Friday, June 29, 2018

Glyndebourne


Glyndebourne. Photo: Bill Hunter (thestage.co.uk)

Audrey: I nearly fainted when I read what we're charging.
John: They have to respect us. They have to show us respect.
Rudi: He's right.
Audrey: And they do that, do they, by emptying their wallets?
Rudi: What better way?
Audrey: . . .No one's ever charged this much for music. It's unheard of.
John: . . .What have we been doing these last months? I'll tell you. We've been working harder than any of us have ever worked in our lives. We've been putting in a colossal effort. Now it's time for the audience to put in some effort as well. They must go to a London terminal at 2.30, they must give up their whole day to getting to an obscure part of Sussex, they must dress properly, they must spend the morning polishing their shoes and starching their dress shirts and searching out their cufflinks, and trying to tie a proper bow tie, a bow tie which will still have dignity at bedtime, they must for once in their lives take time to dress, and if it's an effort so what? So what? Wasn't starting Glyndebourne an effort?
Audrey: Jack, they just want a night out.
John: No! No! And if that's what they want, they're not getting it. . .Art can't be the sideshow. It mustn't be. I'm not having business people spending all day in their offices, talking on telephones, fiddling with stationery—whatever they do—and then in the evening saying, 'I'll pop back, pick up my wife and we'll take in a show.' No, I won't allow it! Not here! Not at Glyndebourne! Why? Because as far as I'm concerned, it's time someone told them in ringing tones: 'Gentlemen, your lives are the sideshow. Opera's the thing.' And if it takes a whole day and wipes out their savings, then so much the better. Because it matters! It matters, dammit. We're talking about the sublime.
—David Hare, Moderate Soprano, Scene 18
In Hare's play John is John Christie, owner of a 500-year-old English country estate on which he has built an opera house; Audrey is soprano Audrey Mildmay, his wife; Rudi is Rudolph Bing, a refugee from Nazi Germany and the newly hired general manager of what is about to become the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Not much has changed at Glyndebourne since 1934, when this imagined conversation among real people takes place. Tickets are still very expensive and very hard to come by. Attending still requires most of a day; the shuttle to Glyndebourne picks up passengers at the nearby Lewes Rail Station around 1:45 pm and returns them around nine hours later. (The opera starts in the late afternoon, but this span allows time for a leisurely pre-performance lunch in the estate gardens and a 90-minute intermission for dinner.) And audience members are still requested to dress in evening clothes: black tie for men, gowns or something similarly formal for women. Who on earth would be willing to subject themselves to these outrageous impositions for the sake of an archaic art form?

Well, we were. And to our pleased surprise we were able to get excellent seats. (Of course, Glyndebourne is so intimate and has such wonderful acoustics that there really aren't any bad seats.) Neither of us owned formal evening wear, but visits to the Bay Area's numerous well-stocked thrift stores soon outfitted me (I was able to buy a tuxedo, wing-collar shirt, suspenders, and black tie for under $50), and my partner cleverly combined items from her closet, her own exquisitely tatted accessories and donations from friends for a stunning look.

We decided to buy our food on site, a more expensive—about twice the cost of an equivalent meal in a local restaurant—but more practical option. Many regular Glyndebourne attendees haul in elaborate picnics and set up tables and chairs on the broad lawns, but that was logistically too complicated for us. (I have to say that the sound of champagne corks popping around us as we strolled in the gardens created quite the festive air.)


In the grass at Glyndebourne.

