For those of who can't get to Glyndebourne, Christopher Morley reviews a new series of CDs of some of their finest performances plus other nuggets to covet in the home.
Summer is the time for country-house opera. More and more enterprises are popping up all over the place with varying degrees of credibility, and here in the Midlands we have the huge success story which is Longborough, high in the Cotswolds, and with a forthcoming Ring cycle next year which will match Bayreuth’s, but without the politics and red-carpeting socialites.
But the daddy of them all has to remain Glyndebourne, deep in the Sussex Downs, and for those of us who can’t get there a new series of CDs of some of their finest performances brings the mountain to Mahomet.
Any disappointment that these presentations are not in fact DVDs is tempered by the magnificence of the packaging, mini-books containing complete libretto with translation, lovely production photographs, sketches of costume designs (Osbert Lancaster’s Falstaff drawing is a treasure) and absorbing background articles. What lets the whole effort down is the use of tacky little greengrocer-style polythene bags to hold the precious discs themselves.
The ‘Falstaff’ is a 1960 revival of the original 1955 production by Carl Ebert. Carlo Maria Giulini was the conductor then, but here the conductor is the legendary Vittorio Gui, his tempi fleet, waspish, and totally in keeping with the gossipy doings of these Merry Wives of Windsor. The life, sparkle and fizzing vitality of the proceedings is abetted by the atmospheric response of the Glyndebourne audience, who must have left their mythical stuffed dress-shirts in the picnic gardens.
Many members of that cast from so long ago are now largely forgotten, but Sesto Bruscantini as Ford and Mariella Adani as a slightly muted Nannetta are names which remain in the memory – as should be that of Oralia Dominguez, the mezzo from Mexico (the reproduction of the 1960 cast-list quirkily tells us the performers’ nationalities), whose Mistress Quickly impersonating Sir John Falstaff is the most rib-tickling I have ever heard.
I also like these “Johnny Foreigners’” pronunciation of the many English words which crop up in Boito’s intelligent libretto. We hear the idiomatic “Windser” instead of the heavily enunciated “Wind-SOR”. And Alice Ford’s addressing of “Sir John” sounds entirely natural, and obviously well-coached..
And Falstaff himself? None other than the much-loved Geraint Evans, ebullient, stroppy, self-pitying and totally irresistible. This was a part made for him (as it was for Bryn Terfel half-a-century later, and twice Sir Geraint’s size).
From the same period of musical history comes Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, one of the repertoire’s most enchanting operas (though that enchantment comes with the price of some Brothers Grimm scariness), and coming to us here in a recording of the 2010 production conducted by Robin Ticciati.
Ticciati is a conductor who underwhelmed me the last time I heard him, rather lukewarm in a concert with the CBSO; but that was very soon after the announcement of Andris Nelsons’ appointment to the orchestra, so perhaps the circumstances were somewhat unusual. Since then Ticciati has achieved great things, particularly in Scotland and at Glyndebourne, and this Hansel and Gretel is undoubtedly a fine achievement.
He persuades the London Philharmonic Orchestra both to nobility and joyousness, and quite properly underlines the Wagnerian sources of Humperdinck’s inspiration (Irmgard Vilsmaier’s portrayal of the Mother is directly in line of descent from the Ring’s Erda and Fricka).
Of the rest of the cast, Alice Coote stands out as a convincingly impetuous Hansel, and William Dazeley is the warm-hearted Father, lacking in feck (whatever that is – don’t ask Father Jack on Craggy Island) but brimming with charm.
Much earlier in the history of music comes Handel’s Theodora, actually one of his last oratorios (by its 1750 date he had long given up composing operas), and here given an immensely stylish staging in this 1996 production under the probing baton of William Christie conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
The stellar cast is headed by Dawn Upshaw, no less, as Theodora, and the much-missed Lorraine Lieberson Hunt as Irene. This three-CD set brings absorbing listening, and perhaps the absence of visuals is not such an issue here. But I do wish this project could be revisited, and turn into DVD releases.
But I can turn to an actual DVD well worth viewing, a 2011 showing at the Aix-en-Provence Festival of Verdi’s La Traviata. An open-air production of one of the repertoire’s most intimate chamber operas? Well, it certainly works on this well-engineered Virgin DVD, and by the footage of the audience response (and the principals’ use of the auditorium space) it certainly seemed to work on the night as well.
This is a sensitive, perceptive and questing presentation under the direction of Jean-Francois Sivadier, and the London Symphony Orchestra is on blistering form under Louis Langree. At least the orchestra is world-class; so often in these summer festivals the chorus does not come off the top shelf, and nor does it do so here, though the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir here is perfectly adequate in what little Verdi requires them to do.
For attention is fully on the doomed courtesan Violetta, and what a wonderful surprise the baroque and classical specialist Natalie Dessay is in the role. I’m not sure whether the production is designed to be flashback or alienatingly Brechtian, but it certainly works, and Dessay, vulnerable, manipulated, witty, and above all lonely, plays poignantly to the camera – and that’s before we start with her scintillating singing, the voice transforming itself brilliantly throughout these three heartbreaking acts.
* Glyndebourne’s Falstaff on GFOCD 012-60 Hansel und Gretel on GFOCD 015-10 Theodora on GFOCD 014-96 Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ on 730798 9