A Turning Point and Looking Forward
In 2016 Glyndebourne Festival mounted two new productions, as it usually does: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. It has been something of an “inbetween” season. The former boss of the company David Pickard went off to run his first BBC Promenade concert season, and his successor Sebastian Schwarz had only just about got his feet under the desk when the festival opened. Schwarz is the first non-Brit to be appointed as Glyndebourne boss since Rudolf Bing left for New York in 1949.
Bing was perhaps the most important of three gifted refugees from the Nazis who created Glyndebourne Festival Opera for the founder John Christie in the 1930s. His colleagues were Fritz Busch, the conductor, and Carl Ebert, an extraordinary actor-director, illegitimate son of an Irish-American music student and a Polish count, whose Berlin landlords raised and adopted him. In 1947 Bing brought the reawakened Glyndebourne company to Edinburgh with Mozart and Verdi, when he launched the Festival there, and because of his success with both projects, and his genius at casting and managing great performing artists, was invited in 1950 to take over the Met. His farewell Gala line-up in 1972 (which I attended) was an astonishing roll-call of the greatest opera stars of the twentieth century - Nilsson, Vickers, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, Caballé, Pavarotti, Sutherland, Resnik, Merrill. Bing’s entire career at the top was a mere thirty years long. But he had learnt his trade alongside Ebert, a protegé of Max Reinhardt, who became Intendant in Darmstadt in 1927. There (and later in Charlottenburg west of Berlin) he needed a musical mind to run the operatic side of things, and Bing aged twenty-five was it.
Glyndebourne was partly funded with profits from the Christie cinema
organ company, which, as Hill, Norman & Beard, lasted until 1990 and explains Glyndebourne’s famous “organ room”. Its noble tradition was well maintained by John Christie’s son Sir George, in 1993 raising almost £31 millions from well-wishers to build a new opera-house. With grandson Gus, Glyndebourne still stands for equal emphasis on singing, acting, conducting and theatrical realisation. But the mix is very challenging. Opera of quality is not just about high fees for stars. Indeed Glyndebourne has always been famous in the trade for not paying top dollar. Nicholas Snowman’s rapid exit as boss in 2000 was apparently precipitated by his rash readiness to negotiate with agents for stars he wanted. Glyndebourne’s practice is to offer work. You accept or not. No discussion. Which makes its winning formula even more remarkable. Punters pay a very high price to fill the opera-house’s 1300 places - similar capacity to operas in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Munich. One row from the back of the gallery a seat can cost £191. The recipe has always included audiences dressing-up with formal grandeur (once firmly encouraged, but no longer compulsory), fine dining (or delectable DIY picknicking), rural beauty, and sometimes adventurous but almost always decent operatic work.
At the Theater an der Wien, where Sebastian Schwarz worked for the last eight years as number two to Roland Geyer (running the Chamber Opera himself for half that time), he was a crucial and appreciated element in Vienna’s third major opera establishment - alongside the Volksoper and the Staatsoper. Geyer since 2006 has developed what used to be the Klangbogen summer opera festival into a full-time, consciously different, serious opera programme. I was lucky enough to work there as dramaturg with Keith Warner on Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth and Don Giovanni in the 1802 theatre where Beethoven’s Fidelio was first performed (the Giovanni returns in December). Geyer and Schwarz have taken a very different approach to stagings and repertoire from the Staatsoper, finding new singers, directors, designers and conductors to vary Vienna’s opera diet. Vienna’s population is less than two million. The two older companies (including ballet) get 100 million euros subsidy, and the further 42 million euros going to the Theater an der Wien is shared with the Raimund and Ronacher theatres putting on musicals. (By contrast, Glyndebourne’s Tour and Educa-
tion department got just £1,629,055 from Arts Council England this year.)