In Hare's play, John attempts to justify the high ticket prices (£2 in 1934, serious money in the middle of the Depression) by saying "They have to dig deep in their pockets, and if they do, by God, it'll make them sit up. They'll listen to the music with far keener attention." At one of the operas we attended the woman next to me fell asleep during the first act, probably due to a glass or two too many of champagne during her pre-performance picnic. Another woman in the same party had to make an urgent exit from our row after the lights came down at the beginning of the second act, probably for the same reason. (Their taller husbands were sitting in the row in front of them, blocking their view of the stage. As my partner put it, often the British have an exquisite sense of manners and no sense of courtesy.) At the same opera a man directly behind us with his loud voice, inane comments and braying laugh seemed to be competing for Upper Class Twit of the Year. If by setting prices outrageously high Christie hoped to keep out the boors and status-seekers and their trophy wives, his strategy didn't entirely succeed. But we also met several people who (like us) clearly had to make a financial sacrifice to attend, and who (like us) were willing to do so out of a sheer irrational love of opera.

We saw two operas on successive nights: Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911) in a production by Richard Jones that dates from 2014, and George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724) in a production by David McVicar that dates from 2005.

Der Rosenkavalier


Mariandel/Octavian (Kate Lindsey), Valzacchi (Alun Rhys-Jenkins), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Der Rosenkavalier. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

In its 2014 incarnation this production caused a huge controversy by the casting of the trouser role of Octavian. Irish mezzo Tara Erraught's singing received universal praise, but she was described in reviews by male critics as "diminutive," "stocky," "dumpy," "unsightly," and a "chubby bundle of puppy-fat." In this year's production Octavian was played by Kate Lindsey, who has a beautiful voice and was convincingly and ardently boyish. In my view her Octavian ranks with that of other great exponents of the role such as Brigitte Fassbaender and Elina Garanča.

It's no shame that neither the Marschallin (Michaela Kaune) nor Sophie (Louise Alder) were quite at the same level as Lindsey. As singers they weren't as subtle or nuanced, and as actresses they weren't as convincing, although here the fault may lie with Jones' sometimes blunt, over-obvious direction. At one point the Marschallin gropes and plants passionate kisses on Octavian behind the back of the boorish Baron Ochs (wonderfully sung and acted by Brindley Sherratt)—not only does this highly risky behavior seem unlikely for a woman of her class, situation and era, it makes her sudden coldness to Octavian even more bewildering.

Speaking of bewildering, the curtain opened on an empty bathtub, with water cascading down from a shower head. I later read that in the 2014 production when the curtain rose the Marschallin (Kate Royal in that production) was standing naked under this cascade; Kaune apparently declined to appear nude, so the shower was left puzzlingly empty. If Kaune was not willing to be seen showering, this stage element should have been cut; instead it remained, flowing unused throughout much of the first scene. The intention may have been to evoke Klimt's Danaë, but Danaë was missing.


Gustav Klimt, Danaë (1907) Photo: Wikipedia.org

Jones and his designers made some other odd choices. The first act of the opera seemed to be set around the time of its composition (rather than the eighteenth century as specified in the libretto): at one point the Marschallin strikes a pose for Octavian that is reminiscent of a Klimt painting, and her great Act I monologue about aging and loss is staged as a psychoanalysis session during which a silent figure who seems to be Sigmund Freud listens and takes notes. But in Act II we seem to have jumped forward in time by 20 years: Sophie's father Faninal (the excellent Michael Kraus) runs an Art Deco hotel that looks like a set for a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. (It's not clear why Jones makes Faninal a hotelier; in the libretto he has made his fortune "supplying the army"—he's a war profiteer.) And in Act III during the final love duet between Sophie and Octavian the stage was flooded with green light, making the singers look like a particularly lurid expressionist painting—a mood that was jarringly at odds with the music.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Dresden (detail), 1907-1919. Photo: Museum of Modern Art

There were also the antics of Mohammed, the Marschallin's North African servant—a silent role played here by an adult (Adrian Richards), rather than by a young boy as called for in the libretto. Richards was directed by Jones to perform in ways that in my view verged on racist caricature. Mohammed is the last character on stage, and I have to say that I couldn't bear to watch: when the Octavian-Sophie love duet began in a sickly green haze I closed my eyes and just listened to the final five minutes or so of the opera.

