Glyndebourne Festival, 18 May 2013 – 25 August 2013

Mozart, and especially The Marriage of Figaro, used to be the gold stand- ard for Glyndebourne. But this year, according to Gus Christie who has been executive chairman of the family concern for thirteen years now since his father Sir George handed over to a new team, they have been strug- gling to sell tickets for the revival of Michael Grandage’s Figaro produc- tion (new last summer) updated to the swinging Sixties and set in a sort of Spanish Parador hotel. Early in July their website still had seats ranging from £20 to the £250 top price unsold. Is this just the Global Financial Crisis reducing patrons’ ability to spend on entertainment? According to both Gus (fifty this year) and his general director David Pickard (fifty- three), things have changed. Those who used always to buy tickets for all six festival operas are limiting themselves to just the two or three they’ve not seen before. But could there perhaps be a deeper problem in Britain’s East Sussex operatic paradise – with its evergreen recipe of picnics, musi- cal culture and evening dress?

Putting on opera is always a gamble. Glyndebourne’s website these days carries comments by actual punters who have paid good money for their seats – the latest trend in marketing which cleverly bypasses the critics in newspapers and magazines, or queers their pitch. Anyway the Guard- ian, whose website ‘streams’ Glyndebourne performances, is in a sense in bed with the opera company – whose sponsors include a Rothermere press that no longer does much opera reviewing. But, interestingly, quite a few of the posted comments by punters match the unenthusiastic press quotes also stoically posted – which means judgment is not suspended by opera enthusiasts just because their investment in buying their ticket has to be so large. Of course, for some opera goers it’s always been music and singing that matter far more than what the words mean or what slant a production takes. But are the management team taking wrong risks, and if so why?