Schwarz’s experience is ideal for Glyndebourne even if not the permanent vocal ensemble experience Bing had as a young man in Darmstadt and Charlottenberg. Times have changed. The permanent ensembles Bing dealt with in his youth remain the major distinguishing feature of the Germanspeaking opera world. Glyndebourne casts in the 1930s were thoroughly British. Audrey Mildmay was a Carl Rosa singer when John Christie fell for her. But it is years since Glyndebourne had its own full-time casting director. Glyndebourne has long depended on a well-regarded Norwegian vocal consultant Pål Moe who advises many other companies - in particular Munich’s Bayerischer Staatsoper with its permanent ensemble of eighteen, chorus of ninety-five, and three hundred guest singers, many of them stars. The big change is that Glyndebourne these days, apart from the predominantly British young chorus, can no longer call on an unofficial troupe of British singers, not-contracted but quasi-ensemble - which it used to do. Maybe Schwarz, whose casting skill is well regarded, can restore that sense of an unofficial ensemble of British singers regularly working at Glyndebourne. The line-ups of very competent young guest artists you now find at Glyndebourne have limited association with each other. And Glyndebourne really does not do stars. The festival used to count on loyal artists like Elisabeth Söderström (when a bit over the top) and even caught the young Pavarotti (Idamante in Idomeneo in 1963) on his way up. After Brexit, it is timely to recall Christie founded Glyndebourne not just to make British audiences operatically literate, but so there could be careers and work for British artists like Audrey Mildmay.
I found Rossini’s Barber disappointing. Annabel Arden, directing it, had earlier in the season provided Opera North with a truly excellent staging of Andrea Chenier. She also had a good record with her previous Glyndebourne production of L’Elisir d’Amore. But Barber based on the first of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy had a cast that somehow failed to gel or convince in the sentiments that underpin the comedy. The veteran Italian Alessandro Corbelli as Dr Bartolo, the deluded guardian of young Rosina whom Count Almaviva is desperately targeting, should have been much more at home than he seemed. Partly because of the set design, harking
back to slightly more abstract but pretty imagery popular in the 1950s and 1960s, there was not much sense of the establishment over which Bartolo presided. This opera is a comedy about romance in which true feeling has to be present as well as all the games played - of which there are many that are very funny too. But Danielle de Niese, who made a big hit at Glyndebourne as a very tarty Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and subsequently became Mrs Christie, is a performer who works so hard to appeal to her public that it can militate against emotional conviction. Offstage she is charming, emotionally sensitive, delicate, even insecure. But no doubt the pressure of being who she is where she was got to her. And Taylor Stayton, her Australian, American-trained Count, was also theatrically rather thin. Nor was the show going to be saved by the young German Björn Bürger’s Figaro which reminded me more of Robinson Crusoe than of a Sevillian huckster. In none of these cases was the issue vocal primarily. Nor could one say that Enrique Mazzola, a very competent maestro, failed to inject credible life. It is a perfect opera. But the human recipe was not working. I think, Corbelli apart, the cast lacked suitable experience. No doubt Barber was programmed to repeat the success of Danielle de Niese’s Cleopatra. But this is a different world.
The Berlioz was - as is Glyndebourne’s rule - of course performed in French. The most successful Béatrice et Bénédict stagings I have seen were in re-Shakespearianised English - Elijah Moshinsky’s for Welsh National Opera and Ronald Eyre’s for the Buxton Festival. Because Moshinsky and Eyre had directed Much Ado about Nothing, their Berlioz was geared to the native Shakespeare tradition. Think of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens at the new National Theatre in 1965 (the director Zeffirelli, like Verdi, really knew about Shakespeare). Berlioz was cross-breeding in this comedy, as also with his overgrown operetta Benvenuto Cellini. But the French have never got Berlioz, and Laurent Pelly’s staging suffered from Gallic incomprehension about Shakespeare too. I was reminded of the impresarios scoffing at the “barbarism” of Othello in Jean-Louis Barrault’s film masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis. The grey piled-up boxes provided by Pelly’s designer Barbara de Limburg were a dull setting for an updated account of the story in very smart contemporary clothes. Nothing worked
well. No atmosphere. The comic chorus scene did not remotely amuse. Everything was clumsy and almost totally unrecognisable as Shakespeare. The piece should be full of emotions from the original which Berlioz, a crazy Shakespeare fan, adored. The opera like the play depends on a real relationship between the two title characters. Paul Appleby impressed as Jonathan in Barrie Kosky’s carefully conceived, visually pleasing production of Handel’s Saul - last season’s Glyndebourne hit. But, like most of Pål Moe’s cast, he is a rising young performer without much theatrical experience. It showed. Stéphanie d’Oustrac may have done Béatrice at the Brussels Monnaie. But her tally of roles on stage is modest. The production was not helped by having Robin Ticciati invalided out.
