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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Mozart from Glyndebourne
75th anniversary issue - three operas and a documentary bonus: The House That George Built
For details see body of review
rec. 1983-95
NVC ARTS 5186534022
[4 DVDs 188:00+176.00+181:00+50:00]

Experience Classicsonline

John Christie inaugurated the first Glyndebourne Opera Festival seventy-five years ago, in May 1934. He owned a fine Tudor and mock Jacobean pile in the lovely Sussex countryside. Something of an opera aficionado, and not without a secure financial inheritance to go with his opulent home, he courted and married Audrey Mildmay, a beautiful Canadian soprano. They honeymooned in Salzburg and Bayreuth. The idea of establishing an English Bayreuth grew in his mind, and involved featuring his lovely young wife. Strangely, given his liking for Bayreuth, the rise of Hitler, a regular visitor at the Wagner shrine, and his anti-Semitic ideologies enabled Christie to sign up three significant refugees from Germany. They were to provide the creative backbone and expertise to bring his dream to fruition. The three were the conductor, Fritz Busch, the director, Carl Ebert and the impresario and administrator Rudolf Bing. This trio combined to launch Christie’s dream with an acclaimed production of Mozart’s Figaro on 26 May 1934 and featured Audrey Mildmay as Susanna.

John Christie’s son, George, took over the running of the Festival in 1962 and as its popularity grew he was aware of the limitations of size, about eight hundred and thirty seats being the maximum. Early in 1991 he had decided on a rebuild and enlargement using traditional materials to ensure the building fitted in with the surroundings. On a similar basis wood was to be used in the new auditorium for its acoustic properties. Given that no new opera house had been built in England since the original Glyndebourne in 1934 it was a formidable undertaking. The fourth disc in this collection is a fifty-minute documentary telling the interesting story of the realisation of the £34 million project. The new Opera House opened on budget on 26 May 1994, the sixtieth anniversary of the original opening. As on that occasion the new house opened its doors to a performance of Mozart’s Figaro. Bernard Haitink, the then musical director of the Glyndebourne Festival, conducted it. Many of the productions and casts from the Glyndebourne Festival have made it onto recordings, both audio and video, and this fine opening performance in the new house is the first of the three Mozart operas featured in this Glyndebourne collection.
The Marriage of Figaro - Opera buffa in Four Acts K492 (1786)
Figaro - Gerald Finley bass); Susana - Alison Hagley (soprano). Count Almaviva - Andreas Schmidt (baritone). Countess Almaviva - Renée Fleming (soprano). Cherubino - Marie-Ange Todorovitch (mezzo); Marcellina - Wendy Hillhouse (soprano); Don Basilo - Robert Tear (tenor); Don Bartolo - Manfred Rohrl (bass); Barbarina – Susan Gritton (soprano)
The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Director: Stephen Medcalf; Designer: John Gunter
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround B
Subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Japanese
rec. May 1994. [188:00] 

The performance is ideal musically with Haitink having a seemingly innate feel for Mozart’s rhythms and turn of phrase. The principals are uniformly good with Gerald Finley’s lithe figured but well covered and coloured vocal tone being particularly notable in his arias whilst his acting is outstanding (CH.7). Andreas Schmidt is a chubby-cheeked and appropriately humourless and haughty Count (CH.43). Alison Hagley’s well portrayed and pert Susanna is well up to the many acting demands with facial surprises to match her vocal clarity; her Deh ieni, non tardar is a delight (CH.64). As the Countess, Renée Fleming of 1995 is not the svelte figure that introduces so many performances for New York’s Met on broadcasts worldwide and on DVD. Nonetheless her pure lyric soprano, caressing the phrases in Porgi amor (CH.22) and Dove sono (CH.46) has not been bettered since that of Kiri Te Kanawa twenty years or so before. Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Cherubino is a convincing young male. Of the lesser parts Robert Tear’s slimy Basilio is in a class of its own as is Donald Adams as Antonio the gardener who keeps stirring the plot.

The staging and costumes are traditional although the country girls look rather strange in black as they come to present flowers in the dance (CH.55). The stage direction by Stephen Medcalf is well realised although too many close-ups were distracting. The sound is a little flat and certainly later recorded performances from the new house have greater presence. There is generous applause at the end of many arias.

In summary, this Figaro is a typical Glyndebourne traditional production with a good all-round singing cast and an excellent orchestral contribution under the direction of a fine Mozartean.

