The 2004 season has been an odd one at Glyndebourne. Adrian Noble's listless Die Zauberflöte played safe and pretty with the Masons, while Annabel Arden's double-bill of The Miserly Knight and Gianni Schicchi showed that even tight design and a nimble aerialist cannot rescue a bad libretto set by a composer happiest in the concert hall. David McVicar's Carmen finally found a female lead whose sex-appeal everyone could agree on (Rinat Shaham), Rodelinda offered the lovely Emma Bell as compensation for Jean-Marie Villégier's counter-intuitive staging, but only the revival of Graham Vick's 1999 production of Pelléas et Mélisande did what opera ought to do: transport its audience to another reality.
One out of five is not a great score, especially at a house where those productions that are good are so very, very good that they can almost spoil you for subsequent treatments. So does the fourth revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 1989 production of Jenufa indicate a return to form? Though Tobias Hoheisel's designs look slightly dated, this is still a decisive, impactful staging. The casting is sound; with a touching, tender lead (Orla Boylan), a complex and vulnerable Kostelnicka (Kathryn Harries), and some excellent supporting work from Susan Gorton (Grandmother) and Kathleen Wilkinson (Maid). Tenors Pär Lindskog (Steva) and Robert Brubaker (Laca) might each, I think, be better suited to the other's role, but both sing with passion and as time goes by I'm becoming convinced that Steva and Laca are - like Boris and Tichon in Katya Kabanova - two sides of the same personality anyway. But none of the above will make Jenufa sound like an imperative. What will, I hope, is this: the most sensationally coloured, visceral, compulsive, revelatory account of the score. Though the name on the bill is that of Nikolaus Lehnhoff, this revival is directed by Markus Stenz - its conductor - and propelled entirely by Janacek's music.
In an ideal world I suppose one wouldn't want to be distracted from the stage during Jenufa but only a churl would complain about listening to the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Stenz, whose Glyndebourne debut this is. As my companion put it, it's like the old advert about colour film: the resolution is sharper, more vivid, more dynamic; the images brighter, deeper and clearer. The LPO have played well all season but their work under Stenz is on another level altogether; from the first racing heartbeat of the opening bar to the sweet unfurling of the violin solo in Act III. A brave, subtle, instinctive and searing account of one of the finest operatic scores and quite the best performance I have ever heard from this orchestra at Glyndebourne. What a debut. What a conductor.
Back at the Proms, the quixotic pursuit of turning sows' ears into silk purses continues. Of course, life isn't all a bowl of Brahms 1-4, and one man's damp squib is another's forgotten masterpiece. Perhaps 73 concerts of nothing but the best repertoire is too much ask? Listening at home to Jiri Belohlavek's spirited performance of Dvorak's The Spectre's Bride with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Prom 32, I felt three distinct emotions about this particular example of centenary completism. Firstly, immense relief that I could swelter alone in my study and groan aloud without offending any rapt Dvorakophiles. Secondly, intense sympathy for the BBCSO, who have to premiere enough works that time will forget without re-premiering those it has already forgotten. Thirdly, renewed respect for an amateur chorus who were prepared not only to do battle with a gustily Gothick Czech cantata but to carry it off with such élan. (Would that the same could be said of soloists Anda-Louise Bogza, Peter Straka and Ivan Kusnjer, who thrived only when under obvious vocal pressure.)
The Spectre's Bride was immensely popular in the Victorian era and responding to it as a modern-day listener is bound to be a very different experience. In his pre-concert radio interview, even Belohlavek seemed to suggest that the best way to approach its plot - dead fiancé refuses to take "Ne!" for an answer from his live intended - was as a piece of kitsch. But surely one is on a hiding to nothing if the score cannot outlive the credibility of its subject matter? Few contemporary opera-goers believe in witches and water-nymphs, yet Rusalka is still an extraordinarily involving, pliable, ageless work. Sadly, I cannot say the same of The Spectre's Bride.
In a similar fashion, Prom 35 saw Paul Goodwin and the Academy of Ancient Music attempt to persuade a near-capacity audience that Biber's Missa Bruxellensis was nearly as interesting as his Mystery Sonatas. No, they didn't quite manage it but they did at least prove that the Missa Bruxellensis is both livelier and more succinct than the Missa Salisburgensis.
With trumpets, sackbutts, kettle drums and cornetts arranged in two choirs at the top of the stage, two large mixed-voice choirs on either side, a pool of delicious strings, keyboard and plucked continuo in the centre and eight soloists, this lavish account of Biber's later setting was all the more impressive for its steady mellowness and elegant shape. But early music is notoriously tricky in the Albert Hall. Groups of two to five instruments can carry more clearly than 50, and this was most apparent in the fifth sonata from Muffat's Armonico Tributo. The tutti sound was lovely - indeed, AAM are currently streets ahead of their competitors in this respect - but listening to it there was like looking at a rosebud through the wrong end of a telescope. Only in the Passagaglia did it clarify, as the ripieno refrains for oboes and flutes emerged. But Goodwin's Bach Magnificat was a vigorous and enjoyable affair; scarcely rocked by an unclear cue in the Gloria and notable for Michael Chance and Rufus Müller's ravishing Et misericordiae and oboist Alex Bellamy's grave obbligato solo in Quia respexit. The most persuasive large-scale Bach this one-to-a-part fanatic has heard in a long while: scintillatingly sung by the choir and beautifully played by the orchestra.
'Jenufa': Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Sussex (01273 813813) to 28 AugustReuse content