Tom Sut­cliffe

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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