Glyndebourne finds Puccini no picnic

MUSIC

Glyndebourne has never been a Puccini house - too grand, I guess - with nothing but a solitary Boheme from the Sixties in its catalogue. So the Manon Lescaut which opened the 1997 season this week was new ground, and perilous in that it's a second-division opera with hard-to-tackle problems. The libretto is weak; the four acts only barely connect into a coherent narrative; and the music never rises to the show-stopping heights of Puccini's other, greater scores. All expectation, no delivery, it peels away to nothing, like an artichoke without a heart. Only a strong, impetuous des Grieux, an irresistably alluring Manon, and a stage director so in love with the characters that he's blind to their faults, could make it work. And Glyndebourne, alas, has none of these.

Graham Vick's production plays on bare, semi-abstracted yellow-ochre sets (designer: Richard Hudson) that make their point when we reach the desert scene in Act IV but are otherwise just neutral space. Its emptiness gets filled - working the chorus hard in Acts I and III, camping up Act II - but with laboured routines. The embarcation scene is amateur, with desperately over-acting whores. The death is nothing. If Vick does care about his characters, it doesn't show.

But then, he doesn't have the best material: it's a bizarrely dead cast. Only Patrick Denniston's des Grieux makes any impression, and that's more physical than vocal. The Lescaut, Geronte and Edmondo are all workaday stuff, not Glyndebourne quality. And the Manon, a young Romanian called Adina Nitescu, only previously heard in Britain as a Cardiff Singer of the World contestant, is appallingly miscast. An old-time Eastern European diva in the making, she presents with an attractive, fragrant, softly textured voice but with the personality and sexual allure of suet pudding. Staring blankly into space or straight at the conductor, there is no engagement with her fellow singers. Every move is painfully premeditated. And as one half of what is arguably the least convincing instant relationship in modern opera, she fails to ignite it with the smallest spark of passion.

All in all, it's a substandard show, and I'd avoid it but for one thing. The conductor. John Eliot Gardiner has passed through many lives and much repertory since he made his mark in period performance, and though few could have guessed that he would make his Glyndebourne debut with Puccini, it turns out to be yet another example of his inability to put a foot wrong. He spring-cleans the score with bracing and cathartic vigour, galvanising the orchestral playing - brilliantly delivered by the LPO - and gives the whole performance credibility. It needs it.

Fortunately Owen Wingrave, which opened at Glyndebourne on Thursday, is everything Manon Lescaut isn't: an imaginative, purposeful production (Robin Phillips), beautifully delivered by a fine cast with an utterly superb young artist in the title role. Technically it's a revival, of a staging from the Glyndebourne Tour two years ago. But in the process of transfer to the Festival there have been changes to the sets and lighting, generally to make the scenes more site-specific. And in doing that, it comes closer, I think, to answering the peculiar needs of a demanding piece.

Like Manon Lescaut, Owen Wingrave is a secondary work in its author's catalogue. Britten wrote it for television in 1971, suspicious of the medium but still attempting to exploit what broadcast fantasy could do, with short scenes that dissolve into each other and sometimes overlap. When it transferred to the stage in 1973, the scenes were wheeled across an empty stage on trolleys, and it didn't work - helping to fix the opera's reputation as a piece to leave alone. And the fact that it proved musically a transitional piece, fine-tuning Britten's ear for Asiatic, gamelan- style sound-colours in preparation for their definitive statement in Death in Venice, encouraged critics to downgrade it - undervaluing its strengths, exaggerating its flaws.

Listing the negatives, it does pull its punches (especially in the final death scene, which needs more musical profile); it is monothematic theatre, selling its message (pacifism), a touch too hard; and the characters do, in the process, come dangerously close to caricature. But for me, the integrity and beauty of the score - which flows alchemically, decanting menace into calm - wins through. And this Glyndebourne staging proves what I've always believed: that second-division Britten is still first division by the standards of anybody since. The ensemble singing could carry more bite in the attack, the tempi could be faster, but no matter. The performances are powerful, articulate, persuasive, with especially fine contributions from Steven Page as the tutor Coyle, and Gerald Finley, whose Owen outclasses even that of Benjamin Luxon in Britten's original cast. It comes with paradigm conviction and assurance; and the voice is glorious: firm-toned but rich, with effortless projection. I've seen nothing better on an opera stage all year; and with Ivor Bolton's clean, deliberate conducting, it's an obvious contender for the next round of awards.

It's unsettling to visit a historically great music capital and find its greatness more a matter of history than you thought. But such is Budapest: a handsome city that retains the bricks, mortar and memory of musical prestige - a stunning opera house, some jewel-like concert halls, Kodaly and Liszt commemorated in its street-names, Bela Bartok on its bank notes - but has a real struggle to keep the tradition alive.

If there's a solution, it lies outside the country, in the conscience of the rich West; and few years ago a well-connected Swiss composer/conductor called Robert Bachmann took it on himself to establish a Budapest Whitsun Festival, with the intention of attracting quality, cash and worldwide interest to the city. The 1997 season ran last weekend; and the promised highlight was the world premiere of an epic score, by Bachmann himself, whose performance requirements read like an attempt on the Guinness Book of Records. Called Uluru: a Fractal Symphony, it featured 120 separately notated instrumental parts, massed voices, pre-recorded tape, and assorted soloists including someone "believed to be among the world's best didgeridoo players" according to the programme book. Obviously not Rolf Harris. There was also an element of theatre that involved ceremonial processions through the auditorium and Mr Bachmann making a grandly papal entrance, arms outstretched, to the accompaniment of a gargantuan crescendo. And it all amounted to a media event of magnitude, played out for television and before a flown-in, diamond-studded audience.

What the glitterati made of the piece I can't imagine, because its ideas were complex: an attempted musical response to novel concepts in geometry. As a "fractal" symphony, it builds a non-developmental structure out of many parts, each one of which contains a sort of DNA code for the whole and therefore is the whole. In miniature. The parts are freestanding, flexibly ordered so that no two performances should be the same. As for the name, Uluru is the aboriginal word for Ayer's Rock in Australia: an iconic object of spiritual significance in much the way that Bachmann sees his score. And yes, it all makes fascinating theory.

But in practice, in Budapest's cramped Franz Liszt Academy amid the cameras and diamonds, Uluru amounted to little more than the bag of tricks musical avant-gardists played with in the early 1960s and abandoned before the decade was out. The DNA element was simplistically banal: a brutal barrage of arpeggios, scales and trills with nothing in the quality or handling of the material to compensate for its failure to develop. There was no sense of coherent architecture across its 50-minute span. The tape element was crudely interpolated (Stockhausen achieved subtler effects 40 years ago). And the sheer pretension of the piece was laughable.

Mr Bachmann has plans for Uluru. As an infinitely adaptable, perpetual work-in-progress, it will be enlarged into a "fractal opera". It has already been recorded, privately. It's on the Internet. And Bachmann is talking about performances at the South Bank Centre with the LPO or RPO. No doubt he has the money to make these things happen. No doubt he sees Uluru as a cult-score for the new millennium. In truth, it's just an Emperor in not so new clothes.

'Manon Lescaut' continues on Wed & Sat, and 'Owen Wingrave' on Tues & Sun, at Glyndebourne, E Sussex (01273 813813).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    IT Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London