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Singers: Glyndebourne and Edinburgh

The voice – the most beautiful instrument of all – heard to perfection in a delightful opera house in the country and at the Edinburgh Festival. An incredible catalogue of artists singing Rossini, Mozart and Strauss.

I have left until last the most wonderful instrument of all, the most beautiful, expressive and thrilling – the human voice. Every instrumentalist, whether playing the tuba or piccolo, the violin or the bassoon, the piano or bass drum, attempts to emulate the singing quality and ability to express the whole range of emotions with the subtlety of nuance that great singers can achieve.

There is nothing more musically enjoyable than taking part in performances in the company of singers who have beautiful voices and are fine artists, whether it is in the opera house, when recording, broadcasting, making films or in the concert hall. And nowhere was it more enjoyable than at Glyndebourne. To begin with, to make music in such a beautiful setting is something very special. I was extremely fortunate to play for the Glyndebourne opera seasons at Glyndebourne itself and when the company took part in the Edinburgh Festival each year from 1948 until 1954 whilst I was in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

There have been a number of attempts to emulate the example set by Glyndebourne, but none have been able to match the unique near perfection that was achieved there in the first years after the end of WW2.

In 1920 John Christie inherited Glyndebourne, a fine country house with beautiful gardens and several long ponds surrounded with weeping willows. The house and gardens are part of a large estate in the midst of the woods and downs of one of the loveliest parts of East Sussex. When Christie inherited the estate he was already forty and a science master at Eton, where he been for many years and where he himself had been a schoolboy. Some years later he married Audrey Mildmay, a young singer who at that time was in the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Inspired by her and his own love of music he decided to build a small opera house onto the side of the house.

It was here, in this delightful miniature opera house, later enlarged and now replaced by a splendid new Theatre, but then still seating only about 300, that I spent many very happy hours playing Mozart, Rossini and Verdi operas and hearing them sung by a wonderful cast of singers. The orchestra at that time was, in my opinion, playing as well as it ever has. All of us in the RPO felt that we were there because Beecham wanted us to be. We were full of enthusiasm and doing Glyndebourne was so enjoyable, even though nearly all the members of the orchestra had to travel back and forth from London each day so that sometimes there was a fair amount of moaning, especially as the seasons became longer. At that time I had two small children and I took advantage of the opportunity for the family to be in the country for several weeks.

Audrey and John Christie created a wonderful atmosphere at Glyndebourne. When we had the interval during rehearsals the principal singers, chorus and orchestra would have coffee outside under the covered way adjoining the opera house. There was a quality of friendliness and the feeling that one was at a country house party, making music for the sheer pleasure of doing so. It was quite unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else.

One year I had a caravan in the field about 100 yards from the stage door. It was under a great oak tree and we were awakened every morning by sheep bumping against the side of the van. Unfortunately the tree is no longer there, having had to make way for the ever expanding car park. The administrators of the Estate Trust told me that it would be impossible for me to have a caravan anywhere on the estate as it was strictly forbidden. I thought it might be worthwhile asking Mr Christie himself. Though in books about Glyndebourne he is portrayed as being rather difficult at times, I found him very pleasant. When I told him that the estate office had refused permission he said, ‘Go ahead and bring your caravan. We won’t tell anyone – it will be quite all right.’

In 1948 and 1949, for various reasons, the main one being insufficient money, it was not possible to have a season at Glyndebourne before appearing at the Edinburgh Festival. Many of us used to drive up to Edinburgh for the three weeks of the Festival. Unlike today, when the journey by road from London to Edinburgh takes about 5 hours, throughout the years I drove up it was dangerous to attempt to do it in one day. We always stopped the night at Boroughbridge and arrived in Edinburgh the following day at lunchtime.

In both the 1948 and ‘49 seasons and for all the years I was at Glyndebourne we did Così fan tutte by Mozart. From start to finish the music Mozart composed for this opera is sublime. Arias, duets, trios and ensemble follow each other, each a miracle whether expressing tenderness, subterfuge, deceit or humour. The cast was always outstanding and never better than in those first years. After several rehearsals for the orchestra alone the singers would join us, sitting in a semi-circle round the orchestra. This was always a delight because as each soloist stood up to sing their first aria one was astonished that it was possible that this one could be as good as the last.

