Glyndebourne's chorus of approval

As the new season opens, Michael Church finds the doors are opening wider
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The Independent Online
For those abjuring helicopter and Mercs, the Glyndebourne experience starts at Victoria, where dinner-jackets mingle with beggars like glossy black crows among scavenging pigeons. The crows swarm on to their train to devour their Sunday papers; many are reading an article entitled "Soap Opera", which recounts backstage events at another house of culture which is prominently in the news.

The train makes an unscheduled stop for engineering works, but the crows are unperturbed - the guard has been obsequiously assuring them every five minutes that their special bus has been re-routed, and they won't miss their show.

Today is the first day of the new season. A watery sun, a gentle breeze, cows and sheep grazing in the distance - and the stately social saraband starts again.

The best picnic spots by the ha-ha have been claimed with wicker hampers by the early birds; neat sit-up-and-beg dinners for four are being laid under trees. Couples stroll by the lily ponds.

Some groups seem to be posing for Quality Street commercials, others in straw boaters and long dresses are playing Chekhov. They are not so much smart as moneyed-provincial; the pace is wonderfully sedate. The first corks pop. The outlook is fair.

But rich-philistine gibes are better aimed elsewhere. On Saturday night, at Covent Garden, I was stuck behind a bunch of boneheads who were audibly mocking events on stage, and who would clearly have been happier in Raymond's Revue Bar.

Their boss had presumably doled out the tickets; this is the unacceptable face of sponsorship, and you don't meet it at Glyndebourne, where the connoisseur-count is high. Of course, there's still a strong whiff of exclusivity. If you're a chap, you wear a DJ, or a white tux (or - my dear! - a gold silk one). If you're a smart designer, you wear a Chairman Mao jacket and forget the bowtie. I spy just one gent in a Harris tweed suit, looking like the star of one of Bateman's "The man who" cartoons.

But there's not doubt about it, Glyndebourne is opening its doors steadily wider. Ninety per cent of this season's tickets may already have been sold to patrons and `friends,' but the rest are up for grabs, and include standing-room places for pounds 10. And new audiences are being built.

A couple of months ago the place was overrun by kids from local schools who had come to watch their mates perform a streetwise work by a writer from The Bill. Backstage, meanwhile, a different kind of access obtains: the chorus and understudies are music students, awaiting their big break. This place in fact has every reason to congratulate itself: its entire history is a triumph. Its first building went up in 1934 without a penny of public money; its second, three years ago, did likewise. It's the one commercial success in a field littered with failures: last year it actually made a profit.

When the curtain rises on the first act on Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Richard Hudson's crisp, clean, honey-coloured set stands revealed, that triumphal sense is reinforced. Apart from an unfortunate temporary loss of linkage between the chorus and John Eliot Gardiner's band in the pit, the thing bowls bravely along, and the lovers are hit the requisite coup de foudre.

Are the punters happy? Very much so, is the general verdict in the first interval. Any regrets for the Glyndebourne of old? Not really; some miss the old auditorium's intimacy, and some shyly admit that they're not over the moon about the house's widening social catchment. One patrician American is at first too deaf to hear my question - "Put your ears in, dear!" snaps his wife - but after a pause he delivers an oracular judgment: "This is still a great place, but what it's lost is its uniquity."