Winslow Hall shows you don’t need fancy sets to make opera enjoyable

Winslow Hall is a large and handsome country house in Buckinghamshire, built in 1700 by Sir Christopher Wren, which Tony Blair nearly bought in 2007 when he was looking for an imposing residence appropriate to his station in life as a retired prime minister.  The people of Winslow, the small town near Buckingham in which it stands, were understandably alarmed by the prospect of having the Blair family in their midst; but fortunately for them, Tony eventually decided not to buy the house, possibly because its unusual location on a street in the town would have made security a problem. Instead, it was bought four years ago by Christopher Gilmour,

I can’t see the point of Glyndebourne’s La traviata

One of the highlights of last year’s Glyndebourne Festival was the revival of Richard Jones’s Falstaff, spruced up and invigorated by Mark Elder’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a beautifully balanced cast. Elder is also in charge again for the festival’s third new production of this year, Tom Cairns’s La traviata, although with the London Philharmonic this time. His conducting is extremely fine once more, managing to be lucid and intelligent, thrillingly dramatic and lovingly shaped. The playing of the LPO is of supremely high quality throughout, while the cast features a genuinely exciting leading couple. Venera Gimadieva and Michael Fabiano, as Violetta and Alfredo,

Royal Opera’s Maria Stuarda: pathos and nobility from Joyce DiDonato, lazy nonsense from the directors

London is lucky to have heard Joyce DiDonato at the height of her powers in two consecutive seasons. The American mezzo has arguably done less well out of the arrangement, however, finding herself at the centre of two disappointing new productions. Last year it was Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, an intractable non-drama which John Fulljames’s staging (sponsored by Harris Tweed) turned into an unconvincing treatise on constructions of Scottish nationalism. This season it’s Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda — similarly, if even more obliquely, concerned with Anglo–Scottish relations. Based more on Schiller than on actual history, it might have plenty of bel canto padding, but it presents a director with much

Sorry, Tara Erraught, but the age of the fat lady singing is over

London’s opera critics have been roundly condemned for suggesting that a female singer’s personal appearance could make her unsuitable for a role. The singer in question is Tara Erraught, a young Irish mezzo-soprano based in Germany, who has just made her British debut in the new Glyndebourne production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. She takes the part of Octavian, who, although always played by a woman, is supposed in the plot to be an irresistibly attractive young man. The critics all admired Erraught’s voice, but took the view that she was too stocky, dumpy, chubby and unsightly (to use four of their adjectives) to be even remotely plausible as an

Expecting opera critics to be uniformly kind to singers defeats the point of their existence

Should fat be an issue in opera? Are our opera critics overgrown schoolboys with a body fixation? To judge from reports and editorials in print and online over the last two days, you can answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively. Simple? No, not really. On Monday morning, the critics of various national newspapers published reviews of Glyndebourne’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. These reviews included comments about the physical appearance of Tara Erraught, the young mezzo-soprano cast as Octavian. These comments have been widely disparaged and taken as evidence of ‘body shaming’ on the part of ‘male, middle-aged critics’. My first inkling of this debate came when many of my Facebook friends (mostly the opera singers) recommended an open letter by Alice Coote (on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped

A Rosenkavalier without a heart ain’t much of a Rosenkavalier

In all its minute details, Der Rosenkavalier is rooted in a painstakingly stylised version of Rococo Vienna that, paradoxically, is further fixed in a web of cannily juxtaposed anachronisms. Upset their balance and you risk upsetting the balance of the whole piece. That’s no bad thing, of course, but Richard Jones’s bold new production for Glyndebourne — opening the festival’s 80th season — shows exactly the advantages and disadvantages of doing that. Out go the dusty stucco-work and wobbly walls of elderly traditional productions; in come Paul Steinberg’s sharp sets and Jones’s trademark garish wallpaper, which Mimi Jordan Sherin’s brilliant lighting floods with further shifting colours. White wigs remain, but

Why Glyndebourne’s George Christie always cut his own hair

One curious fact about Sir George Christie, who died last week, aged 79, was that he always cut his own hair, a notoriously difficult thing to do. He did it with a three-way mirror and, according to his wife Mary, did it very badly. His reason, apparently, was a reluctance to waste money on a barber. For while George was very well-off (and the epitome of generosity when it came to others), he hated to spend anything on himself. For example, he never took a taxi — he would always travel in London by Tube or bus, even to such an event as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee service in St

Robin Ticciati interview: ‘Glyndebourne is a festival where the established and the fresh exist together’

