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

Will I ever see a production of Die Fledermaus that does this masterpiece justice?

Die Fledermaus Opera Holland Park, until 5 August Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus is a masterpiece that I have had a lifelong passion for, a passion which productions, whether in England or abroad, are obstinately determined should remain unrequited. I hadn’t seen it, until Opera Holland Park’s new production, since the 2003 production at Glyndebourne, which almost killed my passion, with its endless laborious prosiness. All the great operas and operettas with spoken dialogue have the same problem, how to keep the interest going when everyone is waiting for the next musical item, and one would of course feel hard done by if the performance simply jumped from one to

French connection | 28 July 2016

It takes a particularly wilful wit to alight on Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict as the perfect operatic nod to a Shakespeare anniversary. To walk past Verdi’s Otello, Falstaff and Macbeth, to pass over Purcell’s Fairy Queen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and instead opt for this curiously and idiomatically French piece of musical flummery, in which Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing finds itself stripped of any sour notes and whipped up into a sugary dramatic froth, is bold indeed. If it weren’t for the revival of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening at Glyndebourne later this season, it might even look a bit like

Felines and Figaro

I know little about human medicine: still less about the animal equivalent. So I had always assumed that vets were failed doctors, who had to make their living in muddy byres at 4 a.m., managing the cow through a difficult pregnancy while trying to avoid her hooves. The other evening, at a dinner party full of cat owners, I heard an entirely different version. Everyone had horror stories about the cost of cat medicine. The winner was a girl whose moggy’s treatment had cost over £1,000, including the price of three days in a cat hospital. There had been an uncovenanted benefit. When Daphne came home, she displayed gratitude, or at

Where should this music be?

This must rank as the most heartbreaking example of premature chicken-counting in musical history. ‘Gotter has made a marvellous free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,’ wrote poet Gottfried Bürger to the translator A.W. Schlegel on 31 October 1791. ‘Mozart is composing the piece.’ Three days later, brimming with misplaced confidence, the dramatist Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter confirmed that ‘the edifice is all ready to receive Mozart’s heavenly choruses’. By 5 December 1791, Mozart was dead. Most probably, he never saw Gotter’s Tempest adaptation, although the musicologist Alfred Einstein stirred the pot of Mozartian myth by presuming that the master had set to work on it during his dying days. So the

The eyes have it | 23 June 2016

Tchaikovsky knew what he thought of the title character of his Eugene Onegin. ‘I loved Tatyana, and was furiously indignant with Onegin who seemed to me a cold, heartless fop,’ he wrote to a friend; and directors, by and large, have been happy to leave it at that. And why not? Dishy but emotionally unavailable Regency dandies have been a growth area in recent years — blame it on Colin Firth, if you like — and Eugene Onegin is probably the standard repertoire opera you’re least likely to see subjected to a directorial updating, in the UK at any rate. Michael Boyd’s new production at Garsington certainly doesn’t update anything.

No laughing matter | 9 June 2016

Rossini is the meat-and-two-inappropriately-shaped-veg of summer opera; he’s the wag in the novelty bow tie, the two satyrs shagging enthusiastically among the lupins and lobster on the cover of this year’s Glyndebourne programme. His comic bel canto frolics are the natural soundtrack to this off-duty opera-going, a champagne-perfect combination of frothy plots and fizzing coloratura. So why are they so hard to pull off? Perhaps it’s the pressure of expectation. It has been more than 30 years since Glyndebourne last staged Il barbiere di Siviglia, and hopes were high for Annabel Arden’s new production. For the first half-hour it looks as though they’re going to be met. Enrique Mazzola’s affable,

There’s nothing transgressive about opera using sex to sell tickets

Fluffy bunnies. Human-size, pink and white fluffy bunnies. Twerking. The image has never left me, ever since an ill-fated date to see Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne in 2012. Over salmon during the damp interval, my date confirmed that he liked the bunnies, I didn’t. Having established myself as a purist and a prude, we parted ways. Since the onslaught of arts cuts, opera-goers have had to harden themselves to scenes of sex and violence – the oldest trick in the book to ramp-up ticket sales. The bunnies hopped on to the stage in the same year that ENO unveiled their notorious Don Giovanni condom ad; two years before,

BBC Proms

BBC Proms 2016 is about as exciting as my sock drawer. But it’s unclear who exactly is to blame. The new head David Pickard claims only half the stalest socks are his — the rest inherited. The festival enjoys an incredibly privileged position. Some might even say it’s dangerously spoilt. Free from commercial pressures, free from government interference, an entire TV and radio network at its propagandistic disposal, the two-month summer blowout is a mighty musical monopoly. It can do what it wants with pretty much whomever it wants. Last year it dedicated a night to Eric Whitacre, the Noel Edmonds of contemporary music, and hosted an Ibiza prom 20

Long life | 3 March 2016

On Monday I went to the newsagent to buy the newspapers and picked up the first issue of a new one calling itself the New Day. This is the creation of the company that publishes the Daily Mirror, and it is, the publishers say, intended to appeal to people who have given up reading newspapers, people now so numerous that they are rapidly bringing the industry to its knees. The paper’s rather odd title is reminiscent of the carefree song ‘Many a New Day’ from Oklahoma!, and it is presumably intended to emphasise what the publishers call its ‘optimistic approach’. ‘We like to think we’re a modern, upbeat newspaper for

Has there ever been a better time to be a lover of Baroque opera?

