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Patterns of repression: Virginie Verrez and Emma Bell in Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” at Glyndebourne (©TRISTRAM KENTON)

A new play, by David Hare, The Moderate Soprano, opened in London’s West End earlier this year after a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre. It tells the story of how George Christie started the annual Glyndebourne Opera festival in 1934 with artistic supervision from experts fleeing the Nazi regime. Fritz Busch, sacked from his position at the Dresden State Opera, became music director, and Carl Ebert, a well-known opera and stage director from Germany, became artistic director. Christie’s wife, Audrey Mildmay, a talented if “moderate” soprano — hence the play’s title — was engaged to sing Susanna in the opening production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and later sang in two further operas. With Christie’s largesse the Glyndebourne festival was born, and opera in Britain took a bold step forward.

Back in 1934 the German experts were rather dubious about the quality of music and opera in Britain, despite the good work of Thomas Beecham, but the situation has now turned around. German music performance remains excellent, but opera directors on the Continent can sometimes be too eager to reveal their own creative genius, finding new ways to interpret texts and losing the connection to the music. In Britain the more limited private funding for summer opera festivals allows less scope for this, so productions tend to stay within reasonable bounds, and with fine quality orchestras and singing the results are a delight.

There is also an obvious charm to being in pleasant surroundings, often with the possibility for a picnic or even dinner in one interval, but what I particularly love is the opportunity of encountering full-scale operas outside the standard repertoire. Four this summer were new to me: Verdi’s Alzira at Buxton, Mascagni’s Isabeau at Opera Holland Park, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa at Glyndebourne, and the world stage premiere of Pushkin at Grange Park Opera. This new opera by Konstantin Boyarsky, beautifully staged by the Novaya Opera Company from Moscow, gave a fascinating insight into the life and times of Pushkin, who died at 37 during the reign of Nicholas I, the Tsar whose expansion of Russian interests in central Asia led to the Great Game with Britain. Librettist Marita Phillips, a great-great-great-granddaughter of both men, brings in a glamorous gypsy to warn Pushkin of the number 37, and to tell the repressive Tsar at the end: “You will be remembered as the Tsar who lived in the time of Pushkin.” As with Mussorgsky’s operas Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov this provided an illuminating slice of Russian history, making it for me the most intriguing of the summer “unknowns”.

By contrast, Verdi’s Alzira reduces a Voltaire play challenging the superiority of Christianity in conquistador Peru to a matter of human passion and conflict in an exotic location, while Mascagni’s Isabeau, an adaptation of the Lady Godiva legend set in medieval Europe, is simply a tale of outlawed love in a highly conservative society. Barber’s Vanessa is a different matter, its unspecified setting in a northern country allowing the composer and his partner Gian Carlo Menotti, who created the libretto, to deal with patterns of repression among three generations of women living in isolated wealth.
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