mon 20/11/2017

A silver rose for Glyndebourne's 80th | reviews, news & interviews

A silver rose for Glyndebourne's 80th

A silver rose for Glyndebourne's 80th

Season preview for this opera-house aristocrat's new era under conductor Robin Ticciati

Roses on a Glyndebourne picnic table ready for the traditional long intervalLeigh Simpson

Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1911 “comedy for music” about love, money and masquerading in a putative 18th-century Vienna, is a repertoire staple around the world. Continental houses throw it together without a moment’s thought, a single rehearsal (Felicity Lott memorably recalls a Vienna Staatsoper performance in which the first time her character, the Marschallin, met the mezzo singing the trousers role of her young lover Octavian was when they woke up in bed together at the beginning of the opera).

Glyndebourne is different, with a luxuriously long rehearsal period and the highest standards in every department. This will be the house’s third production in its 80-year history of an opera which pushes its small-scale accommodation to the limits, and whatever the results, the quality is already guaranteed, starting with a director who listens intently to the music – Richard Jones, the one true visionary on the circuit – and a conductor, Robin Ticciati (pictured below by Marco Borggreve), in his first season as Glyndebourne’s musical director. I first met him there during a 2009 study day for Janáček's Jenůfa when he was principal conductor of the company’s annual tour, and he had so much to teach singers and audience alike, not least about phrasing naturally and trusting the silences. Ticciati will be following the inspirational Vladimir Jurowski’s cue in being there from the very first piano rehearsal. He’s already had lengthy discussions with Jones on what they want before setting down to practical work.

Robin Ticciati by Marcus BorggreveThis is why singers and musicians love working in the most beautiful operatic surroundings anywhere in the world. Stars won’t get a megabucks salary, but if they care about their art, they’ll head here for proper, detailed work. Young singers cut their teeth in the chorus. Even if in the early 1990s, at least, they called it "Glyndeitz" - maybe they still do - they loved it all the same. Out of that vintage came sopranos Susan Gritton and Deborah York, mezzo Sarah Connolly - still to be spotted as a chorene in a DVD of The Queen of Spades – and tenor John Daszak, now a leading Grimes on the continent and stepping up to the Wagnerian mark. Janet Baker and John Tomlinson are earlier-vintage graduates; the tradition continues.

As for the audience, who comes away from Glyndebourne disenchanted? Even if traditionalists may have left the theatre fulminating about “the Blitz Ariadne” – I loved it – or schoolboy warriors on bicycles in Handel's Rinaldo, they’ll have had their champagne suppers or picnics and wandered around the gardens, now back in full glory after a few years of transitional adjustments; amazing how the atmosphere by the lake is the same as ever, despite the increased audiences the second house up the hill has brought with it.

The class-conscious may be disconcerted by the long-term wealth and privilege, but all that’s changed a great deal: tickets are affordable – standing places especially so – and dinner jackets not compulsory; each year I see more alternative fashions and hair colours (green and pink last year, no less). The education work has blazed a trail, first under Katie Tearle and now Lucy Lowe: the community operas have always been done at the very highest level, no tokenism, while other projects roll on with Sussex communities young and old alike.

Erte Rosenkavalier cover for Glyndebourne 1980Like all regulars, I’ve had my own dialogue with Glyndebourne since I first came in my teens to see a young Simon Rattle conduct Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata in the 1980 season. The programme, which I still have, features Erté’s design for Octavian in a mid-Victorian setting for Der Rosenkavalier (pictured left, copyright Sevenarts Ltd; the role was played by Felicity Lott, who went on to become one of the great Marschallins of the late 20th century). Strauss’s publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, were required to grant permission for a reduced London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. I hadn’t really thought of the difference between the old, often unbearably hot opera house with its dry acoustic in use then and the state-of-the-art beauty we take for granted now when I asked Ticciati the other week about the smaller-scale version. We'll have the full pit orchestra, he replied; of course they will.

Every season is a mix of new productions and revivals of tested favourites (or not, as in the case of the much-reviled, buried-in-excrement Graham Vick Don Giovanni). This one looks as good as any I can remember. The first production to make me think again about Jonathan Kent as an opera director – and his Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie did that again last season -  was his Don Giovanni, which I first saw brilliantly conducted by the present musical director of the annual tour Jakub Hrůša, with the best Donna Anna and Don Ottavio I’ve ever encountered in Anna Samuil and William Burden. The aristocratic couple are the known quantities, to me at any rate, in this season’s cast: Ben Johnson has been waxing in stature recently and Layla Claire was a ravishing Countess in Michael Grandage’s utterly witty, natural staging of Le nozze di Figaro among a superlative Glyndebourne Touring Opera cast (an earlier team masked for Giovanni's party pictured below by Robbie Jack).

Scene from Glyndebourne Don Giovanni by Robbie JackMozart will always be the Glyndebourne composer par excellence, Figaro its signature opera ever since John Christie and his soprano wife Audrey Mildmay set the ball rolling in 1934; seeing that tour production reminded me how only those weeks of rehearsal and language coaching can make the comedy flow with a seeming effortless and spontaneity you don’t witness anywhere else, however high the star quotient. The intimacy is vital. And a relative Mozart rarity, La finta giardiniera, shows every sign of doing well here under Ticciati’s meticulous musical direction; for it, he will be swapping the Rosenkavalier ensemble of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a Glyndebourne partner which this year plays for Handel's Rinaldo as well as the rarer Mozart. The production also marks Glyndebourne’s faith in a young director, Frederic Wake-Walker.

This, too, boasts a singer tried and found wonderful in the tour Figaro, Joélle Harvey, and the Podestà is played by Glyndebourne’s resident character tenor, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, the funniest and also the creepiest Hansel und Gretel Witch ever. The Counterfeit Garden Girl, as flat English translation renders it, has a theme clearly on to a winning link with the setting, and it’s the first Mozart opera with great ensembles, another Glyndebourne speciality.

Verdi’s La traviata is no newcomer to Glyndebourne; I well remember the star quality of Marie McLaughlin in Peter Hall’s production. The names this time round are unknown but Glyndebourne casting rarely goes awry, so expect revelations. Tom Cairns’s production promises a mix between contemporary and archetypal; there’s no more experienced Verdi conductor around, either, than Sir Mark Elder.

Scene from Glyndebourne Rinaldo by Alastair MuirHandel’s Rinaldo worked sublimely well in the tour run, with director/designer Robert Carsen’s beautiful visual sense spiced by unusual humour in the schoolyard setting (biking warriors pictured left by Alistair Muir). The hero at Glyndebourne was first a contralto, Sonia Prina, in 2011; now it’s the countertenor of the year –and no doubt the decade - Iestyn Davies, meeting fast-rising compatriot Tim Mead in what should be a spectacular head-to-head.

Last but not least comes an absolute classic, Vick’s spare and simple realisation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Yelena Prokina stole the show first time round; who will ever forget her Tatyana dousing herself with water after a triumphant Letter Scene? But I was equally moved by Maija Kovaleska in a recent revival, with co-ordination between stage and pit never better than under Jurowski.

Glyndebourne garden scene by Leigh SimpsonThis time round, we have two singers who stole hearts and minds at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition: Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, already an experienced Tatyana by the time she gave one of the best Letter Scenes ever at Cardiff in 2009, and an unusual one in Tcherniakov’s radical, brilliant Bolshoi production which came to Covent Garden. Ukrainian baritone Andrey Bondarenko, who should perhaps have won at Cardiff in 2011 but gained the recognition anyway, shone as Malatesta in Mariame Clément’s sumptuous Don Pasquale on the Glyndebourne tour (he’d already been booked before the Cardiff finals) His charismatic and sympathetic singing on a new CD set of the complete Rachmaninov songs bodes well for a characterization of Onegin as less of a stiff, unfeeling prig than usual.

It’s a cliché, but come rain or shine, Glyndebourne IS the English summer (garden scene above by Leigh Simpson) – not some dull, traditional relic of stale tradition or the social circuit but a growing, breathing entity that casts its aura of enchantment backed up by sheer hard work at the very highest level on performers and punters alike. Go, make it a weekend, stay in Lewes, one of England’s finest towns and also – as I know from a long acquaintance – one of its most creative. Lewes is well worth a trip in itself, but Glyndebourne is something more: a place where everyone, unless extremely jaded, wants to be at least three times a year.

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