The launch of the Iford Arts musical season for 2017 conjures up evenings spent in the idyllic gardens of Iford Manor near Bradford on Avon, enjoying some of the best and most intimate musical events

There are a handful of things that conjure up the spirit of summer in your mind: pick-your-own strawberries, English asparagus in season – music at Iford Manor. Picture a warm, light evening, picnics on the lawn, with the most sublime singing filling the air. Yes, a visit to Iford Manor’s summer of music season, definitely merits a place on anyone’s bucket list.

The 2017 Iford Arts season has just been unveiled, with online tickets already being snapped up. Audience capacity in the atmospheric cloisters in the grounds of the Wiltshire manor house is limited to just 90 people, so it’s no wonder music lovers come from all over the world to enjoy a unique experience like nowhere else on earth.

As always with the opera season there are three productions being staged between May and August. Each one is a unique site-specific show, with the staging, costumes and rehearsals all taking place in this rural corner of Wiltshire, where international singers and musicians settle like migrating birds for the duration of the season. The two best-known operas are La Bohème by Puccini and the Barber of Seville by Rossini, while the third is the less well-known Jephtha by Handel, based on an Old Testament story of a man who makes a deal with God – with tragic consequences.

Iford’s development manager Eleanor Household explained why the Handel has particular resonance for local audiences. “George Handel came to Bath to take the waters as he was losing his sight and nearing the end of his life. He left the city afterwards, wrote Jephtha, which turned out to be his last piece, then died.” It also helps to explain why some of Handel’s arias in this, his swansong, are so emotionally charged.

Iford Arts is never afraid to take risks, to offer its audiences a fresh way of looking at a piece. Two years ago Handel’s Agrippina, set by the composer in Imperial Rome, was transported to another era when greed and power were celebrated – the 1980s. Shoulder pads, cocaine and even a Jacuzzi brought a very different angle on the opera. An Iford production of Mozart’s Magic Flute saw the audience whisked away to a land of Aztecs, all ritual and bright colours. So, who knows what the creatives will dream up for this season, although we know that La Bohème will be set in the early 20th century of romantic Paris.

 The Hot Potato Syncopators playing in the cloisters at Iford

But we know already that all the operas at Iford are sung in English. And because the audience is literally eye-ball to tonsil with the singers and elbow to elbow with the musicians inside the magical cloisters, it is such a visceral experience that you can’t help but get caught up in the high emotion of it.

It’s not surprising, that with directors and performers from the premier division of opera, producing these memorable pieces of theatre, that tickets don’t come cheap. If you can get a ticket, expect to pay upwards of £121. The good news for the more impecunious is that Iford Arts lays on other more accessible treats throughout the summer. It’s new Generation Artists’ Scheme, which promotes and supports gifted emerging performers and directors, saw an evening recently at the Wiltshire Music Centre. There will also be a New Generation in concert at Iford on Sunday 4 June. Enjoy a picnic and a stroll through the gloriously romantic Italianate gardens. Let’s face it, this is the nearest most of us will ever get to starring in a Merchant Ivory film.

A concert an hour long, with a mixed programme performed by the young professionals and directed by Oliver Gooch, will be repeated twice so audiences can choose to picnic before or after their musical feast. On Sunday 11 June there is a concert which explores the notion of sleep and sleeplessness through music and words, with narration by actor Trevor Allan Davies. CHROMA musicians will play JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, once again, giving audiences the chance to immerse themselves in the sounds, sights and emotions invoked by sense of place. Tickets for this concert are £25, with time and space allowed for the traditional pastime of picnicking.

The party spirit will be well and truly evoked for the three annual Prom nights at Iford and with tickets priced at £34, this is always a popular, sociable affair.

Clare Teal, warm-hearted, adopted west country jazz star, will be topping the bill on Friday 7 July with her superb voice, while the Leeds City Stompers will be getting the crowd up and dancing. On Saturday 8 July captivating American jazz singer Hailey Tuck will bring her own brand of soulful glamour to the gardens (check her out on YouTube singing Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice), while some New Orleans style boogie and blues will be delivered by British band Tipitina.

The final fling of summer at Iford, on Saturday 5 August, will see another west country adoptee Pee Wee Ellis, who will be shaking the Italian statues in the gardens at their very bases with his Funka Nova quartet – imagine that powerful sax rising to the Wiltshire skies. Also wooing the promenaders is the Bartoune trio, with members of the Zen Hussies, bringing some swing to ruffle up the picnic blankets.

Iford Arts Festival runs from 27 May to 5 August. To find out more visit: ifordarts.org.uk or pick up one of its pretty brochures.

Main image: a scene from The Fairy Queen