11 JULY 1992, Page 35



Farewell, Glyndebourne

Rupert Christiansen

Death in Venice (Glyndebourne)

II Viaggio a Reims (Covent Garden) Tthe dire peril of the roadside wild life of West Sussex, I drove back from Glyndebourne last week in a blubbery and tremulous state. My final visit to the dear place, which for nearly 60 years has tri- umphantly ministered to the gaiety of the moneyed classes and the deeper satisfac- tion of the true opera-lover, had been a splendid one.

At no strain on the public purse, Glynde- bourne has consistently produced work of a higher standard than any other opera house or festival I know of. Its wise patron- age of the young and new, its distaste for the more ephemeral and extortionate of contemporary operatic trends, its insistence on meticulous rehearsal, the capacity of its caterers to charge more for a glass of Pimm's than Claridge's — in all this, Glyn- debourne stands supreme. Recently I have noticed eyes rolling heavenwards when I embark on this liturgy — which I do fre- quently, with missionary emphasis — but now is the time to identify the elements which have made the institution more than an expensive divertissement. The new house, due to open in May 1994, is a thrilling prospect. I only hope it won't mean an artistic policy which floats towards the mainstream, diluting its unique identity and pulling up its roots in the culture of squirearchy. Anyway, the management seems to know what it's doing. And thanks for some great times. Vale atque ave.

The closing production, a revival of Stephen Lawless's staging of Britten's Death in Venice, exemplified Glynde- bourne's present virtues. Musically, it was all but impeccable, with superlative playing by the LPO under Graeme Jenkins and the opera's extraordinary parade of tiny cameo roles vividly filled by Alan Opie and that peerless fount of young talent, the Glynde- bourne Chorus. I missed the much-praised Covent Garden version last March, so I'm unable to make the appropriate compari- son with Philip Langridge, but I find it hard to imagine the role of Aschenbach more lucidly or intelligently sung than it was by Robert Tear. My companion thought that he presented the character in too bleak and joyless a manner — there was no feeling of Aschenbach finding his passion for Tadzio in some sense an exhilarating release — but I felt this only embodied the atmo- sphere of the production, nightmarish in its sharpness of focus, clipped in its choreog- raphy, stripped of kitsch illustrativeness by its designer Tobias Hoheisel and built instead on dazzling contrasts of light and 'You seem to have a spot of trouble in the old waterworks, Mr Elswick.' darkness. The grace notes may be lost, but the thrust of this masterpiece of modern opera is intensely concentrated. Here was a performance with the unity of style and richness of ensemble that are the hallmarks of Glyndebourne at its best. My only quib- ble is that, yet again, Tadzio was miscast: is it impossible to dig up a willowy youth of 'about 14', as specified by Mann's text? This one looked ready to audition for the Chippendales, totally lacking in the danger- ous androgynous allure of pubescence.

At Covent Garden, Rossini's 11 Viaggio a Reims turns out to a real stinker, and only with the utmost difficulty did I persuade myself to stay its dismal three-and-three- quarter-hour course. I shall make myself unpopular by insisting that a good deal of the blame for this fiasco lies with the com- poser. There are about 30 minutes of pure gold in the score (written as a piece d'occa- sion and not revived until 1984) and at least 60 minutes of dross, standard-issue produce of Rossini plc, Comic Opera Divi- sion.

Only ruthless cutting could have turned the opera into entertainment fit for an intelligent person, but for some reason the conductor, Carlo Rizzi — a splendid Rossi- ni stylist, I admit — seems to have insisted on the inclusion of every last repeat of every dud number. The excruciating bore- dom this generated was intensified by John Cox's production which ran relentlessly in farcical overdrive, to swiftly diminishing effect. What little plot there is — some international travellers are trapped in an inn on their way to the coronation of Charles X in Paris — was drowned in a miasma of pathetically unfunny gags, mug- ging, flag-waving, ad-libbing and on-stage hilarity (always a bad sign), much of it cravenly geared to the 'celebration' of our presidency of the EEC. The strain of sly sophistication in the piece entirely failed to register.

I couldn't make any sense of the casting. Nice enough work from Sylvie McNair, Alastair Miles, Bonaventura Bottone and Peter Coleman-Wright jostled with the dis- appointing showings of Della Jones, Renee Fleming and Gregory Yuritsch and the unspeakable vulgarity purveyed by Mont- serrat Caballe as the Hostess of the Inn. In sum, an evening I hope to forget — but one which worryingly brings into question the Royal Opera's claim to coherent artis- tic direction.

Before I vanish for the summer, I would just like to record my feeling that Robert Saxton's Caritas ( which surfaced briefly at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in its Opera North production) heralds a promising opera composer with a keen sense of the theatrically effective; and that Pimlico Opera's touring production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw is strongly played and sung but staged with a total lack of imagi- nation. It depresses me that so many young producers seem to dry up without a big design budget to buttress them.