DVD 2 Don Giovanni - Dramma giocoso in two acts K527 (1787)
Don Giovanni - Gilles Cachemaille (baritone); Leporello - Stephen Page (bass); Don Ottavio - John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Masetto - Roberto Scaltriti (baritone); Anna - Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano); Elvira - Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano); Zerlina - Juliane Banse (soprano); Commendatore - Gudjon Oskarsson (bass)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Yakov Kreizberg
Director: Deborah Warner; Set designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume design: Hildegard Bechtler and Nicky Gillibrand
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround B.
Subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese
rec. August 1995 [176:00]

If I have luxuriated in the opening 1994 production of Figaro in this trio of Glyndebourne Festival productions of Mozart’s operas, the reverse was very much the case with the Don Giovanni performed a year later. In 1990 Sir Peter Hall resigned as Artistic Director of Glyndebourne. Various avant-garde bloods had been imported and had introduced updated sets and costumes, many of which he felt were inimical to the house style as well as to the music being performed. Filmed in the year following the opening, this production sets Don Giovanni in twentieth century dress. The set is very basic and comprises a front sub-stage on the main stage. Suspended by hawsers at each corner this tilts and lifts to represent different scenes. There is often little else except the words to indicate what or where these scenes are being played out. There are attempts at lighting effects but these hardly illuminate the goings-on, even if they brighten the stage! 

The singing is variable with the men being the better of an undistinguished cast. Stephen Page’s scruffy suit and thick-toned singing as Leporello detracts from the role whilst his Catalogue Aria (CH.8) goes for little. Gilles Cachemaille as Don Giovanni appears first in a balaclava and has a half struggle with Anna’s father before stabbing him. Whilst his lighter-toned baritone contrasts with that of Leporello, it makes their exchange of clothes as one impersonates the other less than convincing. There is no window for the serenade (CH.36) when Don Giovanni simply looks scruffy with designer stubble and vest - maybe some women like a bit of rough. Or, perhaps this is intended to be like Leporello who puts on a silly white wig as Masetto arrives seeking revenge for Don Giovanni’s treatment of Zerlina. Roberto Scaltriti’s singing and acting as Masetto is one of the more convincing performances, whilst John Mark Ainsley struggles as Ottavio. Perhaps, like me, he was unsure of what he was supposed to be doing as he sings Il mio Tesoro (CH. 47). 

Certainly there is no doubt about the visit to the graveyard (CH.50). The statue of the Commendatore walks about whilst Don Giovanni wraps himself in a shroud to invite him to supper. He then steals a statuette of the Madonna, and leaves. The hawsers lift the inner stage, which becomes Don Giovanni’s supper table with the statue of the Madonna his companion (CH.53) and the shroud the tablecloth. As he tries to deny Leporello food so he tries to force it into the statue’s mouth. Likewise wine, which pours all down the Madonna’s body. Don Giovanni then throws the statue to the floor, and mounts it! Yes, Don Giovanni is a sexual libertine, but the only word for this display and portrayal is sick. I was thankful the statuette was not a Madonna and Child, which might have tempted this producer into more profanity. Those with religious convictions might find this scene more disturbing than I did!

Hillevi Martinpelto as Donna Anna is sometimes rather unwieldy, while Adrianne Pieczonka as Elvira a little too shrill. The tall Juliane Banse as Zerlina does her best to invest some feeling into the proceedings, in voice and face, as she pleads forgiveness from Masetto (CH. 26). The ultimate updated silliness comes as the participants at Don Giovanni’s party dance the twist to Mozart’s sublime music (CH.31).

The lean tones of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Yakov Kreizberg lack the tonal weight for the last scene as Don Giovanni takes the hand of the strongly sung, if rather monochrome, Commendatore of Gudjon Oskarsson. I have seen this scene, which can be a veritable coup de théâtre, presented far better in semi-professional productions.

The Glyndebourne Festival receives no grant from the Arts Council. It is wholly dependent on its corporate sponsors and putting bums on seats. Despite the high cost of the tickets, Sold out is the order of the day for all but the most obscure work. For me, this staging and performance of Don Giovanni is among the least enjoyable of the many I have seen live or on DVD over many years and I have seen some rather bizarre stagings in my time. However, I must also note that the top dollar paying audience were more appreciative at the end than I was.

