PASTORAL SYMPHONY A sense of innovation keeps Glyndebourne at once classic and cutting edge
While remaining true to its traditions, Glyndebourne continues to explore uncharted territory, with this summer’s staging of the world premiere of a new version of Hamlet, alongside the revival of a lost opera classic and an exhibition of the best of Brit
The graciousness of civilisation here surely touches a peak where the arts of music, architecture and gardening combine…’ So said Vita Sackville-West of Glyndebourne in 1953. Certainly, the white willows on the banks of the ornamental lake, the guests in flowing silk dresses picnicking under the tulip-trees and the sheep placidly grazing in the field just beyond the ha-ha give the idea that nothing at the home of English country-house opera ever really changes.
That impression, though, is quite wrong. For innovation and discovery have always been part of the charm of Glyndebourne, as much as the Elizabethan house and the rolling South Downs that surround it; and this is a particularly groundbreaking year for the company.
The highlight of the season is a global premiere of an opera of Hamlet by Brett Dean starring the Pre-Raphaelite beauty Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia. ‘This is a fantastic opera with a wonderful Hamlet in Allan Clayton,’ she says. ‘I’ve never sung here before, and Glyndebourne is on the world stage. And of course, it’s a lovely setting and a special atmosphere.’ Though it is a brand-new work, Hannigan describes the music as ‘beautiful. It’s not some crazy angular deconstruction. This is storytelling for a traditional audience and they’ll understand and love it. Plus it feels very good to sing.’
Another opera that viewers won’t know – though it is far from new – is Hipermestra by the 17th-century Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli. This baroque masterpiece, written in 1658, has lain neglected for more than 300 years and now receives its British premiere in Sussex this summer. It could sound dry, but Glyndebourne has a reputation for lavish productions with Covent Garden-level budgets, filled with visual wit and sheer joy that send its audiences out towards the champagne pavilions on the lawns during the long interval in a ripple of laughter.
And Glyndebourne is not just dynamic and ambitious in relation to its musical choices. In the past, it has hosted productions designed by David Hockney and Anish Kapoor; today, alongside the hampers and picnic tables in the gardens is a simple structure by the London architectural studio Carmody Groarke, which houses the White Cube at Glyndebourne.
In 2015, the leading contemporary-art gallery came to the country-house opera for the first time, bringing the German painter Georg Baselitz to the attention of the audience on the reasonable assumption that, if they had a taste for high culture, they might also enjoy some challenging contemporary art. This proved to be the case. This year, White Cube introduces the British artist Rachel Kneebone and her exquisite Rodin-inspired white porcelain sculptures to the South Coast. (These will be works that reference Hamlet and Hipermestra and thus all the more intriguing for opera-goers to enjoy.)
Of course, there may be traditionalists who object to, say, the new LED-lighting scheme in the Figaro Garden, or the inclusion of popcorn panna cotta on the menu at the Middle and Over
Wallop restaurant, but they would be wrong. For, as Gus Christie, the executive chairman of Glyndebourne Productions, and grandson of the festival’s founder John Christie, says: ‘Opera is alive, and the way Glyndebourne approaches this art form is exciting and innovative at the same time as being respectful. We’re not just doing the old titles, we’re commissioning new work, and we’re uncovering others that have hardly been performed, which is what we’ve done right through our history, with Mozart, Handel and the baroque.’
Moreover, a remarkably stellar list of singers started their careers at Glyndebourne, discovered by the company’s conductors and directors. That roster includes Luciano Pavarotti, who sang in Mozart’s Idomeneo here in 1964 when he was just an unknown young twentysomething from Modena. Janet Baker and Joan Sutherland, Thomas Allen, Simon Rattle, Sarah Connolly, Willard White and John Tomlinson also owe early stardom to the opera house. And then there’s the ravishing Danielle de Niese who not only had a succès fou as a saucy Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (one of those slightly unpromising-sounding Handel operas that Glyndebourne managed to make both beautiful and hilariously funny) but also then married Gus Christie. ‘This is history repeating itself, because my grandfather was married to an
‘Opera is alive. We’re not just doing the old titles, we’re commissioning new work, and uncovering others’
opera singer,’ says Christie of the benefits a world-famous soprano can bring as chatelaine of a musical house. ‘When Danni is singing at Glyndebourne, she’s obviously around and the audiences are very interested in seeing her. As for me, I see the other side and appreciate what it’s like being a singer. She’s not a diva off stage, of course. People think because she’s an opera singer, she must be a diva. Wrong! But when she’s able to help me with entertaining, it’s a huge tonic to the party. People want to see her and get to know her. She livens up an evening.’
The other essential element for the audience is the dressing up. For Sebastian Schwarz, who became general director here last spring having built his career in Vienna, a heartland of opera, ‘People can wear what they like, naturally, but the gardens are another part of the stage for me, and the audience are part of the performance.’ For whatever dramas are happening on set, once the sun begins to dip and the shadows lengthen, little candles will glow among the flowers on picnic tables so laden with fruits, glasses and bottles that they have something of the feel of a fête champêtre at Le Petit Trianon. And watching the men in black tie and women in sweeping gowns and summer furs as they enjoy their night is undoubtedly an inextricable feature of Glyndebourne’s charm. ‘It’s the acoustic, the comfort, the intimacy,’ concludes Christie. ‘They’re what set us apart.’ Glyndebourne Festival (www.glyndebourne.com) runs from 20 May until 27 August. Bazaar readers can receive a free glass of champagne; turn to page 210 for details of how to book, and terms and conditions.
The White Cube at Glyndebourne pavilion