When Wagner's Ring had its Russian premiere in 1902, Rachmaninov was in the audience. Celebrated as a pianist-conductor-composer, he had already turned a Pushkin poem into an opera that had earned praise from Tchaikovsky, and he'd become close friends with Fyodor Chaliapin, the superstar bass who had sung its title role. What would Rachmaninov write next? The answer was, a double-bill to showcase Chaliapin, exploiting the new musical ideas he had got from Wagner. The first half would mine another Pushkin tale. As in the Ring, the glint of gold would pervade.
But Pushkin's The Miserly Knight had not been intended for the stage, despite being one of his much-loved "Little Tragedies", and Rachmaninov's word-for-word setting of its text had none of the declamatory style then in vogue. It was a cerebral, symbolic piece, not a psychological drama, and its reception was cool, with Chaliapin himself delivering the coup de grâce: "Pushkin's words are more powerful than anything you have written here." Its afterlife has been fitful, with critics frequently describing it as an "opera-symphony"; productions have been rare.
Every year, Glyndebourne Festival brings a surprise out of the hat: this time, it's The Miserly Knight, as part of a double bill with Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. And in terms of subject matter, this yoking reveals a happy congruence, since both concern the battle for an inheritance selfishly withheld from those most in need of it. Pushkin's young Albert needs his father's money in order to go out and lead the life for which he has been groomed, but the miserly baron just sits on it, gloating. The treasure over which everyone fights in Gianni Schicchi has been likewise hoarded by the old codger whose death sets things in motion.
By hiring Annabel Arden to direct the two works in tandem, Glyndebourne may have pulled a master stroke: apart from Richard Jones - whose Covent Garden Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has been the hit of the season - no other director has a track record to compare with hers, for sheer political engagement and unfettered originality.
Arden worked with Neil Bartlett's performance collective, and has done time as an actor with Richard Briers and Kenneth Branagh; she has even directed the occasional turkey. But for the most part, her career as an actor-director has been triumphs all the way. The first of these was Théâtre de Complicité's National Theatre version of Dürrenmatt's The Visit; and the second its hallucinatory realisation of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles. On the strength of her Complicité take on The Winter's Tale, she was drawn into the world of opera, first with Opera North, then with English National Opera, for whom she created the first Rake's Progress to stand comparison with the seemingly unbeatable production designed by David Hockney. This wild-haired earth-mother's shows may provoke dissent, but her street-cred is formidable.
Glad that her cast hasn't seen a previous performance of Rachmaninov's work, she has settled for a timeless Expressionism in its staging: an actress-aerialist will apparently embody the baron's pecuniary obsession, moving around the set like a spider. "But for me, it's about us, today," Arden insists. "We live in a world almost entirely motivated by greed. When I grew up in the Sixties, there was a consensus that something had to be done to make the international order more moral, that politics meant something. But that period was very short-lived. People now know that we have no such thing as democracy, and they also know that government has very little leverage over corporate concerns. So, to do a play that explores - and celebrates - absolute power is interesting."
But what, then, are we to make of the stereotypical Jewish moneylender from whom the baron's son seeks help? Arden bats this easily away: "I'm sure both Pushkin and Rachmaninov were guilty of negative stereotyping, but despite themselves, they've written into the role a curiously spiritual dignity, because he is the only person who is not a slave to money. He deals in it, he understands it - the best bit of singing in the piece is his marvellously philosophical aria about what money really means. But he's the only person who is aware of the wider philosophical issues in life.
"It's a role with some power. So I've encouraged Viateschlav Voinarovski, who is playing it, not to inject any crudely obvious mannerisms. In the Russian film made of the story in the Eighties, he's indistinguishable from anybody else - except by his intelligence."
I notice that Arden constantly refers to these operas as "plays", and that where other opera directors talk of "singers", she talks of "actors". The Baron's sin, she says, is "King Learish", and the great Sergei Leiferkus, who will incarnate him this week, "is working on his role like a Shakespearean actor". Arden is vastly relieved that he's not trying to do a Chaliapin: "That would be unbelievably melodramatic, which is precisely what we're trying to avoid."
But it soon becomes clear that this theatrical turn of phrase is not an accidental throwback to her roots: its significance dawns when, rather than rejoicing in Glyndebourne's luxurious rehearsal conditions, as most directors do, she rails at their limitations. "Ten days on each of these operas - and then you hit the stage. And once you do that, their instinct is to perform - it's too late to do any more work.
"Working on the concertante in Gianni Schicchi, it's deeply frustrating, because we just haven't got the time to do it as I want. And they don't get their costumes till a week before we open." She harks back nostalgically to Théâtre de Complicité. "To achieve something such as Schicchi, we went out to Oxfam and wore what we bought till it became a second skin. We'd all worked together for years, and we had a highly developed sense of each other's space - we functioned like a football team. Each actor would know where everybody else was." This was the group that - as their chairman Roger Graef once pointed out - was not so much a theatre company as a state of mind.
In Arden's view, the average opera company's state of mind is far from where it should be. There are no real ensembles any more, and singers assume that their main job is to make a beautiful sound, with movement a mere add-on. "Opera singers need all the skills an actor has, plus other, more subtle skills - it's a far more difficult job," she argues. "They need constantly to make this connection between what's happening in the music, and what's happening in the drama. They never get a chance to develop this skill. If you haven't learned to move on stage by the time you're 25, you're finished."
And for this woman, whose first training was with avant-gardists in Paris, movement is the key to everything. "Est-ce que c'est vivant? Is it alive? That's why I don't mind working with an opera singer who is 35 stone and almost completely still - but the way he will look at something, or move his head or hands, or get up off a chair - is it alive? That's the only question."
But opera's biggest problem is, in this week's vogue-word, systemic, Arden says, with the Gubbay débâcle nowhere near the top of the list: that dubious honour is reserved for ENO, whose artistic dissolution is, in her view, tragic. "It's gone, and I don't really understand how it happened." The rot began, I suggest, with Nicholas Payne and Paul Daniels stepping outside their managerial and musical roles, and directing Il Trovatore. Whereupon Arden sighs: "I feel bad, because they'd asked me to direct that."
She couldn't, because she was committed to directing a play by her husband, Stephen Jefferies. "But there are opera directors stalking the earth, looking for jobs. How can you expect to run a huge organisation like that, and do a show? Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn found it pretty hard at the National."
Which brings her to the crux: "The people who really know how to run opera houses are the people who do the work - the production staff and stage management. But if you bring in some grandee at the top who has never lived through a production period... Before I came to this interview, I had 40 minutes to make five absolutely crucial decisions, like a general on the battlefield." At which point her pager rings, and she goes off to command her troops.
'The Miserly Knight' and 'Gianni Schicchi', Glyndebourne (01273 813813), from Thursday to 23 AugustReuse content