When I looked through the programme of the 2012 Glyndebourne opera festival, this Ravel double bill stood out. I couldn’t think of a better combination of director and works than that and it became instantly the reason for my first visit. I have systematically avoided the rarefied black tie affair that is Glyndebourne, mainly put off by the image of toffee nosed bozos roaming around the Sussex countryside. But for any UK based opera lover it’s a venue difficult to ignore as it is the birth place of country house opera for the modern age, since its inception in 1934 under the auspices of John Christie and Audrey Mildmay and not forgetting the first general manager…a certain Rudolf Bing (no, not of the failing Microsoft search engine). The festival up to this day is pitched as entertainment for the upper classes but has always had high artistic goals. It has been the springboard for international careers for a number of very important singers and conductors, including my beloved Janet Baker. Also one success we can’t under-estimate is their ability to keep the festival self-sufficient without any public subsidy (except for Arts Council support for their Tour and Education programmes). A reason that will stop me making rude comments about very pricey Stalls seats for all shows. But how was my first visit, I hear you ask…
I was immediately impressed by how disarmingly laid back it was. Despite being surrounded by the kind of plummy accents one would only dream of at Covent Garden, the black tie uniform in a way adds a veneer of parity across the distinct class divides. Who wouldn’t find dressing up to go to the opera in a beautiful garden and historic house enticing? Yours truly strolled around the manicured lawns and climbing roses for an hour and a half and then the bell was tolled asking us nicely to make our way to the theatre. The theatre, designed by Michael Hopkins in 1994 is as simple in appearance as the remains of the Tudor manor house that make up the country house. All red brick, wood and concrete. The stark appearance will surely come as a surprise to some. The unadorned exterior and interior gives a non distracting backdrop for the magic of opera to unfold. And the acoustic is possibly the best I’ve heard in the UK, being slightly reflective and true. An auditorium that seats 1200 spectators is always going to feel more intimate than the big two London stages but it is surprisingly so. Every single note of Ravel’s beatific music enveloped us in an extraordinary way.
L’heure was as sexy as one would expect. The stage set is an idiosyncratic mix of clock faces in every possible piece of furniture that springs to life following Ravel’s atmospheric and very quirky cues. A nice touch was the makeshift curtain made up of fabric patches which opened slowly to reveal the lower half of the set, including a washing machine with a clock in its drum and a sculpted life size bull…that surely raised a few laughs. Pelly’s direction is full of physical comedy and always with a keen eye for the music, as Ravel’s light composition always makes suggestions for the action. The singers were clearly exceptionally well drilled and the organised chaos on stage always added to the story and making beautiful stage pictures from the suggestive score.
The stand out performances came from Elliot Madore (making his UK debut) who gave us a naughty and endearing Ramiro with gorgeously sensual singing and vivid stage presence. Stéphanie d’Oustrac gave as a piquant and extremely sexy Concepción that lit up the stage, her singing being as hot as she looked in her revealing outfit. The kind hearted clock mending husband as portrayed by François Piolino was a figure of fun and maybe hinting at silent suffering inside. They played it for laughs with beautifully timed vignettes…a particular favourite being Concepción removing her panties when left alone with Ramiro which raised a quiet giggle around the auditorium. Kazushi Ono’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra was exemplary, allowing the transparency and warmth of Ravel’s music sufficient space to shine while keeping it moving sprightly alongside the hilarious fast paced stage action. It was as sexy as can be.
Then came the long interval, all 1h30mins of it…where we managed to squeeze a delicious three course meal and another walk around the grounds. I can imagine that can be the interval of oblivion for a lot of punters ending up even forgetting what they’ve seen in the first half. But thankfully in a double bill that problem is slightly alleviated (provided the alcohol intake is fairly low).
L’enfant was clearly directed with a darker much more gothic intention befitting the subject matter. A lot of reviewers seem to find Colette’s libretto unwieldy and not musical enough, on the contrary I thought it grounded the story and gave it great charm and narrative flow.
The opening set of the child doing his homework on a giant table and chair had the feel of an outsize Richard Artschwager sculpture and unfortunately caused a large part of the audience to applaud…continuing a recent bugbear of mine, where we start to see Met Opera style applause for inanimate objects. Can someone make it stop, please?
The oversized look of the furniture was simple, stylish and very effective, the kind of presentation Pelly has got us used to. L’enfant is so easy to turn into a cheap musical full of silly props and dancing teapots in the Disney tradition. But he managed to keep the darkness of the score and the underlying sense of wartime tragedy that runs as an undercurrent through it. Despite the frenetic at times change of tableaux the backstage team did a great job giving us seamless transitions within seconds, keeping up with the around twenty scene changes admirably well. If I had to pick one scene as the one that wowed us, it would be the torn wallpaper one, with the members of the chorus in vague 18th century dress looking like they’ve just escaped the Toile de Jouy wallpaper and step out on the torn piece (ingeniously hiding inside it the sheep mentioned in their aria). That scene encapsulates his directing style, by being quick-witted, not afraid to be literal but always sprinkled with a magical touch.
The piece calls for a totally co-ordinated ensemble cast doubling up on many of the parts and Glyndebourne’s troupe delivered in spades, every singer relished their vignettes with particular highlights the two armchairs who managed to be both menacing and darkly fascinating. The fire as sang by Kathleen Kim was both vivid and aggressive and in sparkling vocal form. And of course the duet of the china cup and the teapot (which the libretto reverts to English for the pot and cod Chinese for the cup) which was done with such ease and devilish cheek it turned the house to a bunch of laughing children. A work that can too easily turn into a piece of cheap musical theatre was turned into a much more sophisticated affair without losing its touch with the playful side of Ravel’s music and Colette’s thoughtful libretto.
This double bill was full of panache, varying from the wide-eyed excitement of a cheating wife to the unexpected horror of a misbehaving child. Make sure you tune in on the 19 August to see the live broadcast on Glyndebourne’s and The Guardian’s websites. Or even better get some tickets and see it live in all your finery, it’s worth the trip just for the ravishing playing of the London Philharmonic. I will definitely return to the Festival next year.
The productions’ page on Glyndebourne’s website: http://glyndebourne.com/production/ravel-double-bill
Interesting article on Colette’s libretto: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/27/colette-lenfant-sortileges-libretto
Interview with Laurent Pelly on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/09/glyndebourne-odd-ravel-double-bill
Promotional videos for the two productions
Tweets from the evening