The only performances of Così, from 1948 until 1954, in which Sena Jurinac did not take part were in 1948. Another very fine singer Suzanne Danco sang the part of Fiordiligi and Dorabella was sung by Eugenia Zareska, who a couple of years previously, when I was still in the LPO, had sung The Songs of a Wayfarer by Mahler so well when we recorded it with Eduard van Beinum. She was a fine artist. Their lovers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, were played by Petre Munteanu and Erich Kunz. Mariano Stabile played the old schemer Don Alfonso and his accomplice, the maid Despina, was Hilda Gueden. As well as being such fine singers, Stabile, Kunz and Gueden were able to bring out the sly humour that in no way distracted from the music. In Carl Ebert’s magical production, conducted by Vittorio Gui and with this superb cast, it was without doubt very, very special. It remains for me the touchstone by which every opera production is judged.

What made it so delightful was the combination of beautiful music superbly sung and played and the humour and pathos enacted on stage. Mozart’s insight into the human condition, conveyed so subtly in his music, was not distorted by over emphasis of the director’s point of view, as so often is the case now. This was at the time when the balance of power between the music and the production was roughly 60% to 40%. Carl Ebert was one of the finest producers (he would now be called a director) of his day and regarded as something of a tyrant by those who worked with him. It was not at all unusual for him to scrap all the scenery that had been specially built for a scene, half way through rehearsals. But he always recognised that the music came first, even though sometimes with conspicuous ill humour. It is so easy for the words to be flagrantly in opposition to the action the characters on stage are forced to impersonate by a wilful director and thereby distort the mores of the period that the librettist and composer lived in and which are an integral part of their conception.

That year we also did Don Giovanni with Rafael Kubelik conducting. As well as being a charming man Kubelik was certainly in the class of the ‘Great and the Good’. In fact he was very good indeed. Again there was a very fine cast: Ljuba Welitsch was an impressive and dramatic Donna Anna and Richard Lewis played Don Ottavio. Lewis, a most sensitive artist with a lovely voice, was to be one of the mainstays of the Glyndebourne company for some years. The part of Zerlina was shared by Ann Ayars and Hilda Gueden. Both were good, but Gueden, who was so attractive and had such a happy knack of bringing gaiety and a sense of fun to her performances, brought an extra something special to the role. Many years later I was in an orchestra when she recorded a number of arias. Now a much more mature artist, she had retained those qualities. Paolo Silveri was the suitably macho seducing Don Giovanni and David Franklin an imposing Commendatore. Franklin probably had the longest career at Glyndebourne of anyone, appearing in numerous roles from 1936 until 1959.

At the 1949 Edinburgh Festival, we did Così again and Un Ballo In Maschera (A Masked Ball) by Verdi, with Gui conducting both operas. For Così Sena Jurinac joined the company and sang the mezzo soprano role, Dorabella. As in the 1948 production Suzanne Danco was a very fine Fiordiligi. From the start Jurinac won the hearts of the all-male RPO. A wonderful artist with a personality to match, she was naturally friendly and charming and totally without any affectation. This time Marko Rothmuller was our Guglielmo; very good, but without Erich Kunz’s infectious sense of fun. The Australian John Brownlee, who had played Don Giovanni with such success in 1936, was Don Alfonso

Un Ballo In Maschera by Verdi was the first of two Verdi operas Gui conducted during my time in the orchestra. Here again there was a splendid cast with Paolo Silveri as Riccardo and Margherita Grandi and Ljuba Welitsch alternating as Amelia. Oscar was played by Alda Noni who was to be another artist to appear regularly in the Glyndebourne company. In 1952 Gui conducted Macbeth. Marko Rothmuller played Macbeth and Dorothy Dow was an excellent Lady Macbeth.

Vittorio Gui was an extremely good opera conductor who knew the operas in that special way that Italian opera conductors all seemed to have, whether they were very good or only mediocre. One felt they knew the operas in their sleep and if woken suddenly would give the right beat and the next entry to the singer on stage without hesitation. Gui never looked very happy and often conducted while holding one hand against his face as if he was in despair, which he clearly was not as he conducted Rossini’s opera buffa with such a light but disciplined hand. In this he was like all the best conductors of ‘light music’ I have worked with. They seemed to lack humour and were strict disciplinarians. On one occasion, I think it was when we were rehearsing Un Ballo In Maschera, Silveri took what Gui considered to be a liberty with the music, perhaps extending the length of a note for longer than the composer intended. When Silveri attempted to defend himself Gui would have none of it and dismissed him from the stage as if he was just a student rather than a baritone with an international reputation.

