When it comes to summer festival opera, Britain tends to get it right
Getting it right: The Longborough Festival Opera production of “Tristan und Isolde” (Matthew Thomas-Ellis)
Britain seems to get it right in the summer — for opera, I mean. From the formal delights of Glyndebourne and Grange Park to the informal pleasures of Buxton and Opera Holland Park the common theme is excellent music, such as a thrilling rendering of Tristan und Isolde this year under Anthony Negus at Longborough, a mini-Bayreuth nestling in the Cotswolds.
By contrast, the real Bayreuth, the festival for Wagner’s operas in Bavaria, does not always get it right. Two years ago, a new production of The Ring, marking the composer’s bicentenary, complemented magical moments of musicality with muddled, moronic mush on stage, topped by a ten-minute binge of fierce booing at the end to which the unmusical and rambunctious director responded with rude hand signals.
No fuss please, we’re British; in the more restrained atmosphere of English summer music festivals this would be unheard of. When Glyndebourne last year dressed the singer in a costume inappropriate to her physique the ensuing row hit the headlines. An opera festival that relies on sponsors and ticket sales has to be careful. Lose them and you go under. But this year Glyndebourne got it right: wonderful musicality in a charming production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, and an outrageously imaginative and wildly popular staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul. Buxton and Opera Holland Park employed Scottish Opera’s new musical director Stuart Stratford for superb performances of Verdi’s early Giovanna d’Arco and Puccini’s Trittico.
How different from our public temple to operatic excellence at Covent Garden with its Arts Council funding. The shabby stagecraft by an Italian production team for the recent William Tell so exasperated its first-night audience that they finally burst into spontaneous booing during an egregious gang-rape scene. Kasper Holten, artistic director of the Royal Opera, says that without failure you’re not trying hard enough. Fine, but then why allow a failed production team to return for a possible dog’s breakfast of two more operas in December? If our summer opera festivals are hardy enough to survive with little if any public subsidy, then Covent Garden needs to take a tougher attitude to failure.