Glyndebourne Opera 14/08/2012

20 Aug

Where else in the world would you don formal evening clothes to picnic in a country garden while attending an opera performance with music composed by an Austro-German, sung in Italian, set in Spain and performed in an opera house built for a folie d’amour. It could only happen in England!

First, some background. The early 16th century stately home of the Christie family, Glyndebourne (don’t make my rookie mistake, Glyndebourne rhymes with ‘blind’ and ‘born’) in East Sussex, has been an opera institution since its first festival season in 1934.

As we heard from one of the staff when chatting in the very grand Organ Room, John Christie, a confirmed bachelor, met his future wife, opera singer Audrey Mildmay, when she was cast in a pro-am opera production he sponsored at Glyndebourne House.

Within six months they’d married and plans for a fully-fledged annual opera season in a purpose-built opera house at Glyndebourne were hatched on their honeymoon tour of continental European opera houses and festivals.

Today John Christie’s grandson, Gus Christie, is CEO of Glyndebourne, which has not for profit status. In 1994 the first opera house was replaced with the current impressive four-tiered opera house which holds 1200 (some sections are standing only).

Glyndebourne’s gone from strength to strength with its Festival, UK tours and an educational outreach program. Certainly Glyndebourne’s popularity has never been greater. When we tried to buy tickets through their box office the performances we could get to were all sold out. Indeed in 2011 they sold 99.3% of tickets, a statistic most music festivals would love to match. Happily our English friend Anne S, opera afficionado and seasoned Glyndebourne-goer, is rather well connected. When we appealed for help she came through with two tickets in the upper red circle for ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. I had the happy task of popping into Mayfair, central London, to collect them from Anne’s colleague’s executive assistant. The 110 pound ticket price may seem steep but opera has always been one of the most expensive performance arts and we knew that for this once in a lifetime experience we’d have perfectly positioned seats both visually and acoustically.

And so to the day itself which dawned bright and sunny: As perpetual travellers we’re not exactly kitted out for black tie events. Rummaging through Tristan’s wardrobe unearthed a black shirt and a smart tie to pair with Stuart’s only trousers. I wore the closest thing I had to a Little Black Dress, a wrap-around black dress with flat shoes as we knew we were picnicking on a blanket on grass. I hoped the sparkly pink earrings would show I was trying!

Our picnic was purchased at the M & S fresh food store at Gatwick Airport after we dropped off my excess baggage to be freighted back to Australia. M & S does an outstanding line in salads. My favourite had loads of pumpkin seeds, roast pumpkin, fresh pomegranate seeds, broccoli and couscous in a tangy dressing. Their Australian wine selection was pretty good too!

The Glyndebourne gardens open at 3pm but we arrived in our rental car at 2pm and took a nap under a tree in the car park. Glyndebourne thoughtfully provides a changing facility so at 3pm sharp we did our best to transform ourselves appropriately. Sadly we couldn’t compete with the very smartly turned out couples and stunning couture gowns.

Several groups had already set up their picnic tables and chairs when we wandered into the extensive gardens and grounds. Clearly Glyndebourne is an annual pilgrimage for many as you could see them claiming their favourite spots. Rather like picnics at polo matches people seemed to be trying to outdo each other with coordinated table settings, fresh flower arrangements (I kid you not) and sumptuous spreads.

We got into the spirit with tea followed by a glass of champagne (me) and Pimms (Stuart) as we wandered around the pond and admired the outdoor sculptures and flowers. Don’t you love the female diver poised to launch off the side of the pond?

The performance started at 4:45pm and was in two parts with a 90 minute break for supper. Over supper the predominant noises were champagne corks popping, sheep bleating and English public school accented voices and laughter. How refreshing!

We had to stifle a giggle when we realised that the four posh chaps seated at a picnic table next to us quaffing champagne appeared not to have moved at all. They were in exactly the same place in the break as before the show started. We think they just came for the picnic, people watching and companionship.

And what of the opera itself? ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (‘The Marriage of Figaro’) is performed to mark significant developments in Glyndebourne’s history so I was especially glad we saw it there. The young conductor, Robin Ticciati, is handsome and has a lovely expressive, communicative conducting style. Wonderful to watch.

All members of the cast were accomplished but I especially enjoyed Isabel Leonard as Cherubino. She was completely relaxed and natural and her tone subtle. The rotating set of rooms and gardens were built in authentic Mudejar Seville style.

My only tiny disappointment was the costuming of Susanna. I can only assume Lydia Teischer is pregnant for them to choose such unflattering outfits for her.

At 9:30pm the show was over and it was time to return to the reality of a drive back to Gatwick Airport to return the rental car. We tried to snatch a few hours sleep in the lounge before our 3:45am check-in for the flight to Rhodes and on to Karpathos. Now we are on a desert island in Greece we have to pinch ourselves to believe the magic of Glyndebourne really happened!

If you’d like to experience Glyndebourne opera but can’t be there in person look out for their scheduled webcasts on their excellent website

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