For the 1950 and 1951 seasons Fritz Busch returned to Glyndebourne where in 1934 he had conducted the first season of opera to be staged there. It was for two weeks, during which he conducted and Carl Ebert, whom he had recommended should be engaged as producer, were responsible for the performances of Così fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro that were greeted with such enthusiasm by both the audiences and critics. Each year until 1939 when the war started, short seasons of opera were mounted at Glyndebourne

In 1950 Busch conducted Così and Die Entführung ausi dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) at Glyndebourne and in 1951 four Mozart operas, Idomeneo, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne and Verdi’s The Force of Destiny and Don Giovanni in Edinburgh. I think there was some disappointment when he returned that his performances did not quite match the reputation that had preceded him. Only a couple of weeks after that season ended in September 1951 Busch died at the early age of 61.

Sena Jurinac was wonderful when she sang the role of Fiordiligi for the first time in 1950 and continued to enchant us each year. The role of Dorabella, which she sang the previous year, was taken by another very fine artist Blanche Thebom, who was one of the leading dramatic mezzos at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for many years. Richard Lewis was excellent as Ferrando and the Welsh baritone Geraint Evans made the first of many subsequent appearances, sharing the role of Guglielmo with Erich Kunz. He was then still only 28 and quite inexperienced. He did not yet have the well-honed skill Kunz had acquired, but he brought a freshness and warm humour that immediately endeared him to the audience and the orchestra.

From the beginning in 1934, with John Christie’s enthusiastic support, Busch and Ebert had demanded a good many more rehearsals than were normal elsewhere in order to attain the standard of ensemble and staging they wished to achieve. Indeed this did have the desired effect, but for the clarinet section in particular this could sometimes be burdensome. In 1951 in particular when we did four Mozart operas – could one ask for anything better? – rehearsals at times became difficult. There is nothing more wearing for a performer – actor, dancer or musician –than sitting (or standing) around doing nothing at the same time as trying to remain alert for the next time he or she is called upon to do something.

The clarinet, the ‘nouveau riche of the orchestra’ as the superb oboist Terence MacDonagh always called us, was still a relative newcomer to the orchestra’s woodwind section at the time Mozart was writing his operas. Though no one has written more beautifully or with greater understanding of the clarinet’s potential than Mozart, he did not use it all the time. There are a number of places in the operas when the clarinets have nothing to play at all for 15 or 20 minutes. When these sections are being rehearsed one can be inactive for half an hour or more. When Gluck wrote Alceste in 1767, more than 20 years before Così fan tutte, the clarinet was still in its infancy and in that opera he uses it very sparingly, mainly to play in unison with the brass. In one act there is nothing for the clarinets to play for about 20 minutes, then four bars of long notes, quite inaudible to anyone bar the players themselves, and then another 20 minutes in which they are not required. In 1953 it was decided to mount this opera at Glyndebourne. Jack Brymer and I felt that our presence would not be missed for those four bars so we marked them TACET (remain silent) Maestro Gui appeared to be quite happy and so were we as we sat outside at both the rehearsals and the performances having a quiet smoke (we still smoked in those far off days and survived to tell the tale). The following year Alceste was to be performed again. Nothing had been said but when we looked at our parts we saw that TACET had been removed and in its place in large red letters was written PLEASE PLAY.

When we went to Edinburgh in 1950 we were in for a very special treat. As well as doing The Marriage of Figaro with the very fine conductor Ferenc Fricsay, we were joined by Sir Thomas Beecham. It was quite usual with Beecham, if he was not included in some event like the Edinburgh Festival or when a new hall such as the Royal Festival Hall was opened, to condemn and abuse it. He had been noticeably absent from the Festivals in 1947, ‘48 and ‘49 and had not been silent in letting the world know that he did not think much of what had taken place in those years. This led, as it usually did, to him taking the lion’s share soon after. Edinburgh rewarded him for his forthrightness by allowing him to direct the original version of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos as well as conduct concerts in the Usher hall with his own orchestra on two of the three Sundays during the Festival.

Originally the one act opera Ariadne is preceded by a prologue, a shortened version of Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for which Strauss wrote the delightful incidental music, now most often heard as an orchestral suite. A few years later Strauss was obliged to compose a new first act to replace the acted prologue because of the problems involved in engaging a cast of actors as well as singers. It is this second version that it usually performed. Beecham had decided to do it in the original, and very expensive version (especially as the Festival organisers would be paying), that requires 21 actors for the prologue and ten singers for the opera itself.

