Hearing great opera in an Arcadian setting has always been Glyndebourne’s strength, and this season the gardens, revamped and replenished, are primed to put on a truly virtuoso performance.
The idyllic backdrop of the South Downs has changed little from 80 years ago, when John Christie built an opera theatre in the grounds of his East Sussex mansion for his new bride. However, the gardens surrounding the lawns where the public picnic during the performance intervals have changed dramatically of late, due to Glyndebourne’s garden adviser, John Hoyland.
“John is particularly good at having an eye for the past as well as an eye for the future,” says John Christie’s grandson, executive chairman Gus Christie, who lives in the manor house with his wife, soprano Danielle de Niese, swims in the waterlily-studded lake and has had a zip wire strung across it for his sons.
A committed environmentalist with an eye for the future himself — he controversially installed a sleek wind turbine, nose designed by Norman Foster, that powers every Glyndebourne production with renewable energy — Christie had the bright idea of changing the location of the car park last year.
Now, instead of an intrusive line of coaches at the front of the house, there is a glorious flowering meadow created by Hoyland. Coaches park in the newly cleared arboretum, at the western end of the garden. “It’s nicer for people to arrive directly into the gardens, rather than round the back door and past the dustbins,” says Christie.
For over 30 years, the gardens were planted by friend and neighbour at nearby Great Dixter, the late, great plantsman Christopher Lloyd, with the help of Gus’s mother, the enthusiastic Mary Christie, whose husband Sir George, the guiding light of Glyndebourne for over 40 years, died last week aged 79 while listening to Der Rosenkavalier with his family around him.
“By the time I was called in four years ago, the garden had stopped singing and it needed to sing again,” says Hoyland. “When you make changes you have to respect what came before, but you also have to acknowledge that they might have become tired, and need re-energising.” On a more practical note, he adds: “I also needed to create lots of intimate spaces for people to picnic on the lawns, otherwise it would be like the beach at Marbella.”
Scene setting: one of many idyllic views, left, at Glyndebourne; a diver stands forever poised above the lake, right, which was dredged to thin out the waterlilies, now contained in pots to stop their spread
The main event, though, has to come from the 120-yard double flower borders of the terrace that runs along the back of the house. It is the popular promenade at interval time, where the views across the lawns beneath can be admired, and the new walk-in entrance from the car park.
It does not disappoint: columns of Portuguese laurel and semicircles of box balls make an evergreen foil for the chorus of groundcover rose Bonica, geranium Rozanne and clouds of white Crambe Cordifolia that support exuberant main players of foxtail lilies, achilleas, salvias, hemerocallis and hollyhocks.
Approached from a zizag staircase and leading directly to the opera house itself is the exotic Bourne Garden, which, jam-packed with angelicas, bananas and tree ferns, has all the drama and fanfare of Verdi’s Aida. Hoyland improved on the original by ruthlessly pollarding the catalpas and pawlonias, so there is foliage from top to toe.
Evening scent is part of the Glyndebourne experience, believes Hoyland. Thus, huge terracotta pots by the entrances to the opera house foyer are filled with white regale lilies, fragrant-leaved geraniums and vanilla-scented heliotrope. “The music is soaring inside the opera house, you come out after this extraordinary experience and you also want your senses to be caressed with fabulous perfumes,” he explains.
Some areas of the gardens needed no changes, such as the croquet lawn — where orchestra and chorus while away the 90-minute interval by playing the game — and the Figaro Room, a cool, green space housing a Henry Moore reclining figure gazing across to the Downs.
“The big challenge, aside from the chalky soil and the high winds,” says Hoyland, “is having 1,200 people marching around the place every night, which puts huge pressure on the garden. They’re also picnicking and popping their bottles of champagne, which goes everywhere and burns the grass. Champagne makes the best weedkiller.”
The gardening team is devoted. Head gardener Kevin Martin, who has been working at Glyndebourne for 30 years and grows most of the perennials, shrubs and annuals himself, also arranges the flowers for the Organ Room — see his how-to video online — and picks out orchid seedlings in the mown grass paths of the meadow by the kitchen gardens, painstakingly transplanting them into safe pasture.
Star performers: pink peonies and Allium christophii, left; Potted perfection: Cercis Forest Pansy and peach verbena, right
Volunteers are rewarded with seats for the opera — one diligently patrols the borders, deadheading faded flowers so that fresh ones can keep coming right through the festival.
How can the gardens fail with such dedication? Kevin Martin is convinced that the dawn chorus sings more loudly and more sweetly at Glyndebourne than anywhere else, and he is probably right.
GET THE LOOK
John Hoyland advises on how to bring Glyndebourne glamour into your garden:
- Group plants in pots closely together. This creates a more exuberant effect than dotting them about. It also makes watering easier. Moving pots around, or changing what is in them, is a great way of bringing a fresh, new look into the garden.
- Veg can be beautiful, too. Artichokes, kale, cavalo nero, even some lettuces are attractive as well as productive.
- Bold colour combinations are much more dramatic than soft pastels. “At Glyndebourne we like the acid-yellow flowers of euphorbias with the magenta pink of Bergenia Overture or, later in the year, pink cosmos with the burnt-orange flowers of Dahlia David Howard.”
- Use bedding plants and annuals —they are long-flowering and bring in lots of colour. As well as the more usual cosmos and nicotiana, try something more exotic. Persicaria orientalis grows over 8ft tall in a single season and is covered with dusky-pink tassels. It is worth growing for its common name alone: “Kiss me over the garden gate.”
- Include scented plants that release their perfume in the evening, when you can come home from work and enjoy your garden. Try night-scented stock and perfumed lilies but also more unusual plants, such as easy-to-grow night phlox Zaluzianskya ovata. The scent of honeysuckle is much stronger in the evening.
Photographs: Clive Nichols