Serious money perhaps, but summer opera not seriously engaged

Tom Sutcliffe reflects on the summer season and finds room for improvement

Glyndebourne had been giving Mozart a rest for some years. Instead Wagner got a look in with Tristan und Isolde and then last year Meistersinger, and seasons include various other works previously unseen here like Dvorak’s Rusalka, Purcell’s Fairy Queen (a frustrating mishmash vaguely related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Bartered Bride and Hansel and Gretel. But this summer after a long gap The Marriage of Figaro was back, and it is the jewel of the tour this autumn – which opens at Glyndebourne next month, edging round the home counties (Woking, Wimbledon, Canterbury, Milton Keynes) with excursions to Plymouth, Norwich and Stoke-on-Trent.

Self-conscious and cold

Michael Grandage’s lavish Mozart updated to the Sixties struck me as rather self-conscious and cold. Heavy naturalistic sets placed the action in an Andalusian parador where the Count was holidaying but scarcely in charge – let alone likely to exercise droit du seigneur over Susanna, legitimately or otherwise. All Mozart’s three Da Ponte masterpieces explore the nature of genuine love, and the tragic potential in amorous delusion. Grandage is too new to opera to be comfortable with its studied ambivalences – the shading in the music – and the results are neat but superficial.


Both the other new productions, The Cunning Little Vixen and a double bill of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges, were of the school of Beatrix Potter – at least in production style. All this season’s operas, Figaro apart, were insubstantial or hackneyed entertainment. Usually there is more meat on offer with the picnics. But it is unsurprising that, at these astronomic ticket prices, the management has become more and more risk-averse. At the same time the aspiration towards some vague ‘international’ standard dominates the PR. Even Hugh Canning, who loudly complained about the quality of Melly Still’s athletic, generalized and cute production of Vixen at the season opening, found himself declaring in the Sunday Times ‘Culture’ section that the Ravels at the season close were ‘world class.’

Changed career paths

The major change over the last 20 years has been the collapse in profitability of the classical music recording industry. So much material is cheaply available that any interest in new recording is limited outside a small circle. Hence the building of performers’ careers has become very different. In Britain all the emphasis is on competitive entry – conductors and singers win competitions and get promoted to fame without having ever really done an apprenticeship. We are in a weird transition. Since there are no old singers, comprimarii, retained on contract at any of our few companies, the young singers’ programmes offer nobody from whom much can be learnt. In 1973 the Goodall Ring for Sadler’s Wells/ENO was genuinely home-made, with singers who had been preparing for almost a decade. Could Glyndebourne be as relatively distinctive as it used to be?

Safety first imposes a kind of ‘international’ assurance about the kind of artists on the bill – how they are promoted and how the press is managed that comments on them. When the editor of the Guardian is in bed with Glyndebourne’s management, writing in the programme, streaming the product on the Guardian website in the name of populism, what chance that the paper’s critics will be suggesting any of the work is less than rewarding?

When I hear the levels of applause at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, it strikes me that patrons are congratulating themselves on spending their money successfully at least as much as aiming to show appreciation of the performers. What use are critics when most of the tickets for a run of performances are sold before any judgements have been expressed? The revival of Keith Warner’s Ring at Covent Garden for three cycles sold out long before rehearsals began. But how many critics these days get to travel to opera elsewhere or have any reliable knowledge or sense of perspective about the artform?

Harmless but unfunny

It is a long time since I found a Glyndebourne production exciting or disturbing. Laurent Pelly’s Ravel stagings were originally from Paris, and at Glyndebourne full of mugging in L’heure espagnole, with all that farcical business involving grandfather clocks and randy males: harmless but not funny, though opera audiences are always as eager to laugh as to applaud. Pelly’s L’enfant I also found overstated, but with some good design elements. David McVicar is the first purely opera director to be knighted, and the Glyndebourne tour is taking round the film of his popular Giulio Cesare – which like Grandage’s work fails to be serious when it should be. Handel’s opera can be treated as one absurd emotional indulgence after another. But the most interesting productions lend a touching genuineness to the affair between Caesar and Cleopatra, so that there is more than a tinge of tragedy about the opening of the third act after Caesar appears to have lost a battle. Comic opera is often at its best and funniest when its jokes do not swamp the entire event. ND