Are they rather too obsessed with the potential star rating of those sing- ers they engage? The Glyndebourne trick has always been to get stars on the way up or on the way down, not when at maximum earning power. But the company shares a casting consultant Pål Moe with the Bayerische Staatsoper and others. Do divided loyalties have an effect? Pickard points out the success of cinema screenings of Glyndebourne work, saying ‘We are passionate about more people sharing what we do.’ And the festival, he adds, is not alone in desperately but so far unsuccessfully seeking the next must-have directorial talent. The autumn tour of their operatic work helps to cater for local audiences challenged by festival ticket prices, and also offers a context where Glyndebourne can do something to generate inter- est in opera among the young. They are this year proudly offering ‘world class opera for years 3 to 13’ to local schools from November 26 to 29, with matinees of Hansel & Gretel and L’Elisir d’Amore (at £7 a seat), and Captain Blood’s Revenge: a pirate opera (at £3). Seats will also be avail- able on November 29 and 30 for adults paying full tour prices (£8 to £66) to bring a child for just £10. And a new category of young adult recruitment (Glyndebourne<30) are being tempted with a performance of The Rape of Lucretia just for under-30s at £20 each. All this and a cinema transmis- sion of Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde staging from 2007 at the Picture House, Uckfield demonstrate a genuine urgency about the future. Why all this effort at special low prices, however, when it’s hard to see how any of the young converts will graduate to being Glyndebourne patrons at unsubsidised prices? Some mismatch in vision here. Perhaps the hidden question is why Glyndebourne is disqualified from subsidy for its huge tally of festival performances when Covent Garden gets substantial public funding – though its prices are as high as Glyndebourne’s and its seats just as inaccessible to ordinary taxpayers. Another approaching issue is wheth- er the institution created by generations of Christies will, like Wagner’s Bayreuth, need to be liberated from its founding family. Should they think again about John Christie’s vision that Britain suffered from not having a German-style provision of local opera? Should Glyndebourne give more attention to serving Brighton and East Sussex with a larger throughput of new operatic productions and perhaps even build an ensemble for that purpose? At present, with the appointment of Robin Ticciati to take over as Music Director from Vladimir Jurowski next year (in spite of Ticciati’s very poor showing at Covent Garden conducting Eugene Onegin), nobody seems to be thinking that the team could do with more experience and a somewhat better nose for fresh undiscovered talent. I have enjoyed Glyndebourne’s magic on press tickets since 1968, and got to see most new stagings there from 1971 on. I have to say it’s a long time since I was really excited by a Glyndebourne production – or by the quality of the singing and acting. Gus admits his new team since 2000 has been on the cautious side, with fewer excitements than one often expe- rienced during his father’s regime. But a new team, he feels, could have quickly lost their public if daring had proved folly. Back in 1972 there was Monteverdi’s Flying Circus – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse staged by Peter Hall with Janet Baker, and other early Hall hits included La Calisto (1970), Don Gio- vanni (1977), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1981). Then there was the adventurous innovative American whizzkid Peter Sellars, whose Handel Theodora (1996) was probably one of the most outstanding of Glynde- bourne achievements ever. I cherish memories of Ponelle’s Falstaff (1976), Erté’s designs for Der Rosenkavalier (1980), David Hockney’s designs for Rake’s Progress (1975), as well as of some remarkable work by Graham Vick (whose classic Eugene Onegin (1994) is being revived next season). The foundation for George Christie’s astonishing rebuild of the Sussex op- era house in 1992-4 was an extraordinary record of daring achievement. Richard Jones’s Macbeth (2007) is the production that has most excited me under the current regime. This season’s two revivals of Michael Grandage were probably one too many. Grandage’s Figaro misfired again, but not spectacularly. As his stage successes have shown, Grandage’s musical taste is wobbly, and his direction of the sailor chorus in Billy Budd was not convincingly shipboard enough, more like a Drury Lane musical. David McVicar will certainly be back even if his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was a success in spite of sets that somewhat evoked a National Trust giftshop. The need to re- turn to the German roots that originally inspired and assisted the festival’s founder Gus’s grandfather John Christie, who brought in brilliant refugees from Nazi Germany in 1934, was perhaps what lay behind the recruiting of young German director Katharina Thoma to take charge of this year’s first new production, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Thoma came second in the Opera Europa opera-directing competition in 2007, and staged Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in Malmö in 2009, a produc- tion picked up Bernd Loebe at Frankfurt. Her arrival at Glyndebourne is slightly surprising. She certainly aimed to conform with the house style. However, Strauss has long been on the Glyndebourne menu, so she had no need to give her new Ariadne quite such a local flavour to make it more digestible for punters. In her muddled concept both Prologue and opera happened in the Christies’ Sussex country house sometime during World War Two – a Luftwaffe air-raid providing a small coup de théâtre that inter- rupted preparations for the rich owner’s entertainment (and sent us all out for our dinner interval). Sadly, stuffy plump Brits in khaki uniforms seemed far less amusing and romantic