Likewise, with David McVicar’s popular production of Meistersinger, a late substitute conductor had to be found. We also got a new Beckmesser, Jochen Kupfer, who sang well but overacted shockingly. Gerald Finley, wonderful singer and fine actor who was a superb Don Giovanni in the production on which I was dramaturg, sounds to me too baritonal in tone with insufficient depth of colouring for Hans Sachs. When he gets annoyed, as Sachs must, he starts to sound tetchy which strikes me as wrong. I liked the Americans David Portillo and Amanda Majeski as David and Eva, and also Hanna Hipp’s Polish Lene. If only McVicar’s production were not so superficial and unenquiring. British directors such as Graham Vick, Elijah Moshinsky and Richard Jones have done much more thoughtful effective stagings. But at least Glyndebourne’s revival was far preferable to Munich’s new, awful, outer suburban slum, updated-to-now staging by David Boesch (with Jonas Kaufmann as Walther carrying a guitar on his motorbike to a telly-style singing comp in the beaten-up town square).
Longborough’s Tannhäuser (which I saw twice in order to catch new-onthe-block tenor Neal Cooper in the title role, as well as John Treleaven) was much simpler and less ambitious - considering the place’s limitations and scale - but actually came over with more credible emotion and meaning. Anthony Negus is, as visitors to Longborough know, a totally aware and sensitive Wagner conductor, which Michael Güttler at Glyndebourne’s Meistersinger, for all his aplomb, was not. Less can mean more, and Longborough’s Tannhäuser was a case in point. Neither Treleaven nor Cooper
was ideal in the title role, though Treleaven’s long experience enabled him to rise to the challenge well in the third act. Cooper lacks legato and kept punching at top notes which was wearying. If his phrasing settles down, his voice has potential. Alan Privett’s production was minimal but making the pilgrims’ chorus leave and return through the auditorium was effective. Donald Thomson’s Landgrave was an extremely impressive dark bass and Erika Mädi Jones most touching as his niece, the betrayed and devoted Elisabeth. I was less persuaded by Alison Kettlewell’s Venus. The most sympathetic role with one of the loveliest Wagner arias of all is Wolfram von Eschenbach with his hymn to the Evening Star (ie Venus - but not the goddess who has so obsessed Tannhäuser): Hrólfur Sæmundsson excelled both in his acting and singing.
Longborough may be a bit rough and ready. But it managed to seem native and British. The sense of a cast pulling together and caring about what they were doing was tangible. As it happened both Gus Christie, his mother Mary, and Danielle de Niese coincided with me at Longborough, and meeting Rosina offstage was both a pleasure and provided valuable perspective on an interesting performer. But Longborough’s Wagner has been getting something right which Glyndebourne, able to hire from all around the world, has been getting less right. Casting comes down to taste. Glyndebourne needs style which it got in spades from its long-term head of music Jani Strasser. Opera casts must fit together and convince better than was managed in this season’s new productions. Sebastian Schwarz will want to tackle that. It makes sense for Glyndebourne to get more British again. Is next season’s return of Graham Vick with William Christie for Cavalli’s unknown Hipermestra harbinger of an alternative way? Restoration time, perhaps.
Glyndebourne’s Autumn Tour 2016 offers Madama Butterfly (new production by Annilese Miskimmon), Don Giovanni (revival of Jonathan Kent’s production), and Don Giovanni Behind the Curtain (for opera novices or curious customers, with Paul Rissmann explaining what happens in the extracts). It starts at Glyndebourne (October 14 - November 4), Milton Keynes Theatre (November 8 - 12), Canterbury Marlowe Theatre (November 15 - 19), Norwich Theatre Royal (November 22 - 26), Woking
New Victoria Theatre (November 29 - December 3), and Plymouth Theatre Royal (December 6 - 10).
Next summer’s festival (May 20 - August 27, public booking opens March 5): Hipermestra, La Traviata, Hamlet, Ariadne auf Naxos, Don Pasquale, La Clemenza di Tito.