Weather permitting, a walk in the garden is obligatory before the opera. A few years ago, in Britain, that could only have meant Glyndebourne. Now there are multiple choices for country-house opera in the UK, with yet another festival preparing to open next summer. Who could have predicted this explosion of activity — the most expensive of art forms thriving, away from London and unfunded by the public purse?
The Christie family, who founded Glyndebourne, must have a sense of humour to see these upstarts taking their formula and rebranding it in their own image. Perhaps that is why so many of the operas in this year’s festival are comedies.
The opening weekend paired two classics, the most Italian and most German of them all: Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Rossini is pure farce, with none of the human warmth and depth that Mozart brought to the same characters in Le nozze di Figaro. That follows later in the season, a chance to compare and contrast.
There is not much a director can do with the Rossini. Annabel Arden, in charge of Glyndebourne’s new production, has tried to balance tradition with giving the opera a new look. The style is semi-abstract, mixing some modern dress with old costumes and dances of Seville. Blue-and-white Moorish tiles decorate the walls. Rosina twirls flamenco flourishes. Dancers enact symbolic bullfights at crucial moments. The end mix is a rich paella, gaudy and wearingly fussy, though certainly not lacking in energy.
Is it funny? Yes, but not as funny as it should be. Arden plays down the traditional business in the main comic scenes with the drunken soldier and the bogus music teacher, leaving them both to fall flat. Removal men coming in and out with a consignment of harpsichords is a running joke that never produces a laugh.
What fun there is comes from a well-chosen cast. At the top of the class is Björn Bürger’s ace Figaro, sung with brilliance, precision and a nonstop cheery grin, as if it is all no effort at all. Danielle de Niese is a Rosina of irrepressible energy and sparkly, racing semiquavers, not all of them even in tone. An extra aria is added for her in Act Two. Taylor Stanton’s Count Almaviva conversely slides over the coloratura and loses his big aria (which is often cut) at the end. At this stage of his career one would have thought the loveable Alessandro Corbelli might have run out of rubber-faced comic expressions as put-upon Dr Bartolo, but he is as inventive as ever. Christophoros Stamboglis booms mightily and rouses a cloud of cannonball smoke as Basilio. Janis Kelly turns Berta’s little aria into a show-stopper.
Above all, conductor Enrique Mazzola gets Rossini’s music to sizzle. No slouching, no lingering here and there — just razor-sharp playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra at helter-skelter speeds. That, at least, keeps a smile on one’s face.
The revival of the 2011 production of Die Meistersinger is Glyndebourne at its default position: only intermittently inspiring, but de luxe in the quality of its musical and theatrical preparation. The performance rises to its highest level whenever Gerald Finley’s beautifully sung Sachs and the exemplary musicians of the LPO are working together to conjure the poetry and emotional depth at the heart of the opera.
For the rest, David McVicar’s colourful, too-camp-by-half production provides a showcase for some well-observed portrayals. Jochen Kupfer’s pompous young popinjay of a Beckmesser, not the usual caricature, is a particular success. Amanda Majeski is a lovely, silvery-voiced Eva. Hanna Hipp’s well-sung Magdalene is nicely complemented by David Portillo’s lively David. Michael Schade gets through the Prize Song unscathed, but his tight, forced tenor makes an unhappy match for the romantic Walther. Michael Güttler, taking over from the indisposed Robin Ticciati, wields the conductor’s baton with a safe pair of hands.
Ideally, Wagner asks for more, but there is enough to justify reasonable contentment on the way out. The belly laughs will have to wait for later in this season of comedies.
Glyndebourne continues to August 28, glyndebourne.com