark Pullinger

Savonlinna provides opera in a spectacular open-air castle setting in Finland, doing much of the work of a set designer, perhaps, especially for an opera such as Tosca where the diva leaps from the battlements at the denouement! The Puccini Festival from Torre del Lago brings their productions of Tosca and Turandot to Savonlinna, where Madama Butterfly is also being staged. Charles Gounod, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year, is represented by Faust and Misha Didyk leads a Russian–Finnish cast in The Queen of Spades.

<i>Carmen</i> in Bregenz © Karl Forster
Carmen in Bregenz
© Karl Forster

In the US, Santa Fe offers opera under a starry New Mexico sky and the big draw this year – Leonard Bernstein’s centenary – will doubtless be Candide, starring Alek Shrader and Brenda Rae in Laurent Pelly’s production. The festival enjoys staging contemporary opera. After last year’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, there’s a new production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. More open-air opera comes on Bregenz’s floating stage where Kasper Holten’s strikingly-designed Carmen returns for its second year.

If it's operatic rarities you’re after, head to Pesaro for the Rossini Opera Festival, which always digs out novelties: Riccardo e Zoraide and Adina feature this summer, along with a new production by Pier Luigi Pizzi of the slightly more familiar Il barbiere di Siviglia! Or wait until the autumn and head to Wexford in Ireland which sees the European première of William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight, plus – for verismo fans – Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita and Franco Leoni’s L’oracolo.