OPERA / A royal flush of success: Edward Seckerson on Glyndebourne at home and away

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The Independent Culture
So the demolitionists have finally moved in on Glyndebourne. In May 1994 a brand-new theatre will rise from the rubble of the old, 60 years to the day and with the same opera (Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) as first began John Christie's dream back in 1934. In those days Christie's butler acted as stage manager, regularly calling Lewes station to ask that they hold the train if the show was running late.

Times change. And so have the fortunes, artistic and otherwise, of this 'self-made' institution. I for one will miss the old house - a charming cross between Pollock's toy theatre and village hall. But George Christie is right; now's not the time for sentimentality. Last Thursday he was on stage to set the example. 'My father would have done this sooner,' he said drily. 'I think we've gone out on a high.'

A high is right. This final performance of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, the last opera to be given in the old house, was sensational. Everything about it was vintage Glyndebourne: the energy, the commitment, the wholeness of the experience. Operatic ensemble playing at its very best.

And how dangerously, ruthlessly immediate Tchaikovsky's obsessive score sounded under Andrew Davis's gripping direction. Here was music at the sharp end of what this intimate house could realistically contain, and yet, gripe as one regularly has about the constrictions of the acoustic (no house makes a big orchestra sound smaller), the pungency of the score's predominantly dark colorations - even at low dynamics - was a vivid reminder of what may have been lost for ever. From a seat in the rear stalls you could reach out and touch those worm-like bass woodwinds grimly eating their way into Herman's deranged brain; brassy releases were concentrated and intimidating - never comfortable.

Great voices have been discovered by this house and thrived in it. Three wonderful Russian singers continued to dominate this cast. The ringing, beautifully focused tones of Sergei Leiferkus enriched Count Tomsky, Dimitri Kharitonov did likewise with Prince Yeletsky, and Yuri Marusin as the hapless Herman was quite simply magnificent - I'll go further: great. Here is a singer who haunts you with his voice, imploring, keening dangerously on the flat side of pitch. You might say he was actor first, singer second, pitifully draining all colour from the sound and then going for your jugular at moments of high anxiety. Tchaikovsky's pain was Herman's pain and Marusin communicated it so forcefully, so physically, that watching and listening was never easy. Likewise Nancy Gustafson's tragic Lisa, so intense it hurt. And always, producer Graham Vick knew instinctively how best to harness their energies.

On Richard Hudson's off-kilter set - pure-white violated with inky Gerald Scarfe-like scrawls - Herman's world was gradually, and quite literally, turned upside down. Shadow and more shadow, images of myriad candles seen through choking incense fumes, angels of death, and the sterile green light of hallucinations linger on.

All had vanished like so many nightmares by the time the company made its annual sojourn to the Proms on Sunday night. A stark, raked platform, a few props. Suddenly we were experiencing events through the wrong end of the same telescope. Yet the force was still with this show, performers like Marusin appeared almost freed by the occasion, and even the most intense intimacies somehow spoke. Prom silences can be deathly: Felicity Palmer tapped into hers with rare artistry for the Countess's key scene.

And of course the lid was taken right off the London Philharmonic's fabulous work: opulence now as well as impact. Tchaikovsky wrote an inspired final scene: the chorus of gamblers turn orthodox choir to pray for Herman's soul, the love music tentatively climbs in the violins. Suddenly the Albert Hall was a cathedral. Two unforgettable evenings.

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