OPERA / Is everyone sitting comfortably?: As Glyndebourne reopens with a fresh look at Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Bayan Northcott tries to find the best seat in the new house

Click to follow
Last Saturday's 60th anniversary Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne was for the donors who have funded the new pounds 33m opera house and - through the agency of international telecommunications - for the world. The musical press, invited to the second performance on Wednesday, thus found itself having to appraise something that had already been seen, and judged, by its largest audience. Of course, one could rattle on about the impact of this rather large architectural cuckoo in the Glyndebourne nest: about whether such features of its somewhat anonymous contemporary exterior as the concourse canopy do not oddly hark back to the Festival of Britain; or whether the converging sight-lines of its horseshoe- shaped auditorium may not prove restricting to stage designers.

Yet clever television camera work can always offset such problems, just as sensitive radio engineers often add juice to a dry acoustic. In the end there can be no substitute for actually sitting somewhere in the new house, or rather, in several places: for the acoustic seems to have turned out remarkably variable. As heard from a seat in the foyer circle directly behind the stalls, the auditorium sounded staggeringly favourable to the singers: every voice coming across with immediacy and bloom; every word crystal clear. Yet the orchestra seemed strangely disembodied: not boxy and bass-less, as in the old house, but as if heard through a half-open door from the next room.

Indeed the live voice-orchestra balance so curiously resembled what we often get on recordings and in telecasts that one nearby colleague actually took himself off to the Organ Room at the interval to enjoy the rest of the opera in solitary state over closed circuit. Yet others from near the front of the stalls reported that they could only discern the voices as if through a wall of orchestral sound. Since the management is proposing to permutate the press around the house, a more complete account of its sound qualities should emerge by the end of the season.

As for the new Figaro - and it is effectively new, the old sets having got sizzled up in a fire - it is consistently designed by John Gunter and rather less consistently produced by Stephen Medcalf. Apparently austere facades, door flats, bookcases, bare tree trunks, and straightforward costumes matching the predominant design tonalities of black, off- white and tomato red undergo subtle mutations in the lighting of Pat Collins. Within this mise-en-scene, Medcalf manages some striking tableaux, but elsewhere falls back too much on buffa knockabout.

Still, the cast includes three exceptional voices: strong, vibrant, focused singing from Alison Hagley and Gerald Finley - both of them fairly recent Glyndebourne discoveries - as Susanna and Figaro, and a sumptuously sustained Countess from Renee Fleming. As Cherubino and the Count, Marie-Ange Todorovitch and Andreas Schmidt sing decently enough but somehow miss, respectively, the charm and menace of their roles. Maybe this, together with the loving but rather bland Mozartian style Bernard Haitink drew from the London Philharmonic, accounted for the failure of the opera quite to take off in the first half.

After the interval, things were livelier: even the orchestra sounded more forward - or perhaps one was getting used to the balance. Evidently the potentialities and drawbacks of the house will take their time to emerge. One hopes N M Rothschild & Sons and Rothschild & Cie Banque, who stumped up for the production, are happy enough to be going on with.

In rep to 15 July, Glyndebourne, nr Lewes, E Sussex (0273 813813); pounds 15 slips, pounds 10 standing still available