Glyndebourne - Singing for their supper

Tickets to Glyndebourne aren't cheap but the festival is continuing to attract visitors, despite the recession, with a seductive, world-class programme that plays it safe. But can the good times last? Jessica Duchen reports

Glyndebourne, the original country house opera festival, has rolled out an intriguing publicity poster this year. It shows a flock of sheep, one of them another colour. "See opera differently," says the slogan. The picture evokes the opera house's South Downs setting, of course, but it can leave you wondering exactly who, or what, will be the black sheep of the Glyndebourne family.

Nothing can match the enchanting world of Glyndebourne, sheep and all – you can hear them exchanging views on the nearby hillside or in the field across the "ha-ha". You can picnic by the water-lily lake, weather permitting, sniff the roses in the herbaceous borders, and frock-watch to your heart's content – most clientele go the whole hog and wear black tie (which is "customary, not obligatory", as Glyndebourne always says). You can, sure enough, see opera differently. But an evening here can set you back by up to £205 a seat, and that's before factoring in membership (which you need if you want to get in to see the most popular productions), plus transport, a meal and – well, you probably wouldn't want to miss out on the champagne.

Expensive? You bet. It's worth noting, though, that in the grand scheme of opera house things, the seat prices are comparable to certain other leading European theatres including Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera. Still, those theatres are state-subsidised, while Glyndebourne's festival is entirely private – what state funding the house receives goes entirely to its touring, education and community work. Given that situation, it might seem astonishing that they can maintain such high standards at all. We could grumble on, and howl for cheaper seats, but the harsh economic reality of it means, frankly, that pigs might fly.

To judge from this year's programme, the place has not escaped recessionary jitters. This is the first Glyndebourne Festival to have been planned during or after the financial crash of 2008. Recent seasons have featured successful, though no doubt expensive, ventures into Wagner, or contemporary repertoire risks such as Peter Eötvös's Love and Other Demons. But now some are predicting that in the current climate arts programming in general is set to become more conservative. Here, they appear to be right.

Glyndebourne's 2012 festival is attractive enough – but adventurous it's not. There's nothing composed more recently than the mid 1920s; none of the intriguing Russian novelties that the music director, Vladimir Jurowski, has occasionally brought in; nor a note of the Teutonic titan with the tubas.

The black sheep in the works, indeed, could be as inoffensive a figure as Maurice Ravel. At time of writing, quite a number of tickets are still available, especially in August, for the double bill of the French composer's L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges – though the composer is merely a fraction unusual. An air of reassuring sweetness hangs over the whole programme: fairy-tales, fauna and flora are in ample supply in works by Janácek, Rossini and Purcell. The biggest sellers are a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and a revival of David McVicar's staging of the ever-popular La Bohème by Puccini.

If the programme looks risk averse, the slow-selling Ravel suggests that the audience is even more so. Like Penelope Wilton's character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, do people just not want to eat something that they can't pronounce?

There's a wide misconception that Glyndebourne, supposedly frequented by "fat cats", must somehow be immune to financial pressures. Not so. Much of the membership consists of serious opera-lovers, and it's usually the cheaper seats (for which read "under £100") that are grabbed first. It would be no wonder if the "squeezed middle" chose not to spend so much on a one-day outing, especially if they're not convinced they will like unfamiliar music.

"We are completely dependent on the financial welfare of our audiences and donors, and we do need to play 80 performances to 95 per cent capacity," says Glyndebourne's general manager, David Pickard. "It's a balancing act, though: for every production that might be harder to sell, there's one for which tickets just walk out of the door. And fortunately – touchwood – our members and donors have proved incredibly loyal. When the financial crash happened, it was frightening for us, but we were determined not to limit the ambition of what we'd do."

He insists that Glyndebourne has attempted no particular cutback in expenditure: "We have always run a tight ship, because the festival doesn't have the safety net of public subsidy," he says. "We don't pay huge fees, we give our designers and directors a budget but not a blank cheque, and we keep a workforce that's as small as it can be for a year-round operation."

Glyndebourne has been quick to develop opportunities for cinecasts and webcasts, which are now a vital part of the annual summer mix. For 2012 they are screening or streaming no fewer than five productions, two previously filmed and three to be captured on camera this season – everything except La Bohème.

But if you know you can see the same treat at the cinema for a fraction of the cost and without trekking all the way to East Sussex, are you not likely to do just that? The top seat price for a Glyndebourne cinecast is £20, which seems to prove the point. The cinecast craze is still relatively new, and its long-term effects aren't clear yet. Its detractors reckon it could prove counter-productive, keeping the desired audience away by providing too good an alternative.

