Put Mozart's Operas on Ice

By Scott, Michael | The Spectator, November 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Put Mozart's Operas on Ice


Scott, Michael, The Spectator


Glyndebourne s economic auguries, at least, have never looked rosier. This year's season was completely sold out, despite the tickets being nearly as pricey as those for Arsenal or Manchester United. While most opera houses need the kind of support the Russian rouble needs to keep afloat, Glyndebourne raises its finances from private sources and keeps itself in a style publicly subsidised houses only dream about. To be certain of tickets, you better get your name down on the list of Members of the Festival Society.

What better time than now with its handsome new theatre and the appointment of a new general director to slough off the hangover from the 1930s with that oldfashioned, limited and, dare one say it, snobby repertory. An opera house is not a temple of enlightenment, only a place of entertainment. It is a fiction that its exclusive audiences enjoy themselves only if they are made to suffer. One hardly needs to be a cynic to believe that those who journey out to the Sussex countryside in the afternoons in evening dress do so as much for the setting as for the singers: the opera is only part of the show.

The first thing to do is put Mozart's operas on ice for, say, the next five years. In 1934, when Glyndebourne opened with Nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte on succeeding nights, how original and progressive those revivals seemed. With Glyndebourne's casts EMI made the first complete recordings of Figaro, Cosi and Don Giovanni, all now available on CDs. At Covent Garden in the half-century before, only Don Giovanni had been regularly performed, Figaro was given infrequently, Zauberflote and Entfuhrung rarely, and Cosi never. The international repertory at the world's leading opera houses in those days was still, if not contemporary, predominantly modern. It was in the German-speaking countries, in default of finding enough appealing new works to satisfy the ever-increasing demand, that there began the age of revivals. Fortunately for Glyndebourne, the conductor Fritz Busch and the producer Carl Ebert got out of Nazi Germany in time and brought Mozart's operas over with them.

When we listen to those Glyndebourne recordings today, what we cannot help noticing first is not the classical style, but how naked they are with their strait-jacketed tempi, shorn of appoggiaturas and ornament. Like period costumes in an old movie, they tell us less of the era to which they pretend than the one of which they were a part. No one then knew or cared much about performance practice in Mozart's time. Today, unfortunately, performances of his operas having become almost as ubiquitous as traffic lights, Glyndebourne feels obliged to titillate jaded palates with different but just as unstylish practices. Now it is not the ears that are assaulted, but the eyes. How embarrassingly dated videos of some of its recent productions are going to look in the not so distant future.

No more appropriate time than now, with the new theatre, to take a cue from its founder John Christie. He was forever urging Wagner -- stage Tristan und Isolde, and it should be dedicated to Christie's memory. In his day, we can understand, the auditorium was too poky; in any case with Leider and Melchior at Covent Garden the idea did not then fall on fertile ground. These days, however, there are no great Heldentenors or Heldinsopranos and the singers' financial demands can be budgeted for comfortably. And in the new house, since it is not possible to raise the full orchestra pit, a modestly endowed cast doesn't need to get drowned out either.

Another important work worth reviving is Weber's Oberon. In Glyndebourne's more intimate circumstances, in spite of Weber's exacting vocal demands, musically it could make a considerable impression. It has as well the advantage of an English libretto and would be only the third opera in English Glyndebourne has given written before it opened (Handel's Jephtha and Theodora are oratorios). …

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