The day to go to Glyndebourne did not begin auspiciously. We had to get into evening clothes before lunch for a longish journey. I nicked a finger getting dressed and had to be careful not to get any blood on my shirt. The solution was a band aid or plaster, as the Engish say; my choice was limited. I wound up with a red plaster inscribed with a large “KISS It Better” on the middle finger of my left hand. This was not the look I had intended for a night at the opera.
Unless one has a car and preferably a driver to set up the picnic, Glyndebourne-goers take the train from Victoria Station (in evening clothes!) to Lewes and switch to coach to arrive at the country house that houses the Glyndebourne Festival. In the early 20th century, the Christie heir married a singer. He built her a music room with a pipe organ, unfortunately now unplayable. He then gave her a small opera house. This was the start of the Glyndebourne Festival. The current opera house, an intimate space with excellent acoustics, is now the centerpiece of a renowned opera season, famous for a long interval for a picnic in the gardens or dinner in one of the restaurants. It is about as perfect a venue for opera as one can get.
Of course, reggiestheatre rears its ugly head even in such idyllic surroundings. This is a view the director decides to impose on an opera. Sometimes this can be fascinating, as was Handel’s oratorio Theodora thrown into the future at Glyndebourne years ago. The chorus used set gestures for each phrase in the choruses, so one got visual counterpoint. On the other hand, I am not sure I was completely entranced by orange jumpsuits and martyrdom by lethal injection, while my companion sat with her eyes closed the entire time. Still, I thought it very interesting, though as with productions of Shakespeare, I would like a good reason for any time change. The performance of Coriolanus I saw with Toby Stephens as the Roman general was set during the French Revolution; the set worked splendidly, given the tension between the aristocrats and hoi polloi in Shakespeare’s tragedy. On the other hand, Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne once had the Don rolling around on a dead horse, eating its entrails. This is Mozart en grand Guignol, not en grand seigneur. Leave filth to Mozart himself when he wants it, as when he wrote four-part canons with such a scatological text that my director refused to translate it mixed company!
Musically Hipermestra got off to a slow start. I began to think there was a reason why it had been neglected for three centuries, but after the 90-minute dinner intermission, it improved. Too much recitative, even for me, though it was interesting to hear a few “goat trills” – the same note quickly repeated with spaces between each. This reminded me that Cavalli had studied with Monteverdi.
The opera was spectacularly set in the modern Middle East, complete with oil derricks, though I thought collecting stones to execute Hipermestra in dubious taste, given that stoning is still happening under Sharia law. Other than that quibble, the production was amazing! Fifty bridal couples filed through a palace (repeating actors, of course), which was in ruins after the intermission. The 50 daughters of the King of Argos were to marry fifty brothers before killing them on their wedding night to spare their father from the deadly prophecy that one of the bridegrooms would kill him. Hipermestra spares her husband, Linceo, out of love; he escapes and returns to sack Argos and eventually kill the king. Before that, Hipermestra’s royal father condemns her to death; she escapes (despite complications in the subplot) before despair leads her to throw herself off the ruins, only to be rescued by Juno — we saw her literally airborne, grasping the neck of a huge peacock! In the end, all is well. The story ends happily in love and mercy, if you don’t mind the spousal murder of forty-nine bridegrooms, the assassination of father of the bride, and the proposed stoning of Hipermestra.
The countertenor singing Linceo, Raffaele Pe, was brilliant! The other singers were also excellent, but one expects good singing at Glyndebourne. The music itself will not make any list of Baroque’s Greatest Hits, but the instrumentalists were among the best: William Christie (whom “Berenice,” a bearded tenor in drag, came off stage to molest) and his eight other musicians were, as expected, beyond superb! (Berenice then went into the audience to accost a handsome young man in the front row, who was either a plant or a very good sport.) There were two violinists, cello and violone players, a harpist with two harps, two lutenists and two harpsichordists (including the director) with elegant, long Italian harpsichords. I now know from experience the difference between a theorbo (bigger and deeper) and an archlute, except how to pronounce the latter. (I think it is “arch lute”, not “ark lute.”) The entire evening would have been worth it, if for nothing more than the instrumental introduction after the intermission. A solo violin weaved magic, joined in turn by other instruments. It was one of the really exquisite performances that such masters can create on original instruments.
Apparently Glyndebourne now sports a wind turbine. I find them hideous. Before you tell me how “green” they are, I wonder how many birds find them deadly.
We dined in “Nether Wallop,” the carvery, where we had roast beef. I thought tbe name reminiscent of the more painful chapters of Tom Brown’s School Days, but that and a couple of other restaurant “Wallops” seem to originate in British place names. The food was excellent.
The return on the train included a bunch of young drunken louts yowling “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” It made me think wistfully of Nether Walloping them.