CLASSICAL MUSIC / A roll or two short of a picnic

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GLYNDEBOURNE has taken up its bed and walked to the Festival Hall where, like some wartime government-in-exile, the company is running a London season while its proper home in Sussex is besieged by builders. And there is a determinedly business-as-usual feel to it all with the coffee-table programme books, gourmet picnics in the restaurant, even a few conspicuous consumers in black tie.

But the Glyndebourne ring of confidence hasn't carried through to the depressingly unmotivated Fidelio that opened on Tuesday with poor ensemble work, sluggish movement, and a cast whose chief delight was Barbara Bonney in the minor role of Marzelline. To be fair, there have been mammoth problems in the peopling of this Fidelio. Lady Bracknell would have had something to say about the number of Leonores any opera company can reasonably lose, and Glyndebourne lost three in succession (Julia Varady, Anne Evans, Deborah Polaski) before it ended up with Carol Yahr - a soprano who makes a career out of the role and has a strong dramatic presence, but is too cruelly white of tone and loose of definition for my taste.

Glyndebourne also lost its conductor when Klaus Tennstedt withdrew after one rehearsal and had to be replaced by Roger Norrington - who should have been an inspired choice but doesn't seem able to work his customary magic. Perhaps the problem is an inherited cast who are not the period stylists he would normally choose to work with. But the low-energy speeds were presumably his choice; and likewise the seating plan which put the singers behind the orchestra, beyond meaningful contact with the audience.

Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict was a happier experience, with a ravishing cast (in front of the orchestra) and the kind of animated delicacy - vital, detailed, slightly swaggering - that distinguishes the annual Glyndebourne partnership between the LPO and the conductor Andrew Davis. Dawn Upshaw's light, bright Hero had less character than Anne Sofie von Otter's Beatrice (where every nuance told immaculately) but the female ensembles, joined by Jean Rigby as Ursule, were still the high points in an evening of real vocal quality. Jerry Hadley's Benedict was idiomatic and fluent, and the comic chorus so convincingly off-key that (I was told) two members of the audience failed to get the joke and walked out.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about this Beatrice et Benedict was its humour - a quality that has never struck me in the piece before. The problem is the spoken dialogue, which invariably sounds like a stilted substitute for the original Shakespeare (the opera being a Berliozan paraphrase of Much Ado About Nothing). But Glyndebourne takes advantage of the fact that this is a concert performance to excise the dialogue and replace it with after-dinnerish narrations by John Wells. And although there are musical arguments against such things - the excisions disturb the pacing of the score and throw unrelated numbers into a closer relationship than they can properly sustain - the end result here is certainly sharper and funnier.

While the compleat Glyndebourne is off, another country house opera - Garsington Manor, near Oxford - is providing the next best thing in the realm of black tie-and-picnic. I wouldn't push comparisons too far, because Garsington's resources are still limited: it relies on young artists, a dangerous optimism about English summer weather (the performances are open-air), and stage directors who can cope with next to nothing in the way of technical facilities. But what it does it does well, with fastidious care and a seriousness of purpose that over the past five years has turned it into an important platform for the operas of Haydn, otherwise unknown in Britain. We value Haydn as a symphonic, instrumental and choral genius but not as the man of theatre he must have regarded himself, given that operas at Esterhaza dominated his life throughout the 1770s and 1780s. But it's undeniable that his large output of slight comedies seem very slight indeed when compared to the contemporary achievements of Mozart.

L'Infedelta Delusa, this year's Haydn offering at Garsington, is no exception. But its compact, pastoral dramaturgy (five characters, no chorus, and an unfussy libretto by a reformist poet) is more striking than most of the Esterhaza operas; and it opens with one of Haydn's most entrancing ensemble numbers, 'Bella sera ed aure grate', which perhaps accounts for the four recordings of the score that have appeared since the 1960s, including a classic Antal Dorati version just reissued on CD by Philips. (Dorati, you should know, makes many cuts which Wasfi Kani, who conducts at Garsington with real command, restores).

Above all, though, L'Infedelta supplies a background to the comedies of Mozart, who studied Haydn's operas and wasn't above borrowing from them. L'Infedelta concerns two couples whose respective relationships get confused and generate a mock-marriage, conducted by a soubrette disguised (complete with silly voice) as a lawyer. The soubrette is called Vespina; and any parallel you care to draw with Mozart's Despina, who does much the same thing in Cos fan tutte, is entirely warranted. They are almost the same character: a giovane spiritosa, sung at Garsington by Claire Daniels with appropriate spirit in an otherwise rather staid production by Anthony Besch.

A more imaginative and more expensive staging came with the second opera in the Garsington season: Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which struck me when I first knew about it as an impossible thing to bring off without a more sophisticated theatre apparatus and starrier voices. As the piece progresses it becomes, after all, so rich, so luxuriant, so sublimely OTT. But it is actually a chamber work, scored for 37 instruments; it's theatrical context is domestic, an opera about making opera in a private house; and Aidan Lang's production, with chic 1920s designs by Martyn Bainbridge, works beautifully, translating the commedia dell'arte into seaside vaudeville with a firm young baritone, Richard Halton, as Harlequin and the delightful Linda Kitchen getting away with more leggiero than true coloratura as Zerbinetta. Ivor Bolton conducts, with a sense of swell and shape that gets a surprisingly full sound from the orchestra. And it finishes - as I guessed it might - with fireworks: the incendiary impetus of the whole opera if you know its plot, and a gesture that, alas, signals the triumph of the bourgeois. But all the same a breathtaking finale, irresistible at Garsington where the setting (an oasis of enchantment off the Cowley Road) is the true star of the show and the division between on- and off-stage is agreeably uncertain.

The enchantment of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen is not its pantomime of humans dressed as animals - a species of charm that died with the arrival of the gorillagram - but its handling of an essentially abstract idea: that humans are held in the grip of time, watching themselves grow old, while animals romp through the cycles of their lives in unknowing, unsentimental freedom. Bill Bryden's wonderful production, which has just returned to Covent Garden with its revolving, time-conscious designs by William Dudley, makes that point more sharply and effectively than any other staging I've seen. Bernard Haitink conducts with a clean athleticism to match. I just wish the vocal diction were clearer. To sing the piece in English, as they do, suggests we might be meant to hear the text.

'Infedelta Delusa' continues Tues, at Garsington, 086 736636; 'Vixen' continues Tues at Covent Garden, 071-240 1066.

Comments