than Hussars with Habsburg flourish. Costume designer Irena Bartels seemed to have Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in mind rather than the rural Etonian Christies. Zerbinetta’s commedia supporters (Harlequin etc) all wore striped cricketing blazers. And for the opera proper after the in- terval the country house theatre space (designed by Julia Müer) became a sort of Naxos hospital ward with iron beds, traumatised wounded soldiers, nymphs as Red Cross nurses and an Ariadne needing an army psychiatrist. None of this was very convincing, and few laughs sprang from the audi- ence despite all Thoma’s self-consciously obvious bids to entertain. McVicar (as it happens) had employed a similar period concept for Eng- lish National Opera’s successful Medea a few months back, while Glynde- bourne audiences have relished Mariame Clément’s rococo picnicking in the final alfresco scene of her Don Pasquale. Thoma’s rather sycophan- tic anglicised ‘Regietheater’ fancy never properly fitted the text, and her jokes were seldom as amusing as the comedy with which Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Strauss endowed their unusual masterpiece. Bacchus (Sergey Skorokhodov) as an airman screaming for Circe, and Soile Isokoski in the title role were both well worth hearing – even if their predicament in Thoma’s concept was unfruitful. Isokoski almost made her text fit the location. Dmitri Vargin’s Harlequin was a very good trouper. But neither Thomas Allen’s world-weary Music Master nor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s perky Dancing Master were charmingly at home in circumstances where theatre was being upstaged by serious ‘world events’. Hofmannsthal’s exact sense of class and sex was the major casu- alty. Glyndebourne snobbery was not a good fit with the Viennese variety. William Relton’s Major-Domo (or Butler, as the surtitles put it) spoke im- pressively authentic German, more than could be said for some cast mem- bers. Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta was casual and showy in the prologue, where Kate Lindsey’s convincingly butch middle class Composer was lightweight. Claycomb glowed strikingly in her big aria ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’. But all the business of entertaining troops did not bring out her earthy wisdom. Vladimir Jurowski’s cautious disengaged conducting was no more charming than the production. Glyndebourne’s first Rameau opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, also Rameau’s first opera, is certainly not a case of pioneering – as their Monteverdi and Cavalli operas were fifty years ago. Conductor and baroque specialist Wil- liam Christie is familiar to audiences here in Handel and Purcell but is in fact above all a Rameau specialist. His usual energy and stylish assurance were brought to bear, and also – perhaps too much – his taste in singers. I felt Stéphane Degout as Thésée and Ed Lyon as Hippolyte both inclined to sing in too covered a manner, deploying too narrow and brittle a timbre. I know it is the style currently approved for French baroque music. I just don’t believe so mannered, dry and almost raspy a tone, however elegantly voiced, would have suited the eighteenth-century sense of beauty. Jonathan Kent’s production balanced visual jokes in the sets and costumes (always strikingly designed by Paul Brown) with an intimate modern apart- ment where the drama of Phèdre’s obsessive passion played out. The Prologue gave us Diana and Cupid setting up the romantic conflict in a sort of frigidaire interior with liveried male chorus emerging on to the stage from behind chicken-meat sausages and women in fluffy white furcoats. In other compartments were tubes of tomato paste and broccoli spears. Diana was a Dresden shepherdess flown from the flies, and Cupid a chick bursting out of an egg. A video of a pained male face was a recurrent front drop. A bal- let of bleeding dismembered stags losing their antlers (shades of Actaeon) assumed the audience had strong stomachs. The hunt theme was further pursued with the chorus got up in rococo wigs and hunting pink. The outstanding performance and source of most excitement was Sarah Connolly’s superbly sultry and stylish Phèdre. The temperature rose rap- idly when she made her first entrance up steps from the orchestra pit. She has become a compelling star, and outshone by some way the appealing but unvaried Aricie of Christiane Karg, who however blended very well in manner and vocally with Ed Lyon’s Hippolyte. François Lis also performed well as Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune. Nina Dunn’s video designs were genu- inely useful in telling the story and creating atmosphere. And the four pairs of dancers were finely choreographed by Ashley Page. Hippolyte’s cramped family life in a kind of prefabricated apartment home was a convincing presentation of a contemporary student. The shifts in pe- riod and style were wittily managed. The fly ballet in Pluto’s Hell deployed the most striking if awkward costumes in a gallimaufry of inventiveness, though the camp ‘Hello sailor’ ballet, in the spirit of Balanchine, perhaps did not need pink lighting to make sure we got the point. Rameau’s melodic material may not offer so much potential for emotional involvement with the tragedy. French opera before the revolution has musical limitations. But the declamatory seriousness and elegance are intriguingly in Kent’s production balanced with a highly inventive and overt use of a very wide variety of provoking and comic visual materials mixed very well with a dy- namic deployment of the chorus and the individual characters of the drama. This is very accomplished work indeed, and brings to life a piece that is a real adornment to the Glyndebourne repertoire.

Ariadne auf Naxos: Soile Isokoski as a straitjacketed Ariadne with nursing nymphs

Ariadne auf Naxos: Kate Lindsey’s Composer facing the reality of her opera going up in smoke

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