Opera’s summer in the country

This year’s rural festivals provided a feast of productions of works outside the main repertoire

Mark Ronan

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.

For all these non-standard operas the productions were right on the money, and although Glyndebourne’s Vanessa was the most elaborate and impressive, with an exemplary cast plus superb sets and lighting, like other major opera houses it can find itself hostage to directorial creativity that doesn’t always work. This year Glyndebourne revived the 2014 Rosenkavalier, having completely changed the absurdly tight costume for the trouser role of Octavian. Heavily criticised four years ago, it destroyed the illusion of his being a young man, but fixing one problem only served to focus attention on some of the other outré aspects of Richard Jones’s production — the bartering for young Sophie, the gratuitous appearance of Sigmund Freud, and the Marschallin’s young servant eavesdropping and sniffing at her clothing. Even a marvellous director like Richard Jones can overdo the comedy, losing the lightness that the composer intended, and Glyndebourne must be careful here. There is now plenty of competition, and since many other summer festivals haven’t the wherewithal to store old sets and create revivals, each year everything is new, so badly received productions do not reappear.

The important thing is the music, as those German refugees who put on the first Glyndebourne productions were well aware, and in this context the new Grange Festival does an extraordinary job under Michael Chance. A counter-tenor of great musicality, he shepherded in a terrific production of Handel’s Agrippina, plus a delightful Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart, making the Festival a showpiece of 18th- (and even 17th-) century excellence. For those keen on more standard repertoire, there is plenty of that too. I’m told the Falstaff at Garsington was excellent, and Leicestershire’s Nevill Holt celebrated the opening of its new opera house — cleverly created out of an old stable block — with a vibrant young cast for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Also outside London, Longborough Festival Opera in Gloucestershire featured a notable Flying Dutchman this year and in 2020 will deliver the first opera in a new Ring cycle. With little money for sets and costumes, it is all about the music and singing. This year music director and Wagner expert Anthony Negus also took on Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, consisting of a prologue and a one-act opera interspersed with contributions from a commedia dell’arte troupe.

Opera Holland Park put on the same work but in a more elaborate production that turned the Major Domo into a female party planner and the composer of the one-act opera into a lesbian. Although the audience seemed to enjoy it, the performance missed the emotional tensions driving the prologue, which are essential to  a  full appreciation of the work.  At Longborough, however, Negus gave full weight to the inner conflicts of a young composer compelled to compromise his art by allowing comedy characters to interfere with his creation. Emphasising the music above all else does a great service to Britain’s summer opera scene, which has no need to buy in big international voices, but must beware of allowing the stage directors to spoil things.

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