The casts for the prologue and the opera were both excellent. The actors were led by Miles Malleson, a wonderfully droll actor, as Monsieur Jourdain. In Ariadne there are two quite different sets of characters: Ariadne and Bacchus are dramatic and very serious and the commedia dell’arte characters, Harlequin, Brighella, Truffaldo and Scaramuccio, are led by Zerbinetta. Ariadne and her lover Bacchus were sung by Hilde Zadek and Peter Anders and the extraordinarily difficult coloratura part Strauss wrote for Zerbinetta by Ilse Hollweg.

In 1953 and ‘54 we did Ariadne again, but this time in Strauss’s all sung version, and conducted by John Pritchard. Though Pritchard was so talented and was conducting at his very best, he did not have that inimitable something that Beecham brought to everything he conducted. Some of the parts originally spoken are sung in the later version and in particular the role of the Composer is enlarged and considerably altered. However, it was now a part in which Sena Jurinac could excel. It is a ‘trouser’ role, a part written to be played by a woman impersonating a young man. The part of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro is a similar role and another that Jurinac did so well. The part of Zerbinetta was now taken by an astonishing black soprano, Mattiwilda Dobbs. Her remarkable vocal virtuosity was matched by her sparkling quicksilver vivacity as an actress.

In the spoken prologue, when the Composer complains that some of his music will be lost because of the absurd arrangement Monsieur Jourdain has made that his opera and the commedia dell’arte ballet are to be performed at the same time, he is told ‘some of the best operas are known by their cuts’. The four Mozart operas that Busch conducted in 1951 are ‘some of the best operas’ from which I would not wish any cuts to be made, especially when sung by casts that included Lisa Della Casa, Owen Brannigan, Murray Dickie, Sesto Bruscantini, Richard Lewis, Suzanne Danco, Leopold Simoneau, Alois Pernerstorfer and with the smaller roles performed extremely well by less well-known artists.

An especial delight from 1952 onwards was the inclusion of operas by Rossini in productions with marvellous singing and deft comic acting. As every actor will tell you it is much harder to play comedy than tragedy. When it has to be sung perhaps it is even harder. Under Ebert’s and Gui’s strict control there was never a moment when the comedy was overplayed or the music became coarsened.

The three I was privileged to take part in were La Cenerentola, in 1952 at Glyndebourne and in 1953 at Glyndebourne and Edinburgh, The Barber of Serville at Glyndebourne and Le Comte Ory in Edinburgh. The cast for Cenerentola was the same for all three performances. Marina De Gabarain, who sang the role of Cenerentola, was not really the coloratura mezzo-soprano the part requires, but she was more than adequate and had the sweet-natured simplicity and musicality that made her successful. Juan Oncina was her dulcet-voiced Don Ramiro. The ugly sisters were amusingly horrid but very well sung by Alda Noni and Fernanda Cadoni. But the best of all were the roles taken by Sesto Bruscantini as Dandini and our own Ian Wallace as Don Magnifico. They were truly ridiculously hilarious, never going ‘over the top’, and always remaining vocally secure and musically appropriate.

In 1954 there was The Barber of Seville at Glyndebourne and Le Comte Ory at Edinburgh. Some of those who had been in Cenerentola were also in these operas. They were joined in Barber by Graziella Sciutti as a splendid Rosina and in Comte Ory by Sari Barabas who as well as singing beautifully looked so attractive that she stole the heart of our then principal cello. Sadly his affection remained unrequited.

In 1954 it was decided to perform Ferruuccio Busoni’s little known one act opera Arlecchino before the performance of Ariadne. John Pritchard conducted and Ian Wallace, Geraint Evans and Murray Dickie played the principal roles. The opera did not make a great impression and as far as I know it has not been done again at Glyndebourne.

Finally, a very different opera from those I have written about so far. In 1953 Glyndebourne gave the first performances in Britain of The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. The conductor was Alfred Wallenstein who was soon christened Mr Idris by the orchestra because his habitual expression was similar to a lemon with a very sour face featured in an advertisement for a fruit drink of that name. This was another of Ebert’s splendid productions, with a cast to match. The American Jerome Hines was outstanding as a saturnine Nick Shadow with Elsie Morison, Richard Lewis, Nan Merriman, Mary Jarred and Murray Dickie all excellent. The whole performance was a joy and with the witty set and costumes designed by Osbert Lancaster as well this was one of the highlights of my years at Glyndebourne.

Chapter 19


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