Pickard remains convinced that the benefits outweigh the risk. "We are certain it will build audiences for the real thing," he says. "And it may scotch some myths. People often bracket Glyndebourne together with summer fixtures like Ascot or Wimbledon – they don't always realise that we have a world-class theatre with a roof, and that performances are not cancelled if it rains! Besides, nothing can match the experience of attending a live performance."

Janécek's The Cunning Little Vixen, a bittersweet tale of humanity's relationship with nature, opens this year's festival. The heroine is a singing fox; the characters are divided between exuberant forest creatures and the world-weary humans who watch, encounter and sometimes kill them. Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell and Sergei Leiferkus are the star singers, and the vital dance element is choreographed by Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk. Presiding over it is the British director Melly Still, whose magical staging of Dvorák's Rusalka captured the audience's imagination in 2009.

"The animals all represent aspects of human behaviour," Still says. "We're not dressing people up in animal costumes, but trying to find the essence of what each needs in order to survive, and how those imperatives translate. For instance, the frog holds his eyes in his hand and can turn them right round above his head.

"Humans live 'in time', while animals do not. That has been the starting point for my whole approach. The humans are burdened by their knowledge of their own mortality, and that's why they tend to obsess over love objects. It's not until that obsession has gone that the Forester, who provides our human perspective, can see and hear clearly for the first time. His mind is opened. Rather than harnessing and attacking nature, at the end he becomes part of it."

Le nozze di Figaro is Glyndebourne's signature work, having launched the very first festival in 1934. The Mozart masterpiece's first makeover here for nearly a decade is directed by Michael Grandage, whose production of Billy Budd two years ago was a major hit. The cast includes Sally Matthews as the Countess and Lydia Teuscher as Susanna, with Robin Ticciati on the podium; he is heir apparent to the place's music directorship, taking over in 2014.

Laurence Cummings, baroque conductor par excellence, is in place for the revival of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, in a much-praised production by Jonathan Kent which features cross-dressing and "a warren full of rampant rabbits". Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) is back, too, in its sundrenched staging by Peter Hall.

David McVicar's production of La Bohème updates Puccini's action to gritty modern London and has attracted an exciting cast. The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World winner of 2009, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, stars (in all but two performances) as Mimi, with David Lomeli as Rodolfo and Andrei Bondarenko, winner of the Cardiff contest's Song Prize 2011, as Marcello. Glyndebourne has always been good at spotlighting singers before they become famous; last time this production featured in the festival, its Rodolfo was the then little-known Rolando Villazón.

And then there's the Ravel: an evening of two one-act operas, L'enfant et les sortilèges and L'heure espagnole. These whimsical works should prod the creativity of the French director Laurent Pelly, whose productions of Hänsel und Gretel for Glyndebourne and La fille du régiment at Covent Garden had a lightness of touch that ought to suit the task.

Does any of this make Glyndebourne the black sheep of the opera house family? Hardly. But every arts organisation currently has to find its own strategy for survival; while Glyndebourne's balancing act may not take many risks, the repertoire remains seductive and artistic standards world class. Yet if people decide to book the cinecasts instead this year, nobody should be surprised.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera opens with 'The Cunning Little Vixen' on 20 May (01273 813813)

MORE COUNTRY HOUSE OPERA

Grange Park

The elegant festival in Hampshire celebrates its 15th birthday with Tchaikovsky's two best, 'Eugene Onegin' and 'The Queen of Spades', plus Mozart's 'Idomeneo' and Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly'. http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

Garsington

In its snazzy new pavilion at Wormsley, Garsington Opera offers, from Mozart, 'Don Giovanni' and 'The Magic Flute', Offenbach's 'La Périchole' and, just in time for London 2012, Vivaldi's 'L'Olimpiade'. http://www.garsingtonopera.org/

Longborough

'Götterdämmerung' comes to the Cotswolds conducted by brilliant Wagnerian Anthony Negus. Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' and Janácek's 'Katya Kabanova' are also aboard. Next year: Wagner's 'Ring Cycle', complete. http://www.lfo.org.uk/

Clonter Opera Theatre

Cheshire's converted barn offers a thriving programme of full-scale opera (this year, 'Hansel und Gretel') as well as concerts, talks, masterclasses and an Opera Novice Night to help first-timers settle in. http://www.clonteropera.com

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible