Twin passions

Tom Sutcliffe reports on opera and art in Meiningen and Chichester

Meiningen in Thuringia ( J.S. Bach’s region of Germany, just north of the border with Catholic Bavaria) has about 4,000 fewer than Chichester’s 25,000 inhabitants. I just came back from my first visit there to see a new production by the young Austrian Rudolf Frey of Der Rosenlcavalier (Richard Strauss’s lavish romantic comedy which returns to Glyndebourne this month for the first time in many years in a highly anticipated staging by Richard Jones). A few days later I took a trip to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to see their exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s first world wartime scenes from the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hants.

Theatre company

Chichester and Meiningen ought to be twinned. In different ways each town significantly reflects the cultural history of its country. Meiningen has had an orchestra funded by its Duke for 325 years: Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen, died aged 88 a couple of months before the First World War broke out, in 1866 created and then directed a theatre company based at the court theatre which pioneered the ‘le idea of naturalistic historically informed productions under the control of a stage director – a major influence on Ibsen, on Stanislayski and his method, and on the ‘le Chekhov tradition at the Moscow Arts Theatre. Georg got the idea from seeing Charles Kean in Berlin in 1859.

When he disbanded the Meiningen company in 1890 because he felt the ensemble had achieved everything it could, the Meiningers had visited 35 European cities – among them in 1881 London where they played three Shakeseares. Gustav Mahler famously remarked `Meiningen is really not a town with a theatre, but a theatre with a town’ The present opera house was built in 1909 after the old court theatre burnt down: it is a neo-classical gem, perfect acoustically, wonderfully intimate. Next door is a studio theatre built in 2008, seating 240, for experimental productions. The company’s annual budget today is €18 million, its subsidy €16 million.

Hussey’s impact

Wikipedia’s article on Chichester somehow manages to omit Walter Hussey’s name from what it says about the Pallant Gallery, and in describing the musical life of the town makes no reference to the cathedral choir and organ. When I was 20, the summer I graduated and a few months before Olivier launched the National Theatre at the Old Vic with more or less the company he had created at Chichester, I slept outside the Festival Theatre in a queue to get a ticket for his Othello – a hugely exciting arena-stage production,

though criticized because Olivier, blacked up, had based his accent on Birmingham Jamaicans. Graham Sutherland offered Hussey two versions of his Nati me tangere painting for the Mary Magdalen chapel: it would be more interesting if the rejected one in the Pallant Gallery were to be placed not too far from the chapel where visitors could readily make the interesting comparison.

Bishop George Bell’s promotion of Hussey to succeed Duncan-Jones in 1955 ( just before I became head chorister at the Cathedral) resulted in one of the most inspired Church appointments of the last century. There is no equivalent to Hussey’s impact on his cathedral anywhere else in England – and in the days before the Festival Theatre and Pallant Gallery (in which Hussey’s collection of artworks is a major element) existed, Chichester was a deeply provincial place despite its beautiful South Downs location. Not that the place has been improved by turning the wild pastures of Westgate Fields into suburbia.

A decent account

Meiningen’s Rosenkavalier was worth the trip because of the quality of the singers – the ‘le cast being members of the ensemble. Camila Ribero-Souza was a charming and appropriately youthful Marschallin – not as young, of course, as Carolina Krogius’s Octavian. Ernst Garstenauer was an interestingly subtle Baron Ochs. I was less impressed with Elif Aytekin’s too vibrant and rather uncontrolled Sophie. But the musical performance in such a perfect theatre was beautifully played and well conducted by the young house music director Philippe Bach. The director Rudolf Frey, ‘se Stuttgart Nabucco staging will be seen in Cardiff, decided to switch period for each act – a bright idea that meant he could use period costumes for the first part of the work without seeming too old-fashioned, but not at all helpful to the big moments. Wealthy Faninal’s house was shown as a 1930s typing pool, and the final comic act for the rendezvous of the lecherous Ochs with Octavian-as-Mariandel (the disguise adopted when Ochs insists on seeing his cousin the Marschallin in her bedroom in the first act) took place in a sort of workers’ canteen.

Was Christian Rinke’s revolving square set adapted to three different eras being true to Meiningen’s theatrical tradition? Not really. It was just more or less in line with current self-consciously different modern German practice. Nevertheless one could not complain about the quality of the performance, even if its artistic style left something to be desired. This was not star opera in any way at all, yet it was an honest and more than decent account of a Richard Strauss comic masterpiece.