BOOKS: May the duck be moist, the fizz cold and the weather clement

Glyndebourne: An Operatic Miracle by John Joliffe John Murray pounds 25

John Jolliffe's entertaining story of an opera house in the country lists seven other books about Glyndebourne. The story they all tell is, of course, much the same. The authors love the bucolic setting, the high musical standards, and the family that runs the Festival. All are slightly in awe of the Christies - of John, who began it in 1934 to please his new wife; of George, who runs it now, and whose leadership Joliffe describes as "inspired and irresistible"; and of Gus Christie, who takes over from his father at the end of this year.

Jolliffe has been "a regular and attentive visitor" to Glyndebourne since his childhood, and I believe he has written a history that treads on much familiar ground for the same reason that motivated some of the other books he mentions: it gave him an excuse for attending even more regularly and attentively. There is plenty of scope for an author, besides listening to music and musicians. It is difficult to imagine any other festival of its size and duration with such a complete and well-organised archive. Evidently, Jolliffe has enjoyed himself thoroughly; the single event that disturbs his authorial composure is Deborah Warner's production of The Marriage of Figaro in 1994.

Glyndebourne is self-reverential, and its historians tend to be friends of the family, well-mannered guests who take its excellence for granted. And it is a remarkable institution. The setting is rural, but there is a ha-ha to protect city folk from the animals. Its social pretensions (black tie is still de rigueur) would be more annoying if there were not such musical excitement to be had; and when the weather is clement, the duck moist and the champagne cold, the pleasure of the picnic makes up for the interminable drive through south London and the struggle to get the fold-up chairs and the hamper into a desirable location.

Jolliffe's skilfully told tale begins with John Christie, a delightful eccentric who taught at Eton, his old school (and Jolliffe's, and George Christie's), before settling down to run the large family estate in Sussex. Christie's lurking passion for music led him to marry a gifted soprano called Audrey Mildmay, and to put on operas in a barn-like theatre in the garden in which she could sing leading roles. The high musical standards set from the start by Carl Ebert and Fritz Busch, two accomplished Mozartians in flight from Hitler, gave the Festival a real purpose. John's son George inherited the music festival as well as the estate, and set about transforming a family hobby into a hierarchy. Perhaps because he had taken over a business, George felt compelled to expand it. He masterminded an efficient campaign to raise pounds 34m for a new theatre, increasing the size of the audience by 50 per cent. Warner's Figaro - "as new as the most ardent iconoclast could desire", says Jolliffe with feeling - was among the first productions in the new house, and it was not just the style that was different. Till then, Glyndebourne had been opera in a country house. Now it was an opera house in the country. The only place as hard to get into is Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth - another family business. Though Glyndebourne, thank God, is not a shrine.

Despite the evidence that few family businesses hold together for more than three generations, there is a tendency to behave as though they will last for ever, and Jolliffe shares this to the extent of comparing Glyndebourne to a gold mine, adding that it's one that will never be worked out. I am not so sure. I am one of the heretical minority - about whom Jolliffe is polite, but mildly patronising - who preferred the size, the style and smaller setting of the old wooden-panelled barn. The trouble with the hi-tech surroundings of George Christie's new theatre is that they make watching opera at Glyndebourne much like watching it in any other new auditorium; Sadler's Wells, say. To retain Glynde- bourne's special position in the hearts and minds of opera-goers is a challenge. The repertory and the performances have to be consistently fine enough to go on making the long trip to the Sussex coast worthwhile. That might prove to be beyond the genius of one family of country landowners.

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