Glyndebourne, the great Sussex opera house, celebrates its 80th anniversary this summer. Hurrah! There is a new music director, too, 31-year-old Robin Ticciati. Hurrah! And he opens the season next week with a new production of Der Rosenkavalier directed by Richard Jones. Hurrah! Summer has begun. There are few finer plots of land to be on a summer evening in England than Glyndebourne, one of those rare places where the frame matches the picture. In a way Glyndebourne defines England, and summer, and the way the English take their pleasures. Certainly there is no place like it anywhere else. People at other festivals may love music just as much, and

Culture House Pick of the Week: Minogue, Mahler, Strauss and Johansson

FILM: Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)  Critics who saw it at the Venice Film Festival thought it either ‘laughably bad’ or a ‘masterpiece’. This week you get the chance to decide whether Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a kind of alien butcher on the hunt for human meat to ferry back to a group of extraterrestrial gourmands, is in the mould of Glazer’s Oscar-nominated Sexy Beast or, like his Birth, will sink without trace. OPERA: Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera House Richard Strauss’ barmy opera about a part-human, part-gazelle Empress whose husband will turn to stone unless she can find a shadow for herself (and

Overrated Strauss vs underrated Gluck

This is the first of my more-or-less monthly columns, the idea of which is to report on operatic events other than those that take place at the two major London venues, with occasional trips to those areas (i.e., everywhere other than London) where the annual government grant for the arts is £4.80 per head, while in London it is £69.00. This fact was widely reported a few weeks ago, but while I thought for an hour or two that it might lead to a revolution, there was no widespread articulate reaction to it of any kind, nor, so far as I know, any indication that this gross inequity would be

Spectator Play: The highs and the lows of what’s going on in arts this week | 3 August 2013

‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, as the theatre has been called since it was founded in 1997, is unusual for a theatre in that it makes a large annual profit, without receiving public funding. How? Its unique angle means it has no need to market itself – what’s more attractive to an American audience than Shakespeare, in London, in a reconstructed Shakespearean theatre? But its decision to put all Shakespearean productions on hold to make way for another dramatist is a decision which Lloyd Evans isn’t too sure about. Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel may be accompanied by some lovely Purcell music, but the actual play’s content leaves much to be desired. Theoretically, there’s nothing

When Glyndebourne is the most perfect place on earth

Glyndebourne. There is no single quintessential example of English scenery, but this is one of the finest. The landscape is  old, and verdant. There has been tillage and pasturage here for millennia, and the outcome is harmony, as if tamed nature has embraced man’s gentle mastery. On a sunny summer evening, earth has not anything to show more fair Figaro. Anyone reading the libretto might conclude that earth had not anything to show more absurd. What is this nonsense: a Feydeau farce mitigated by a bit of carpentry? There is a simple answer: the best of all comedies, apart from Shakespeare — and more easily, more continually laughter-worthy than even

Michael Tanner’s Glyndebourne experience is ruined by the traffic

What could be more delightful than going to Gyndebourne with someone who has never been before, arriving in time for a Figaro or Ha-Ha Tea at the Mildmay Hall, taking a stroll round the grounds, which incidentally have been considerably changed this year, and for the better (though the slightly alarming jungle near the opera house is still thriving in its sinister way), then going in for the first half of the opera, suitable exclamations from the newgoer about how enchanting it is, what wonderful sightlines, perfect temperature, and so forth, then in the long interval going to the Nether Wallop for the superb buffet, returning unbuttoned for the second

Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne – how can an opera go so wrong?

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos should be the perfect Glyndebourne opera, not too long, not too demanding, a unique and cunning mixture of seriousness and comedy, plenty to think about if you’re inclined to do that, nothing to oppress you, almost no longueurs — though I might take that back later; and a giddy ending. So it is quite a coup to come up with an account that offers almost no pleasure, whether from the pit, from the voices, from the stage; which seems empty and pretentious in a way quite different from what Strauss can all too often manage; where the humour is leaden and the seriousness has been

Magnificent Mozart

The subtitle of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is ‘Il dissoluto punito’ (the rake punished), that of Rossini’s La Cenerentola is ‘La bontà in trionfo’ (goodness triumphant), while Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea might well be subtitled ‘Vice rewarded’. The subtitle of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is ‘Il dissoluto punito’ (the rake punished), that of Rossini’s La Cenerentola is ‘La bontà in trionfo’ (goodness triumphant), while Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea might well be subtitled ‘Vice rewarded’. They are the three operas that Glyndebourne is taking round the country this year, whether with moralistic intent I don’t know. Large school parties attend these performances, and are extraordinarily well behaved in my experience; if they have