Monday, 29 June 2009

Giulio Cesare

Ah, my very favourite weekend of the year. Each year since I was about twenty, my incredibly kind and lovely parents have taken me to Glyndebourne. Initially a bit reluctant, I went with ill-grace, faintly uncomfortable with the blatant upper middle-classness of it: and I was instantly, utterly hooked, totally, head-over-heels, besottedly in love.

For readers in the US who might not be familiar with the concept, Glyndebourne is the oldest and best of a small number of 'country-house opera' venues in the UK: you show up in the afternoon to some idyllic rural location with its fine old manor house and attached theatre, and get to see a professional operatic production. In the long interval, you sit on the lawn and have a picnic, in the early evening light. There are several of these places: Garsington near Oxford is the most famous after Glyndebourne, and one has even been founded in the Loire valley by some British ex-pats. But Glyndebourne itself is just in a different league compared to the others: the house itself is an exquisite Jacobean place with wonderful gardens stretching down to the sheep-nibbled South Downs, and the new auditorium (erected a decade or so ago in a single year) seats 1200. As Jeanette Winterson--a great fan--wrote:

The music began in 1934, when a rather shy John Christie met a rather sparkling Audrey Mildmay, an opera singer. They fell in love, and as Christie happened to have a stately home, he offered it as a love-gift to his wife. They would start an opera house together, get a few Members to subscribe, and the rest, as they say, is music history.

It is a place of pure joy. I realised when I way leaning over the balcony on Friday night, in black tie, watching the light settle on the chalk escarpment wending down to Lewes, that this experience, this place, the unique thing that happens here, makes me more happy that just about anything else in the world. It is beautiful on so many different levels: a beautiful setting, beautiful music, beautiful picnic food made by my Mum, good friendship, and my much-loved family.

It is both difficult and easy to get a ticket. Tickets for non-members are in short supply, but there are a significant number of standing places for an astoundingly cheap price (around a tenner, comparable to the price of a night at the cinema) and subsidised seats for the under thirties. (Bugger.) But the waiting list for membership closed when it reached twenty years. My own parents went on the waiting list in, I think, the early eighties, when the estimated wait was four years; four years later, it stood at seven. Their rescue came when the new auditorium was built, nearly doubling the number of seats available. It should be mentioned too that Glyndebourne receives no public funding: that's it, no public funding. It is a private venture run for love, and not beholden to Arts Council bigwigs. This gives it tremendous artistic freedom and a license for exceptional creativity.

So far, I've seen Così fan tutte, La Nozze di Figaro, The Magic Flute, Otello, Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Otello again, and then, this year, a revival of David McVicar's 2005 production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. (I've also seen Glyndebourne Touring Opera productions of Tosca, Carmen and Eugene Onegin, but unfortunately I was on such strong antidepressants during the latter two that I dozed off, and left in the interval.)*

One of the nicest things about it is the general unspoken civility of it all. Everyone behaves beautifully; here are over a thousand people in close proximity, every night for the whole of the summer, and yet no one shouts, answers their mobile during their picnic, gets drunk, vomits, or starts a fight. Unlike in almost every public space up and down Britain, there is no need for signs asking you to take your litter home with you, or notices imploring you not to spit on or physically assault the staff. The assembled visitors are not assumed to be be pullulating bundles of infantile, barely-controlled affect sorely in need of an ASBO. To quote Winterson again:

I think about Glyndebourne the way I do about wild salmon, which will have the purists reaching for the rifle, but what I mean to say is that it is special and it is seasonal, and it costs a bit more than the farmed stuff, but it is the real thing.

If life is about heightened moments, and living well when we can, then Glyndebourne is an essential part of life.

I would not want to be without it. Opera is the fusion of drama, language, instrument and voice. It is high pleasure, in that it is a little bit demanding, and high altitude, in that it is human beings at their most intense.

Opera demands enormous skill from everyone involved, and what it asks from the audience is innocence and concentration. We can be critical, but we mustn’t be cynical. We can be reserved, but not lazy. Like the Buddhists say, ‘Be Here Now.’

Opera is a Be Here Now situation, and Glyndebourne lends itself to the wrap-around moment, partly because it is so absurdly serious – a place in the middle of nowhere that starts singing mid-afternoon, and suggests that you come. And a place that asks you to give over your whole day to this spectacle. Even if you think you HATE opera, Glyndebourne is the perfect antidote to fit-it-in frenzy. Everyone relaxes, everyone begins to open up to beauty of the place, and of course to the music.

Giulio Cesare itself was astounding. I'm not that familiar with Handel, but I'd made the effort to listen to the opera several times before seeing it. The plot centres on the annexation of Egypt by Rome, as the Civil War between Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar plays itself out in Alexandria, and Caesar begins his affair with Cleopatra. So far, so historical: but the plot also involves all sorts of improbable goings-on, including disguises and a shipwreck. In McVicar's acclaimed production, the setting had been lusciously updated to the 19th century, with Egypt as a kind of Saidian nightmare East, a cunning fusion of the Ottoman Empire and the Raj, complete with men in fezzes and Bollywood dancing. The Romans became British redcoats in pith helmets. The sumptuous, knowing orientalism of it all was quite perfect.