Idomeneo Re di Creta - Opera seria in three acts K366 (1781)
Ilia - Yvonne Kenny (soprano); Idamante - Jerry Hadley (tenor); Electra - Carol Vaness (soprano); Arbace - Thomas Helmsley (baritone); Idomeneo - Philip Langridge (tenor); High Priest - Anthony Roden (baritone); Voice of Neptune - Roderick Kennedy (bass)
Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Director: Trevor Nunn; Designer: John Napier
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles in English, German, Spanish and Japanese
rec. August 1983. [181:00] 

I watched this collection of Glyndebourne Festival productions of Mozart operas in the sequence of their presentation in the box rather than that of their composition. The Figaro was first up being deliberately chosen to open the new theatre, sixty years to the day, as it had the original in 1934. The Don Giovanni of the following year as I have noted was distinctly different in production style and musical realisation with a period band. Coming to this Idomeneo was something of a cultural shock in a number of ways. It is a film of the Glyndebourne production that marked the operatic debut of the renowned theatre director, Trevor Nunn. Being a film there is no audience applause. The film director uses many facets of the genre and there are frequent mid and close shots. All of this makes demands upon the singers to convey the meaning of the story with bodily and facial involvement as well as vocal expression. In this there are variable results, some being more successful than others as I outline below.

The second, but not unexpected shock was musical style. Mozart composed Idomeneo between the singspiel works, Zaide and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It is firmly an opera seria and based on Greek legend. This was a genre that the composer did not return to until his last staged work, La Clemenza di Tito ten years later when he reverted to opera seria for a prestigious commission. This reversion is explained by the background politics of the Vienna Court at the time (see review). La Clemenza di Tito was his last staged opera and composed contemporaneously with the mature singspiel Die Zauberflöte. Whereas in Clemenza the older and musically more accomplished Mozart was able to bend the traditional form of the genre to better encompass the dramatic thrust of the opera, in Idomeneo this ability is less evident. In consequence it consists of static vocal showpieces preceded by recitative. This, like the filming, has serious consequences for the singers.

My final shock, really too strong a word, was in respect of the production, sets and costumes. In 1983 Glyndebourne was a traditional house. That is not to imply that the production styles were set in old ways, certainly not with Peter Hall as Director of Productions. But there were no way out avant-garde productions of the sort that became the norm less than ten years later. It was the operatic debut of Trevor Nunn. The sets and costumes are firmly in Minoan Crete. The sets are relatively simple, realistic when needed, and wholly appropriate with lighting giving dramatic effect as when the shadows encompass the chorus and singers in the storm scene (CH.16) and the voice of Neptune (CH.24).

The name part has drawn many famous tenors to the recording studio including those not noted for their Mozart in the theatre, including Pavarotti and Domingo. Philip Langridge’s tenor is not of the same mellifluous character or vocal grace as those famous names. Although stretched vocally at times (CH.16) he gives a thoroughly convincing sung and acted portrayal of the name part. His face, in the many close-ups, always reflects the appropriate emotions, inner and external. In this respect he is matched by the Electra of Carol Vaness, whose biting diction and smooth tones are allied to considerable histrionic gifts. As Ilia, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon, enemy of Idomeneo, Yvonne Kenny looks a little old for the lover of Idamante. She often fails to reflect the drama of the words and situations in her body language, albeit her singing leaves little to be desired with good diction and command of the florid passages (CH.2, 17). As Idamante, the spurned son of Idomeneo, Jerry Hadley is altogether more problematic in features, voice and acting. His tenor has a hard edge and his over-youthful face seem incapable of reflecting the agonies (CH.7) and ultimate exultation (CHs. 23-24) of the role.

The matter of the casting of Idamante as a tenor is problematic. The role was written for a mezzo-soprano en travesti and that better serves the musical balance. Glyndebourne staged the first British performances of the work in an earlier production in 1951, again casting a tenor. Although Mozart made many amendments to the music in 1786 to accommodate particular singers in private performances I am not aware of any being tenors. I am surprised that Bernard Haitink, who conducts the London Philharmonic in a well-paced and idiomatic account of the music, carried this tradition on. 

Despite my doubts about the casting of Idamante, this traditional staging, with many felicitous details by Trevor Nunn and his team, makes for an enjoyable evening’s entertainment in a genre that even today gets little stage time elsewhere.

Bonus - The House That George Built
The rebuilding of Glyndebourne
Directed by Christopher Swann
Recorded 1993-94 [50:00]

As I note above, this bonus disc outlines the planning (CH1), construction (CHs.2 and 3) and acoustic testing (CH.4) of the new Glyndebourne Opera House.

Robert J Farr



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