Time was when early music was a 6 p.m. concert, Baroque began with Bach and ended with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, and speeds were so portentously slow that you’d have to start the B Minor Mass shortly after lunch in order to make it home in time for bed. Those dark days — caught between Baroque and a hard place — are over now. Period ensembles have never been better or more numerous, Handel and Monteverdi are a staple of operatic programming, and even Vivaldi, Cavalli, Cesti and Steffani are making their mark. Baroque is back, and this time it’s here to stay. One of the biggest success stories of recent

How the Germans made Glyndebourne

This is hardly the time of year for picnics on the lawn, but I have nevertheless had a week dominated by Glyndebourne. First I went to London to see David Hare’s play The Moderate Soprano, about the creation of the Glyndebourne opera festival by John Christie in 1934; and then to a Glyndebourne production in Milton Keynes of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. John Christie was an extraordinary man. A rich country landowner, who served bravely in the first world war, he returned home to his house in Sussex to pursue his interest in music. He purchased a colossal organ, perhaps the biggest in England outside a cathedral.

Glyndebourne caters to the lower-middle classes not past-it toffs

What is Glyndebourne? A middle-aged Bullingdon. That’s a common view: a luxury bun fight for past-it toffs who glug champagne, wolf down salmon rolls and pass out decorously on the lawn. But the reality is that it caters to those of my class (lower-middle) who want to boost their pedigree with an eye-catching essay in sophistication. The Sussex opera house was founded in 1934 by John Christie, a passionate and eccentric millionaire who believed the public should suffer for his art. He hated the idea of suburban businessmen ‘catching a show’ for two hours in the West End before falling asleep on the train home. He wanted his audiences to

Watching the clocks

When I saw the first performance of this production of Ravel’s two operas at Glyndebourne three years ago, I thought it was the nearest thing to operatic perfection I had witnessed. But this revival is even finer. Whereas I concluded last time that L’heure espagnole was fundamentally an old-time bore that goes on for far too long — only 50 minutes, but it seemed much longer — this time I found it absorbing from start to finish, though I still think it is no funnier than most of what used to be called dirty jokes. The decisive difference, I think, is the conducting of Robin Ticciati (or was it where

Welcome to Bedlam

Caius Gabriel Cibber’s statues of ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Raving Madness’, their eyes staring blindly into the void, petrified in torment, once posed on top of the gate to Bedlam. In 1739, when Handel’s dramatic oratorio Saul was first performed, you could pay a modest fee to pass beneath them and gawk at the living spectacles within, victims of ‘arbitrary passions’ including pride, lust and envy. In Barrie Kosky’s Glyndebourne staging of Saul, Cibber’s archetypes are animated and given voice by Christopher Purves as the king driven mad by ‘Envy! Eldest born of Hell!’ Saul was the second of Handel’s great studies of madness. But where Orlando (1733) proposes a cure, restoring

Shaw hand

When is a rape not a rape? It’s an unsettling question — far more so than anything offered up by the current headline-grabbing William Tell at the Royal Opera House — and one that lies beneath the meticulous dramatic archaeology of Fiona Shaw’s The Rape of Lucretia. Unlike William Tell, however, there seems little chance of this attack starting riots. Where the director of Tell asserts, Shaw interrogates — a delicate, insistent questioning that probes further and more intrusively, a violation of ideological rather than physical absolutes. Debuted in 2013 as part of the company’s touring season, Shaw’s production now returns to the main festival, where the chamber opera had

Long life | 11 June 2015

It’s June, and the country-house summer opera festivals are now in full swing. Glyndebourne, which opened the season last month, has now been joined by its leading emulators — Garsington in Oxfordshire, The Grange in Hampshire and Longborough in Gloucestershire; and next month a newcomer, Winslow Hall Opera in Buckinghamshire, will be putting on La Traviata with much the same cast that shone last year in its greatly admired production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The gentry in dinner jackets and long dresses are already flouncing about on lawns throughout England. It’s always seemed odd to me that people should wear evening dress for the opera in the countryside in the

Evolutionary road

As Sepp Blatter has so affectingly remarked, the organisation he formerly headed needs evolution, not revolution. There is a consensus that this is also what David Pickard will bring to the Proms, when he takes over after this season. Of course, Pickard’s job is going to be more complex than Blatter’s ever was. The challenge for Pickard is that however hard he tries to please most of the people most of the time, the modalities of running the Proms mean that he cannot be friends with everyone — and for him there will be no short cuts. What do we expect from the Proms these days? Despite all the flurry

Carmen v. Carmen

It’s been a busy operatic week, with a nearly great concert performance of Parsifal in Birmingham on Sunday (reviewed by Anna Picard in last week’s Spectator), Carmen at the Coliseum on Wednesday, Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne on Thursday and Carmen, also at Glyndebourne, on Saturday. A trajectory that Nietzsche would have approved of, moving from brooding northern transfiguration to sunlit, brilliant southern violence and destruction. Poliuto is mostly known, if at all, in the live recording made at La Scala in 1960 as a vehicle for Callas’s return, in a role that made comparatively small demands on her, and much larger ones on Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. That recording

Glyndebourne’s Turn of the Screw: horrors of the most innocent and creepy kind

We all know that ‘They fuck you up your mum and dad’, but nowhere is this more reliably (and violently) true than in the opera house. If you have the misfortune to be born into an operatic family you can expect to be murdered by your own mother (Médée, Lucrezia Borgia), killed by your grandmother (Jenufa), or even bumped off by a hitman hired by your father (Rigoletto). Perhaps most insidious, however, are the crimes not of violence but of absence, neglect rather than active cruelty. Productions of Verdi’s I due Foscari and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw whispered some of the darkest unspokens of parent-child relations, conjuring nightmares