Glyndebourne on Tour has discovered outreach and access, etc. In an attempt, which I desperately hope will be vain, to ingratiate themselves with young audiences, they have conceded, in their mendacious publicity, that ‘traditional’ opera is a matter of fat ladies singing, drawn-out death sequences and the rest of the anti-elitist claptrap, and state that ‘dispelling the myth of these stereotypes has long been a priority for Glyndebourne’. So how do you dispel the myth? Commission an opera which deals with contemporary life, involving back-packers, terrorists, drug-dealing and people-trafficking, and set it to music which could easily be mistaken (by elitists) as an unwelcome resurgence of minimalism, advertise it with sexy posters and hope for the best. What I saw in Norwich was, if not the worst, as close to it as I care to venture. And the audience consisted mainly, and as always, of elderly couples. I noticed a small school party, sitting just in front, whose members seemed to be enjoying themselves far less than a similar group had the previous evening at Figaro, about which I raved last week.
Tangier Tattoo has a text by Stephen Plaice and music by John Lunn. Actually, large chunks of the text are spoken, with amplified musical accompaniment — the voices are amplified, too, since the performers need all the help they can get on that front. They have been chosen to look as convincing as possible, and they do. As you might expect, undressing starts early on and continues intermittently, so they need to look good in their boxers. There is lots of plot, in fact the whole thing is plot, with very little in the way of characterisation — a long self-revealing solo would suggest something as appalling as an aria, so must clearly be avoided.
The central female figure, skilfully acted by Katherine Rohrer, seems to be an American tourist but is actually a member of a counter-terrorist cell. There is a sinister Tattooist, a mysterious and exotic singer, and so forth. What is lacking is any dynamism to the plot, any concern for what might happen next to anyone. So all the fancy lighting, swift scene changes, raunchy dialogue go for nothing. It makes for a more tedious evening than doing a minor baroque opera replete with da capo arias would.
And, anyway, supposing this experiment had worked. There would still be the leap, a huge one, from this to the world of genuine opera, and if anyone had the bad judgment to enjoy Tangier Tattoo so much that they went back the next evening to see, say, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, they would be encountering a different art-form. They would have encountered, too, a quite exceptionally fine performance of Rossini’s equivocal masterpiece, and one that was in most respects far superior to what was on offer in Glyndebourne itself last summer. Not in all: Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting at Glyndebourne was a thing of wonder, and the combination of squalor and megalomania embodied in Luciano Di Pasquale’s Don Magnifico won’t soon be equalled. But the conducting on tour of Edward Gardner is also excellent, if not quite so pointed and so dry in its commentary on the ludicrous and touching proceedings on stage. Nor is Henry Waddington’s Don Magnifico less than thoroughly adequate — it’s just that he doesn’t give the impression of smelling so rank. All three sisters are far superior here, and Christine Rice’s Angelina is a long-cherished operatic dream come true. She commands as rich and supple a mezzo as anyone on the operatic stage today, and the coloratura of the closing minutes was electrifying. What was even more impressive was her command, both as actor and singer, of every aspect of the role, indeed she performs the rare feat of enlarging one’s conception of what is already complex. As Tom Sutcliffe points out in a thoughtful programme note, there is some tension in this opera between virtue being its own reward, the traditional Christian idea; and ‘virtue triumphant’, the subtitle of the opera. In Rice’s performance this tension was perfectly captured. Her generosity and warmth of heart, for example in dealing with the ‘beggar’ Alidoro, a suitably saturnine portrayal by Andrew Foster-Williams, is genuine and not self-serving. But she doesn’t disguise her eagerness to go to the ball and to become a Princess, and her magnanimity at the end, in forgiving her atrocious relatives, is partly a piece of moral one-upmanship. One doesn’t know, with this Angelina, which, her virtue or her beauty, she would sacrifice if she were made to choose. That is a tribute to Rice and to the sensitivity of Peter Hall, who must surely be much happier with this than with what happened in May. And the two nasty sisters, taken brilliantly by Claire Ormshaw and Louise Armit, are, as Hall said he wanted, not ugly but sexy. In the Don Ramiro of Matthew Beale they had a plausible object of longing, while the Dandini of Giorgio Caoduro, agonised at having to revert to his status as valet after so triumphantly exchanging roles with his master, was typical of the whole production in its understated humour. So GOT scores two out of three this year, and I hope they learn a lesson from that.