Benjamin Britten at Glyndebourne

With a bit of luck there might have been a bottle of champagne left in the cellar from before the war. But the rest of the picnic at Glyndebourne in 1946 would not have been up to much: wartime rationing was still in place and even bread had joined the ration list that summer. Government leaflets helpfully advised on wholesome dishes that could be made from condensed milk or reconstituted eggs.

This was a remarkably adventurous time to be starting up opera again, let alone presenting a new work by a controversial composer. But that is what Glyndebourne did: the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in the first summer after the war sent out a signal about the ambitions of Glyndebourne and its founder, Sir John Christie, that still resonates today.

The link with Britten, too, lives on. When the curtain goes up on Billy Budd at the opening night of this year’s festival, Glyndebourne adds one more to its already impressive tally of Britten operas – all the major operatic works, in fact, except the early Paul Bunyan and Gloriana, Britten’s only failure, written for the coronation of Elizabeth II and rarely performed today.

In retrospect, it seems improbable that this long association should have come about in the way it did. Christie and Britten were hardly obvious soul mates: the one an old-fashioned member of the landed gentry who had been awarded the Military Cross; the other a brilliant but thin-skinned young composer, widely viewed with suspicion for sitting out the war as a conscientious objector. At the outset, however, they shared a common goal. Each had seen high-quality performances of opera on the continent in the prewar years and had come to regard music-making in Britain as amateurish. Each was determined to see opera established to professional standards on this side of the Channel and was confident he was the man to deliver it.

The result was The Rape of Lucretia – the inaugural production of the Glyndebourne English Opera Company, effectively Britten’s creation though managed and financed by Glyndebourne. Sir George Christie, Sir John’s son and his successor at the festival, saw the opera as a boy. “I was away at my private school in the 1940s,” he says, “so I have no memory of Britten then, but I do recall seeing Lucretia and thinking it was an awful piece. I was 11 at the time, so I hope I may be excused that.” His father, less forgivably, was overheard complaining there was “no music in it”.

The reviews were mixed, but the one thing the critics agreed unanimously was that Glyndebourne’s production was of the highest quality. Whatever he thought of the opera, Christie’s commitment had never been in doubt. Fired by an admirable aspiration to spread music far and wide, Britten set out on tour, taking Lucretia to audiences around the country. The result was a financial disaster, losing the £3,000 the fledgling Arts Council had put up and a much larger sum of Glyndebourne’s money on top. Out of the period of arguments and counter-arguments that followed came just one more opera, the comedy Albert Herring, performed by Britten’s break-away English Opera Group, hosted by Glyndebourne for a single summer in 1947. Then the shared vision of the two men was gone for good.

What really went wrong? As George Christie puts it, “Ben had a feeling of possession because he was the composer of the operas. My father had a feeling of possession because he was supplying the money. After the tour [of Lucretia] Ben presented my father with a bill for twice the sum that had been offered and there was a pretty robust argument between them.”

There was also the issue of personal relations between the two men. “Britten’s relationship with my father was very strained,” says Christie. “My father didn’t particularly like contemporary music, though his recognition that Britten was a composer of note was unambiguous. He was also a very conventional person, an old-school type who would automatically have frowned on homosexuality. Of course, the opera world had a lot of homosexuals around and by 1946 my father must have got used to the idea, but for all that he had a natural aversion to it.”

Other neutral observers at the time reported that Britten was cold towards John Christie and intolerant of his eccentricities. As a thank-you gift Britten presented Christie’s wife, Audrey Mildmay, of whom he had grown very fond, with a decorative miniature piano, but his dedication pointedly makes no mention of her husband. In a letter written in July 1947, shortly after the premiere of Albert Herring, Britten describes Christie as “a mischievous old mad man”. He never worked at Glyndebourne again.

Fortunately, the story does not end there. Some years later, when he was working for the Gulbenkian Foundation, George Christie found himself meeting Britten in connection with a scheme that the Foundation was running for young composers. “He couldn’t have been more helpful to me,” Christie says. “He later dedicated Imogen Holst [Britten’s musical assistant] to work on the scheme. There was no question of him visiting my parent’s sins on me.”

On his father’s death, in 1962, George Christie took over the chairmanship of Glyndebourne. Only weeks later the general administrator made overtures via Britten’s publishers to see if there was a possibility of him composing “an opera specially for the 1964 Festival”, though Christie himself has no recollection of it. Dr Nicholas Clark of the Britten-Pears Foundation has studied the correspondence in the archives. He says Britten declined, stating that he was “very touched by the compliment” but too busy writing an opera for his own festival at Aldeburgh. Undeterred, Glyndebourne wrote back, offering an open invitation for a new opera at any time in the future – “a modern equivalent of Figaro would be marvellous or Jane Austen?”

Sadly, the next time Britten’s music was heard at Glyndebourne was not until after his death. In 1981 Bernard Haitink, then music director, felt it was time to go back to Britten and the result was the magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Peter Pears [Britten’s lifelong partner] came to see it,” recalls Christie, “and was thrilled by it. He came up to me after the performance and said, ‘I wish Ben was still alive’.” From there it was only a small jump to a new production of Albert Herring and the rest of the series of Britten productions that has provided such a memorable thread through the festivals of the past 30 years.

The new Billy Budd should make an impressive climax. The combination of Britten as composer, Herman Melville as author of the original novella, and EM Forster and Eric Crozier as joint librettists gives this, among all 20th-century operas, unrivalled firepower. After the predominantly female casts in his Donmar Warehouse productions of The Chalk Garden and Madame de Sade, director Michael Grandage faces the opposite extreme with the all-male cast of Billy Budd. “It is part of the challenge to take the audience to that male-dominated world of the ship at war,” he says. He is confident that the production will feel the right size for Glyndebourne, not “shoehorned-in”, even though there will be 60 people on stage. “Billy Budd is a great psychological drama and in this theatre people will be close enough to see the thoughts behind the singers’ eyes.”

So much achievement – and yet there remains one lingering cause for regret. While he was at Glyndebourne casting around for his next opera after The Rape of Lucretia, Britten was suddenly enthused with the idea of Mansfield Park and sent Joan Cross, the soprano, dashing off to Brighton to buy a copy. That book, with Britten’s handwritten cast list of projected singers, is now in the Britten-Pears Archive at Aldeburgh. The Christies were all for it, as Britten had promised Audrey there would be a part in it for her pug. What a Glyndebourne premiere that could have been.

‘Billy Budd’ opens the Glyndebourne season on May 20.

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