A Blackbird Sings at Garsington


I am walking through the formal gardens, on my way to pit for the first night of Figaro at Garsington manor. Giant poppies bob their welcome. Rose petals shimmer in the first summer light. Penguin suits and sequinned ball-gowns mill around picnic hampers on the distant lawn. The breathy sound of a flute emerges from the pit. In the big tree above my head a blackbird is warming up for her debut.

Although it is a Mozart night, everyone in the pit is practicing Britten for the rehearsal tomorrow. A violist and I are playing the same hysterical sequence, our hands flying up to the Gods of the fingerboard at high speed. We are three semiquavers apart and creating excruciating dissonances. Another violist is doing long calm bows, centering herself. I take her lead, it being far more suitable preparation for one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.

The pit and the stalls are full. The conductor arrives. The continuo cello and fortepiano players take their places. Jane is wearing outrageous lime green earrings and Gareth shoves his jeans underneath the piano for a fast getaway. 'We're off to Alton Towers with the kids at the crack of dawn' he explains. The continuo team and the conductor have a mini rehearsal amidst the screaming Britten fragments. 'You lead that bit' says Dougie. 'I don't know what Gareth will think of that' says Jane. Gareth is doing something on his iphone. 'Could Jane lead that bit, Gareth?' says Dougie. 'Sure' says Gareth,...

The lights go down. A robin has joined the blackbird. An elaborately dressed character bangs a stave on the stage as a way to get the punters to shut up, so we can play really pianissimo. And we're off. Not to Alton towers but to somewhere as close as you can get, I imagine, to heaven.

And we are dancing. The speed, arc, bounce and swing of our bows are one. We are one with the bending of the conductor's knees and the dancing of his feet. The night is drawing in and the magic is encircling us. Susanna sings her aria into the indigo sky. She executes a delicious diminuendo and as her voice trails off, the blackbird seizes her moment. She flourishes, pauses and flourishes again, pitches a high dominant perfectly in tune with the aria and shimmies down back to the tonic, diminuendoing all the while.

Then there is silence. Then there is clapping and a glass of champagne. And then there is sleep filled with birdsong.