That was actually a wonderful way to experience the final moments of this production. Lindsey and Alder's voices blended beautifully, and (as he had throughout the opera) conductor Robin Ticciati brought out details of this rich score that we'd never heard before. The London Philharmonic responded to Ticciati's direction with simply gorgeous playing—what a delight. I have reservations about many aspects of Jones' production, but with a strong (and in the cases of Lindsey, Sherratt and Kraus, superlative) cast and with Ticciati drawing glorious sounds from the London Philharmonic there was no question about the high level of the musical performances.

Giulio Cesare

 
Cesare (Sarah Connolly), Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

The next night the playing of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was not quite so gorgeous. Of course, period instruments don't provide as lush or as big a sound as modern instruments, but beyond that there were occasionally some distinctly sour notes from the gut-string violins and the notoriously difficult valveless natural horns (the horns struggled particularly in Cesare's "hunting" aria "Va tacito.") Conductor William Christie masterfully held things together, though, even when two of the singers at different times seemed about to lose their way in the middle of an aria.

This was the fourth time David McVicar's production has been staged at Glyndebourne, and the first time Danielle de Niese was not featured as Cleopatra. (It was the performance that made her a star, and fortunately it has been preserved on video.) American soprano Joélle Harvey bravely took on this role that de Niese has defined so indelibly, and acquitted herself more than honorably. She does not have quite the commanding stage presence of de Niese, and she performed the elaborate choreography gamely, if not quite with de Niese's charm and grace. But Harvey has a beautiful voice, and convincingly traced Cleopatra's journey from kittenish seduction to genuine feeling.


Joélle Harvey as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

When Sarah Connolly stepped forward at the start of the opera to sing Cesare's entrance aria she sounded seriously underpowered. My partner and I wondered if she was suffering from an unannounced indisposition, a suspicion made even more likely later on when she momentarily lost the thread of "Aure, deh, per pietà," an aria she must have sung onstage dozens of times. (Christie recognized her difficulties immediately and raised his hand to guide her back into sync with the orchestra. It was done so seamlessly that my partner didn't even notice.) Connolly is an excellent actress, though, and whatever vocal difficulties she was experiencing did not make her portrayal less dramatically engaged.

The rest of the cast was excellent. Christophe Dumaux has portrayed Tolomeo, Cleopatra's devious and lustful brother who contends with her for the throne, in two of Glyndebourne's earlier productions of Giulio Cesare. As he has previously, he brought to the role a nice swaggering assurance, a surprising athleticism, and an incisive countertenor voice. Achilla, Tolomeo's menacing lieutenant, was sung powerfully by bass John Moore.


Achilla (John Moore) and Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaux) in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Cornelia, the widow of the murdered Roman general Pompey and the object of the lust and ambitions of both Tolomeo and Achilla, was sung movingly by Patricia Bardon (also a veteran of two previous Cesare productions at Glyndebourne). Mezzo Anna Stéphany made palpable the anguish of Cornelia's son Sesto, who vows revenge on his father's murderers. Their sorrowful duet at the close of Act I, "Son nata a lagrimar," was deeply moving.


Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) and Sesto (Anna Stéphany) in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Like Jones' Der Rosenkavalier McVicar's Cesare also plays with stereotypes, but does so in a witty and knowing way (and in Dumaux and Kangmin Justin Kim, who sang Cleopatra's flighty but loyal servant Nireno, he has performers who clearly relish their roles). In the theater it was even more apparent than on video that the production comments on the lengthy history of British imperialism: the military conquests of India and Egypt are referenced as the naval ships in the background gradually change from sailing vessels to steam-powered dreadnoughts, and the bodies strewn about the stage in Act III seem to allude to the Indian Uprising. There's also a sly nod to the traditions of Glyndebourne, as in the final scene (apparently real) champagne is served all around—even to the deceased characters (neatly solving the problem of their participation in the final chorus). Despite Connolly's apparent vocal issues and a few wayward musical moments, this production once again proved a triumph. It was, in a word, sublime.

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