The final scenes are a knockout: Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni reviewed

Are you supposed to laugh at the end of Don Giovanni? Audiences often do, and they did at the end of Mariame Clément’s new production at Glyndebourne. It’s usually the bit where Donna Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio suggests that they get married sharpish, and she immediately asks him for a year’s delay. Readers of Middlemarch will know that a year’s formal mourning after the death of a close relative was a common pre-modern convention, and Mozart’s writings suggest that he (if not his librettist) questioned neither the sanctity of marriage nor the reality of Hell. That doesn’t bother many modern directors, though, and if they’ve presented Anna as a kickass

A classic in the making: Glyndebourne’s Poulenc double bill reviewed

One morning in the 20th century, Thérèse wakes up next to her husband and announces that she’s a feminist. Hubby, who’s been in either of two world wars, just wants his bacon for breakfast. Too bad: declaring herself male, Thérèse has already detached her breasts and hurled them spinning into the middle-distance. But they keep hanging around, great pink wobbly orbs floating just above her head. She takes out a gun and blasts them to shreds. Renaming herself Tirésias, and with her husband trussed into a moob-enhancing corset, she sets out to run the world, leaving the men to work out how to make babies alone. Babies (we’ve been told

Glyndebourne goes gender neutral

Angela Rayner caused a bit of a stir a few weeks ago when she rocked up at the Glyndebourne opera festival. The stiletto-sporting socialist made much capital out of her trip after Dominic Raab mocked her for picking a Mozart opera over the RMT picket line, enabling her to pose as a victim of Tory sneers and classist smears. But it seems that Glyndebourne made the right-on Rayner and others feel right at home, judging by the latest innovation at the Grade II listed manor house. Now gender-neutral toilets have been introduced at the venue in question, replete with the requisite sign that left some older attendees baffled. Along with

Serves Ethel Smyth’s opera magnificently: Glyndebourne’s The Wreckers reviewed

You’ve got to hand it to Dame Ethel Smyth. Working in an era when to be a British composer implied an automatic cultural cringe towards the continent, she didn’t miss a beat when Henry Brewster, the librettist of her 1906 opera The Wreckers, chose to write in French. The incoming music director at Covent Garden was the Frenchman André Messager; perhaps, Smyth reasoned, ‘to compose this opera in French would be the best chance of a performance in England of an English opera!’ Good call: 116 years later, you get the distinct impression that the opportunity to première the unheard French version of the opera (it’s been done numerous times

The central performances are tremendous: Glyndebourne’s Luisa Miller, reviewed

Opera buffs enjoy their jargon. We all do it, scattering words like ‘spinto’ and ‘Fach’ like an enthusiastic pizza waiter with an outsize peppermill. It’s principally a means of signalling that you’re part of the club. But occasionally it’s genuinely useful, and Glyndebourne’s new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller had me thinking about the concept of ‘tinta musicale’, a term used to describe Verdi’s sense that each of his operas should have its own distinctive sonic colour. The late-summer warmth that suffuses Falstaff, for example, or the maritime translucence of Simon Boccanegra. Or take La traviata: the enervated violins of the prelude, the hectic brilliance once the curtain rises. Already,

World-class music, heavily symbolic staging: Glyndebourne’s Katya Kabanova reviewed

At the first night of Glyndebourne Festival 2021 there was relief and joyful expectation as Gus Christie made his speech of welcome. Never mind the hit to takings from the closed bar and the necessarily half-empty auditorium; never mind the scaled-back orchestra and abridged score. The new production of Katya Kabanova provided the thirsty opera-goer with a long cool drink of world-class music and heavily symbolic staging. Janacek’s exploration of a yearning female psyche has parallels with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. It lives or dies by its lead, and the Czech soprano Katerina Knezikova excelled as Katya. Casting off her worldly glamour, she was utterly convincing as the soulful

A silly, bouncy delight: Glyndebourne’s In the Market for Love reviewed

Offenbach at Glyndebourne! Short of Die Soldaten with a picnic break or a period-instrument revival of Jerry Springer: The Opera, it’s hard to imagine a less probable operatic outcome— even this year. I mean, Offenbach: the saucy skewerer of middle-class pretension; the dazzling, vulgar arriviste of 19th-century opera. It couldn’t have been more incongruous had the sideburned showman himself razzed up, bass thumping, in a pimped Renault 5 and started pulling skids on the ha-ha. He’s never been staged at Glyndebourne, and it’s not hard to guess why. The last time I saw an Offenbach one-acter done in the UK, it was Croquefer, a medieval farce that climaxes with the

Dear Mary: How do we explain being in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book?

