Nevill Holt Opera review – a quiet kind of drama
Source:The Guardian Author:Rowan Moore Date: 2019-01-17 Size:
Think of an opera house and you might think of something grand and lush……

‘A sense of outdoors inside’: Nevill Holt Opera’s

400-seat auditorium, with its glazed opening

in the ceiling to let in the summer light. Photograph: Hélène Binet

Think of an opera house and you might think of something grand and lush – red velvet, gilded stucco, the great chandelier and theatrical staircases of the Paris Opéra – or, in a 20th-century iteration, the nation-defining, sail-shaped roofs of Sydney. You probably don’t think of a structure hidden within a partly 17th-century stable block, whose architects have considered with great care its multiple shades of brown.

Such is the 400-seat venue in the grounds of Nevill Holt Hall near Market Harborough in Leicestershire, a great, rambling additive work of seven centuries now owned by the Carphone Warehouse magnate David Ross. In a way typical of a certain sort of English rural composition, a church and hamlet (population: 28, according to the 2011 census) look like annexes of the house. The building is designed to serve the annual Nevill Holt Opera festival, which is backed by the David Ross Foundation, and to hold occasional performances and education events through the year. It replaces a temporary structure deemed by the local planners to be too damaging to the historic building.

It is designed by Witherford Watson Mann, whose Stirling prize-winning Astley Castle in Nuneaton – where a Landmark Trust house was inserted into a ruined shell – established their credentials as architects good at putting new things into old things. In Nevill Holt the object was to retain a sense of the original courtyard, with some of its stone walls still visible, within which a structure of steel and timber sits lightly.

Its unusual situation means that it dispenses with some of the usual attributes of opera houses. A flytower would have been too intrusive on the old architecture. And because summertime audiences drift through the hall’s lawns and walled gardens before they get to the performance, there was felt to be no need for a foyer.

The opera house is situated in the stable block of Nevill Holt Hall, which is owned by Carphone Warehouse

co-founder David Ross. Photograph: Hélène Binet

The main achievement of this £5.1m project – modest sounding but essential, and not always achieved in theatres – is the sense that performers and audience are in a single room. There is intimacy and connection, created by the modulation of stalls and balcony, and assisted by the continuation of the same Douglas fir panelling and the same exposed stonework through both auditorium and stage. The technical paraphernalia of the staging and of the building’s structure are unobtrusive – they don’t get in the way of the unifying surfaces of the interior.

At the same time the room retains an exterior air, with a calculated roughness in its surfaces, an ambiguity that the architects say suits opera’s fondness for creating outdoor scenes on stage. A big glazed opening in the ceiling, through which daylight can flood before summer performances start, puts you in contact with the sky. The stable block’s original portal, through which audiences enter, creates a similarly direct connection to the surrounding landscape.

In order to achieve its simple goals – to make a room, to achieve a sense of outdoors inside – the design of the building is all about tuning. The horseshoe-shaped balcony is raised unusually high, which reveals the old stone walls and gives amplitude to the stalls. The slightly chunky timber has a measured rusticity, offset by skinny metalwork, that is skilfully brought together by the local contractors, Messenger. There is a layering of different materials – stone, steel, wood – that are then given unity through their restrained range of brownish tones. Diversity achieves wholeness – as with the instruments of an orchestra, it is tempting to say.

The stone walls and Douglas fir panelling of the auditorium.

Most of the dressed-up opera-goers probably won’t notice they are treading on a floor that, in order to retain the memory of the yard’s hardness, is finished in rough-textured concrete. They may not notice, either, that the balcony structure is independent of the stone walls around, a move that contributes both to its feeling of lightness and to the integrity of the room within which it stands. They are unlikely to know that the spacing of the timber elements echoes the intervals of the beams of the stable’s structure – which they can’t see, but which nonetheless helps to create an empathy of old and new.

The more musical among them will, hopefully, notice the way it sounds, to which music writers gave their stamp of approval after the first performances last summer. Achieved with the help of the acoustician Bob Essert, the idea is to achieve a certain lightness that favours the voices of the young singers whom Nevill Holt Opera likes to support. What still needs to be acclaimed is the way technical questions of sound translate into the visual and spatial experience of architecture. As with everything else about this project, it is achieved subtly: there are no conspicuous acoustic devices, just an intelligent choice of materials and surfaces.

If the theatre is not declamatory it is because it doesn’t have to be. The house and gardens, which have commanding views of the landscape and are populated by assertive modern sculptures, are spectacular enough. So, too, are performances of opera. The auditorium has strength and personality but, as the space that intervenes between these different dramas, can be quieter.

Witherford Watson Mann describes its project with phrases like “gently dynamic” and “quietly unorthodox”, and so it is. Its virtues are intense levels of thoughtfulness and discreet wit. It is not radical. It is not trying – unlike, for example, certain projects of Russian constructivists – to reinvent the nature of theatre. But neither does it simply follow conventional formulas. It is a place that can make opera feel fresh and alive.

Nevill Holt Opera’s 2019 season opens on 12 June with A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern