JAMES MONROE would have recognized the scene: the English boxwood gardens on his Charlottesville estate, filled with guests and music.
Monroe's estate, known as Highland in his day but now called Ash Lawn-Highland, plays host today to a festival of music, opera, Shakespeare and family entertainment. Ash Lawn-Highland is a small presidential estate, its two-story house not nearly as large or lavish as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello just down the road. But despite its surprising modesty, the 535-acre hilltop farm, with its gardens, farm buildings and animals, is a wonderful setting for an evening of music.
The entertainment, unlike many summer shows at historic sites, is professional. The opera includes Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" and is performed in English by artists who have sung at the New York City Opera, Wolf Trap and Carnegie Hall. The chamber music is by groups in residence at Yale and Duquesne universities or from Monticello, the Shakespeare by the Virginia Shakespeare Festival and the family entertainment by dancing and storytelling troupes from Williamsburg and Richmond.
The real star of the Summer Festival at Ash Lawn-Highland is not the entertainment, good as it is, but the setting. Operated by the College of William & Mary, the farm was the home for 24 years of Monroe, who was a senator, ambassador to France, Spain and Britain, secretary of state and war, four times governor of Virginia, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, and a two-term president.
The stage is set in Monroe's boxwood gardens, between the trunks of two towering trees, just about 100 feet from the front door. The audience sits on the ground or on chairs, no more than 60 feet from the stage, close enough to catch the performers' every expression. The hilltop setting gives a great view of the sunset and then the stars. The cries of peacocks, who wander the grounds and flit between the trees during the show, and the lowing of the cattle in the field on the other side of the house enrich the evening. ASH LAWN-HIGHLAND SUMMER FESTIVAL
-- The opera schedule, all showtimes at 7: "Don Pasquale" August 11 and 15. "Don Giovanni": August 8 and 12. "The Italian Girl in Algiers": August 9, 13 and 16.
The family entertainment is at 4 on Sundays. August 9 -- The Richmond Theater Company presents "Wooden Nickels," a story about a little boy; August 16 -- Kalimba Talk, a mix of stories, music and magic. The Shakespeare play "Much Ado About Nothing" will be performed at 7 August 19 through 23. Admission to the Sunday family shows is $2. Tickets to the opera, chamber music and the Shakespeare play are $9 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. Parking and picnicking facilities are available, and box lunches may be ordered from Food of All Nations (804/296-6131) and picked up the night of the performance. Cast and audience move under a nearby tent if it rains. Ash Lawn-Highland is 2 1/2 miles past Monticello on Route 795, just south of Charlottesville. Open 9 to 6 daily. 804/293-9539.