Q. We often have friends coming to stay before (and after) we all head off for Glyndebourne, a 20-minute drive away. What is the etiquette governing who should drive? It has drinking ramifications of course. Then, what is the etiquette of the seating plan in the car? — A.W., Lindfield, Sussex A. Assertive forward-planning is called for. Communicate to your guests that you are looking forward to seeing them, beds are made up, flowers in the room, etc. And will they want to drink at Glyndebourne? No problem. But you are just planning ahead and if it turns out everyone wants to drink then you will have to draw straws

An overcooked blowout

Think back to when you were 12, and the sensation of re-opening your favourite book. (This is The Spectator; I’m assuming you were all bookish 12-year-olds.) The Silver Chair, perhaps, or The Phoenix and the Carpet — some fantastic alternative world, anyway, filled with characters who felt like old friends. The lumbering iron giants, powered by fire and water. The scary-funny vegetable-monster. The terrifying but magnificent queen, and her eerie batsqueak of sexual-ity. And of course, the bit where pillows turn magically into birds and flit about the room. This new project from the designer/director team Barbe & Doucet initially feels like being pulled into one of those beloved classics.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

It was bucketing it down in Venice, yet the beach was heaving. Families, lovebirds, warring kids, a yappy mutt, all strewn across a sandy expanse, basking on beach towels. Balls were bounced, crosswords filled, timelines scrolled. Out of this idleness, songs would bubble up, light billowy airs — speaking now to suncream mundanities, now to geological anxieties — whisked up to our ears as if on a cooling breeze. We were in the Lithuanian Pavilion inside a dilapidated former military storehouse in a corner of north Venice, being given a god’s-eye view on an extraordinary new opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), by a Lithuanian trio: composer Lina Lapelyte, director Rugile

Great expectations | 9 August 2018

‘Outside this house the world has changed. Life is swifter than before; there is no time for idle gestures.’ Anatol, in Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa, doesn’t pretend to be a romantic hero. The son of Vanessa’s old flame, he’s arrived by night at the remote mansion where she’s waited for 20 years with her elderly mother and niece Erika. He seduces the niece, beguiles the aunt and alienates the grandmother, but at no point is he anything less than honest. ‘I cannot offer you eternal love, for we have learned today such words are lies’, he sings, and Barber, remarkably, takes him at face value. Anatol’s music is lyrical and

Darkness and light

The femme fatale was invented in France. A giddy, greedy child in her first incarnation, as the antiheroine of Abbé Prévost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), she had no voice of her own. Reshaped as a sphinx by Alfred de Musset, made over as a gypsy by Prosper Mérimée, plumped out with fashionable sentimentality by Massenet and mordant sensuality by Puccini, her function was to beguile and elude, to want something that those who wanted her were unable to give her, then die. In Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande even that wanting is stripped away. ‘Ne me touchez pas!’ sings Mélisande, but Golaud, made ugly and

Laughing matters

‘Comedy for music by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Music by Richard Strauss.’ That’s what the creators of Der Rosenkavalier wrote on the score, but don’t expect to see it reprinted in any programme books. Their careful wording doesn’t fit modern assumptions about Der Rosenkavalier, and not merely because it gives the librettist first place. There’s that troublesome word ‘comedy’, too. Advertising blurbs tell us (I know, I’ve written a couple) that Rosenkavalier is a bittersweet meditation on love, transience and loss. Yet its creators meant it to be funny. ‘Don’t forget that the audience should also laugh!’ wrote Strauss to Hofmannsthal. ‘Laugh, not just smile or grin!’ Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production

A man of many parts | 24 May 2018

A most excellent fellow, Roger Allam. On the stage he brings dignity to all he does, in the noblest traditions of the British theatre. Off it he is a fully paid-up member of the human race, admired by his comrades as a man no less than as an actor. Some mummers, eager to let off steam, occasionally let the side down. Allam is the sort of chap — star and team player — who brings the profession into repute. Three times a winner of an Olivier award, twice for best actor, he is currently to be found on the West End stage in The Moderate Soprano, David Hare’s touching portrait

Lessons in refrigeration

There is no such thing as a moderately good performance of Madama Butterfly, or, to be more precise, it’s not possible to be slightly or rather moved by a performance. As with some of Shakespeare’s plays, and most of Wagner’s music-dramas, one is either shaken and overcome, or refrigerated and indifferent. So it’s sad to report that Glyndebourne’s first ever Butterfly, toured in 2016 but now settling on home ground, is a stolid, undistinguished affair, with some decent moments and much that seems routine and a fair amount that is worse than that. Is it a good idea to update an opera that is set in Nagasaki to the 1950s,

Hitting the high notes

Claude Debussy died on 25 March 1918 to the sound of explosions. Four days earlier, the Kaiser’s army had deployed its long-range Paris Gun, and as Debussy’s cancer entered its final hours, artillery shells were bursting in the streets around his home in Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne. This quiet modernist — who’d transformed music into an art of almost limitless expressive subtlety — died amid the thunder of mechanised war. The funeral was poorly attended, and as the cortège halted, curious shopkeepers glanced at the wreaths: ‘It seems he was a musician.’ The classical music world is morbidly addicted to anniversaries of major composers. It’s still unclear whether the listening public

Wholly gripping: Glyndebourne on Tour’s Hamlet reviewed

Hamlet Theatre Royal, Norwich, and touring until 1 December I had mixed feelings about Brett Dean’s Hamlet as I went into the Theatre Royal in Norwich and mixed feelings when I came out of it: unfavourable, largely, on the way in and favourable, largely, on the way out.  I am still left wondering why a composer would want to set this amazing, flawed and most memorable of tragedies to music, but more than one hundred have, so presumably they must feel they can add something, or alter something, or even improve it in some way. The librettist Matthew Jocelyn, working closely with the composer at every stage, has bitten the

Unclear Handeling

ENO has revived Richard Jones’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda. It was warmly greeted on its first outing in 2014, though Jones was, as he remains, inveterately controversial. The opera itself seems to command universal admiration among Handelians, and widespread approval among those of us who have never quite managed to call ourselves that. The most unequivocally positive response I’ve had to it was at Glyndebourne in 1998, where it was produced as if it were an early black-and-white film, and superbly conducted by William Christie. Viewing the DVD has confirmed my warm feelings about it. My chillier feelings about ENO’s in many ways excellent account are prompted, first, by Jones’s

Art of darkness | 15 June 2017

Brett Dean’s new opera for Glyndebourne is a big-hearted romantic comedy, sunny and life-affirming. Only joking — this is contemporary opera, after all. It’s about the usual stuff: neurosis, violence and toxic sexuality. Those seem to be the emotions most naturally suited to the language of mainstream contemporary classical music, and Dean speaks that language as brilliantly as Richard Strauss handled the idiom of an earlier generation. Whatever else this operatic adaptation of Hamlet might be, it’s a polished piece of work. That takes some doing: Shakespeare isn’t naturally suited to the opera house. It was Verdi’s librettist Boito who first realised that the best way to retain the essence

Death wish

Anyone who thinks they have experienced absolute boredom, or even doubts that such a state can exist, should go to Glyndebourne’s first offering of the season, Cavalli’s Hipermestra. The first two acts, played without any break, last for 130 minutes, the third for a mere hour. The audience broke into its normal rapturous applause at the end, no doubt to reassure itself that it still existed. This opera of the inordinately productive Cavalli has been revived only once since its first outing in 1658, and I can only hope that its present resurrection is temporary and its second death final. Arriving at Glyndebourne, we saw a couple of Arabian newlyweds