Scarpia: Open-air operas, stuffy productions: Meredith Oakes on treatments for Glyndebourne deprivation

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GLOBAL warming has caught up with Garsington. Saturday's audience didn't need the customary Barbours and refugee blankets over their evening dress. The evening was mild and Ariadne auf Naxos was a performance to bask in.

Making an Oxfordshire country manor into the site of an ambitious outdoor opera season must offer challenges to ingenuity comparable with those faced by Robinson Crusoe. It must also be expensive. The game clearly charms numerous well- heeled supporters. Privilege? Ostentation? Yes. But there's something wonderful in seeing people pay so much to be so very uncomfortable. It's not just the weather and the seating; there are the operas too.

Not that they've ever been less than intelligent and neat. It's just that, with restricted budgets and a beautiful but intractable outdoor setting, there's a lowest common denominator of undernourished gung ho that can become quite boring. Ariadne auf Naxos on Saturday was far beyond all that. It pleased and surprised you and then, when you were thoroughly delighted, it gave you still more.

Who would have thought that Strauss's music would take so well to the open air? The orchestra was from Glyndebourne Touring Opera, conducted by Ivor Bolton with a clean, fragile urgency that made the absence of golden echoes a positive virtue. The designer, Martyn Bainbridge, started with a deceptively conventional backstage set, all dressing room doors and costume racks, whose miniature rehearsal stage then trebled in size and dominated Act 2.

But it wasn't just a stage, it was the island of Naxos, and the floor at the sides of it was a blue sea where Zerbinetta and the other comic characters sported in turn-of-the-century bathing suits. The island was also a sheet of paper, a page upturned at the corner, with a punctured hole that served as Ariadne's cavern and had real sand on the floor. The visual puns were ubiquitous, rich, funny and always meaningful and practical too.

Aidan Lang's production exposed all the comic subtleties of the relationships: the strong cast even attained real vocal luxury in Carol Smith's Ariadne: and, well, it was glorious.

The rise of Garsington (three productions for the first time this year) coincides with Glyndebourne's summer in the wilderness as the rebuilding goes on. Naturally the company wants to keep in touch with the public, but this week's concert performances of Fidelio and Beatrice and Benedict at the Festival Hall were depressingly Londonish, routine. Possibly the people who rushed to buy tickets as soon as the booking opened were expecting something comparable to the semi-staged Glyndebourne productions that grace the Proms. But those are based on the whole summer's experience of the works, and lovingly re-rehearsed as well: they are not ad hoc concert parties.

The best reason for the Festival Hall venture would have been to offer a depth of orchestral interpretation and enlightenment beyond what is generally possible in the opera house. If Klaus Tennstedt had not fallen ill, perhaps this would have been achieved in Fidelio. In neither opera did the London Philharmonic give any indication of being exceptionally well prepared. Quite the reverse.

It is to the credit of Andrew Davis that the Berlioz, which sounded pedestrian at the start, developed some magic as it went on. The same cannot be said of the Beethoven, where the orchestra, under Roger Norrington, played throughout with a lack of intelligible architecture only partially offset by bouts of feverish energy.

The Glyndebourne Chorus sang without scores, extremely well. And there were some wonderful soloists: Anne Sofie von Otter as Beatrice; Barbara Bonney as Marzelline; Jean Rigby, Peter Seiffert, Artur Korn.

The English National Opera's Magic Flute revival, opening on Monday last week, was routine, too: and again it was the journeymanlike resignation of the orchestra (under Alex Ingram) that set the tone. The Nicholas Hytner production retains its cracked-ballroom smartness, just.

Three terrific Boys (Samuel Burkey, Andrew Higgs, Jack Sloan), in conjunction with the sweet drink-of-water voice of Gillian Webster's Pamina, made the suicide scene very strong, and Alan Opie sang Papageno handsomely.