Starting an opera festival in the Great Depression must have been an act of faith. It was 1934 when John Christie took the unlikely step of presenting fully-staged opera at his home in Sussex, aiming for international standards and adding a touch of English eccentricity by inviting audiences to picnic in the garden during the interval.
Truth is stranger than fiction, one might think. But Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos had already told a similar story: the opera is set in the house of the “wealthiest man in Vienna”, who has commissioned a new opera from a budding young composer and entertains his guests by staging it, alongside a dance masquerade, with fireworks in the garden promptly at 9pm. The parallel is so close, it is no surprise that Ariadne auf Naxos has been a Glyndebourne favourite over the years.
Now, to open the 2013 season, Katharina Thoma’s new production of the opera has added an extra twist. The curtain goes up on a country-house setting suspiciously like Glyndebourne’s organ room. It is 1940, with wind-up gramophone and airmen in uniform, and the Prologue ends spectacularly when German bombers fly overhead and score a direct hit.
In real life Glyndebourne served as an evacuee centre for children during the war, but in the main part of the opera here the house is shown as a hospital for wounded servicemen (like the fictional Downton Abbey). Ariadne becomes one of its patients, apparently suffering from delusions, and Bacchus her pilot boyfriend, whom she mistakes for a god – all rather odd.
Is the Glyndebourne slant meant to raise a smile from the audience? Or does Thoma want her depiction of wartime suffering to hit a painful nerve? One of the problems of this production is that its tone is so difficult to pin down. It is hard to laugh at the forces entertainment troupe going through their dance routines when they are surrounded by the wounded; and a lot of the comedy is in any case painfully weak.
Nor is the cast as good as it looked on paper. The outstanding contribution comes from conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who gets exactly the cool, light touch from the London Philharmonic Orchestra that one wants to hear in this music. It is only in the last half hour that Soile Isokoski’s Ariadne hits her silvery, Straussian best. Laura Claycomb’s vivacious Zerbinetta seems to have lost the brilliance in her voice, possibly not helped by being tied up in a straitjacket as she was trying to sing her big aria. Kate Lindsey’s slim-toned singing as the Composer and Thomas Allen’s expert Music Master lit up the Prologue; none of the singers managed to shine in the unfocused mess that the production makes of the main opera. And where were the traditional fireworks at 9pm?
What a gulf between that and the revival of Falstaff the following night. First staged at the 2009 festival, Richard Jones’s scintillating production has polished up as good as new. The post-war setting is brilliantly observed, with Falstaff as a symbol of national decline while the middle classes are energised by a new spirit of optimism, and every comic detail works, right down to Falstaff using carbon paper to type out his identical love letters.
The cast could hardly be bettered. Laurent Naouri’s Falstaff is a huge, rotund vat of simmering emotions, proud, pathetic, noble, roguish, lovable, and all sung with more voice than most. Ailyn Pérez’s radiant Alice Ford and Susanne Resmark’s bright-eyed, booming Mistress Quickly are right at the top of the class. Roman Burdenko bristles with marital jealousy as Ford, and Elena Tsallagova and Antonio Poli duet sweetly as Nannetta and Fenton. Throw in sparkling playing from the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Mark Elder and suddenly fireworks are lighting up this year’s Glyndebourne after all. There is no more life-enhancing night at the opera than a Falstaff as good as this.