CLASSICAL MUSIC / Glad all over at Glyndebourne

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The Independent Culture
CORPORATE WIVES doing the garden stroll at half-time agreed with their husbands that it was All Very Different. And so it is. The huddled, Nissen-hut charm of the old Glyndebourne has yielded to the pristine order of the new. Michael Hopkins's pounds 33m theatre is a miracle of design, 50 per cent bigger than before but feeling smaller: the new baroque- horseshoe shape extends upwards where the old, rectangular barn extended laterally. The sightlines are good, the finish beautiful; and although the acoustic isn't quite there yet - the sound is cold, a little clinical - it's certainly more resonant than it was. Singing at Glyndebourne used to be like singing into a sponge- bag: good riddance to that.

What hasn't changed, though, is the agreeable way that Glyndebourne has always managed not to live up to the awful promise of its programme book. Because for all the chic veneer of Cartier and Mercedes and arrangements for arrival by helicopter, the artistic culture of Glyndebourne has always been rather modest, earnest and serious: geared to quality ensemble work from good, young voices as opposed to jewel-encrusted spectacles with megastars. The appearance of the new house - cleanly understated, with its unplush, pine interior and brick walls - makes the point. And so do the two productions it opened with this week.

The opening itself, one has to say, was fudged. It should have been a major new production; instead it was a resurrected Figaro - in the Peter Hall production that lost its sets in a fire and reappeared on last year's Glyndebourne Tour with cheap replacement designs and a revised staging by Stephen Medcalf.

Medcalf is a gifted director and he does a good job here: it has a nicely observed, low-key intelligence, some fresh ideas in seen-it-all-before routines, and tight, neat, touching performances from Gerald Finley as Figaro and Alison Hagley as Susanna. Andreas Schmidt's Count is dark and dull but Renee Fleming's Countess has a gorgeous lustre, and there's a bright, pert cameo from Susan Gritton as Barbarina.

But for me this Figaro doesn't quite catch fire. It's as if Medcalf has inherited too circumscribed a stump of work to allow his imagination free range. The sets are touring quality, no more. And although Bernard Haitink draws polished playing from the LPO, beautifully phrased and nurtured, it is slow and staid and, dare I say it, twilit Mozart.

But the genuinely new production of Eugene Onegin is another matter. The conductor is Glyndebourne's music director, Andrew Davis, a man who seems able to put his hand to anything and make a sensitive, committed, rhythmically incisive triumph of it. And it comes with an immaculately considered staging by Graham Vick, who is now Glyndebourne's director of production.

One of Vick's abiding interests in opera is the redistribution of responsibility between aggressors and victims. Just as his Madam Butterfly evened out the moral terrain of the protagonists, so his Onegin becomes a balanced tragedy of failed communication. A matter of unspoken thoughts in empty rooms, emotionally landlocked. Where Onegin is a prisoner of attitude, Tatyana is contained by fantasies that culminate in the sterile glitter of the Act III ball. There is an odd but memorable final scene where he and she are anchored to two distant gilt chairs on an empty stage. The curtain falls as she is seated with her back to him: unfinished business. And you know that these two desperate souls will spend the rest of their lives in colliding orbits through the salons of St Petersburg, biting their lips and saying nothing. It's a risky way to close the piece but infinitely more refined than the usual high-dramatic flurry of a hasty exit.

The production comes alive in such moments - lyrical in the true Tchaikovskyan sense, spotlit in the stylish simplicity of Richard Hudson's sets. Vick spares no effort to keep the stage as empty as possible, so that the central performances are ruthlessly exposed. They bear the scrutiny impressively. Elena Prokina's Tatyana is perhaps too dark and creamy for the adolescent freshness of the Letter Scene; but what a gloriously capacious, characterful voice it is, especially radiant as the more mature Tatyana of Act III. And Wojciech Drabowicz has an alluringly deep-textured richness as Onegin. Both are subtle actors. The cast around them is exemplary, etched with the sharpness of northern sunlight: no music-hall Triquets and Filippyevnas in this show.

Several worlds away in Leeds, Opera North is running the British premiere of Playing Away, a piece by Howard Brenton (libretto) and Benedict Mason (music) that first showed in the Munich Biennale last month. Playing Away is an opera about football, rock stars, hooliganism and airport lounges, grafted on to an off-the- peg Faustian myth: ace striker sells soul for goals. It could be Michael Tippett, and very nearly is. In fact it's clever, entertaining, animated trash, to be enjoyed as those who live in Hampstead enjoy McDonald's: guiltily, and making sure that the detritus goes straight in the bin afterwards.

The best things about it are the production (David Pountney) and design (Huntley Muir), which manage to sustain vitality and coherence through material with a genetic predisposition to failure. This is no small feat. And the performances are heroic, especially Richard Suart in vaudeville mode as the football-club manager. But the piece illustrates what happens when you take opera too close to the flame of contemporary life: it burns, ephemerally, leaving only the ironic resonance of Brenton's proletarian vernacular sounding unintentionally middle class in its melodic setting. Someone should have told him you can't swear convincingly to music.

Melody is the saving grace of Mason's score, but it's never his own. The music builds from a collage of quotes that demonstrate the composer's knowledge of German Romanticism and fondness for in-jokes. Like everything about Playing Away, it's disposable fun.

For five years Torbay Borough Council in Devon has been planning and fund-raising for the first ever Jacqueline du Pre Cello and Piano Competition. This reached its final at Buckfast Abbey last weekend, and it crushed the spirits of all concerned when the judges decided not to award a first prize. 'We must uphold the standards of the name we bear,' explained a competition spokesman. 'And did the players know they were in competition with Ms du Pre?' shouted a member of the audience in what became an unseemly slanging match. Not the script to which serious international competitions are supposed to run.

But it does raise a logistical question. If the yardstick in a competition is a legend like du Pre, there's not much chance of anybody ever winning. So why should anybody enter? And it seemed to me that the placement of the finalists was perverse. My choice would have been Richard May (cello) and Nicholas Oliver (piano). They came last. But then, my choice would also have been to hold this competition in an acoustic where you could actually hear the performances. Buckfast Abbey sounds (and looks) like a large public urinal. It was also bitterly cold. The Benedictines may have dedicated themselves to a life of sacrifice, but for the rest of us . . . If this competition is to happen again it should relocate to Dartington, just down the road.

Glyndebourne, 0273 812321, to 25 August. 'Playing Away': Hull New Theatre, 0482 226655, Fri.

(Photograph omitted)

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