The set was a very flexible, clever work of forced perspective. Over sandy coloured floorboards, a series of columns retreated towards the back of the stage on both sides, angled in in such a way as to make the stage look both much deeper and much bigger than it actually is. In the 'Roman' scenes, this lent the set a spacious feeling of imperial grandeur; in the 'Egyptian' scenes, everything was swagged in curtains of lushly coloured silk--indigo, deep emerald, shocking pink--and festooned with Moroccan lanterns, giving it a kind of Rajastani intensity of exotic colour. At the back of the stage, the sea was visible: this was done with a trio of rotating, glittering horizontal screws like long pieces of fusilli pasta. If you look at this aria--Pompey's son Sesto swearing revenge on Tolomeo, Cleopatra's wicked brother and his father's murderer--you can see how utterly convincing this looked (I kept thinking of Ruth Padel's line, 'a shine-and-shadow-boxing sea'):

The lighting was perfect: much of the time, the sea was bathed in completely convincing sunlight, but I caught my breath halfway through, when the screen at the back of the set was suddenly raised to reveal a realistic night sky--Orion was rising from the waves beneath a orangey full moon, making the 'waves' look eerily phosphorescent. It was both deeply stylized and wonderfully naturalistic.

The singing was perfection. Especially good was Sarah Connolly, a mezzo, as Caesar, which is one of those parts originally written for a castrato that are now sung by countertenors or as breeches parts. Connolly's performance was a perfect illustration that opera is, at its best, a complex and synthetic artform, which relies on a rare fusion of acting skills and musical talent in its performers. The days of some twenty stone woman in her late fifties planting herself foursquare on the stage and pretending to be a tubercular teenage girl are long gone, at least at Glyndebourne. Astoundingly for a mother of two, Connolly managed to look rather like another Caesar, Ciaran Hinds in HBO's series Rome, and, as she swaggered around the stage in boots and a greatcoat, with breasts well bound-down, she entirely convinced as a middle-aged man and the ruler of the known world. Watch the sexual tension in this clip, in which Cleopatra (who has hitherto passed herself off as a girl called Lydia in order to get close to Caesar) lets slip that she is, in fact, herself:

You'll notice that Cleopatra herself is completely and utterly jaw-droppingly GORGEOUS. The 29-year-old American soprano Danielle de Niese played her with coruscatingly sensual sex-appeal and an insouciant, liquid physicality that was a joy to watch. Here she is in a candid shot:

De Niese is one of a new breed of opera singers for whom the voice--while top-notch--is part of a package of skills including the ability to act and move on stage. The choreography of the opera was obviously punishing; that de Niese could dance in a variety of styles from Broadway umbrella-twirling to Bollywood kitsch whilst negotiating Handel's fiendish coloratura is a great statement about her still-developing talents. In the clip below, she is in vampy Chicago-mode (note the louche comedy when she parks her umbrella in the jar containing Pompey's ashes, and later drops her fag in it):

And here she is in eastern mode, telling her foppish slimeball brother (crudely) to piss off, because she's going to be the ruler of Egypt, and he can forget it:

De Niese's voice is good: not as good as Connolly's, but it is the combination of her talents that makes her so wonderful to watch. (Compare this 70s/80s (?) version of the same aria sung by Valerie Masterson, who has an exquiste--and more precise--voice, but how stiff and staid her performance seems in comparison to de Neise's!) Here are Connolly and de Niese in the climactic love duet:

All the Egyptian characters were given good bits of gyration to get down to: Cleopatra's hysterically camp little henchman and Gay Best Friend Niseno was given a little wiggle-scene of his own. I think this might actually be the gayest thing I've ever clapped eyes on (note his little Arabian melisma inserted into the score at 2.25 and following):

Anyway, this was a simply extraordinary production: I haven't got the energy or time to praise every aspect that so richly deserves the praising, but the dignity and piercing sorrow of the music for Cornelia (Pompey's widow) and Sesto (Pompey's son) must be mentioned. Patricia Bardon sang Cornelia with a heart-piercing sense of grief and wretchedness, which contrasted piquantly with the froth of other scenes in the opera; the French mezzo Stéphanie d'Oustrac shone as the impulsive and increasingly traumatised Sesto, who lapses into psychosis in the final 'happy ending' scene.

So if any of all this appeals even slightly, BEG, BORROW or STEAL in order to get a ticket some time. If you can't, Giulio Cesare (the original 2005 production with most of the same cast) is available on DVD here.

* * *

*I thought at the time that I was appallingly depressed. In fact, I was just down in the dumps, lonely, and chronically sleep-deprived: I was living in college accommodation on a side-street off Oxford's busiest shopping thoroughfare, and was being woken by shouting drunks and lorries roughly every half-hour, all night, every night. I nearly went insane.


Sovay said...

The sumptuous, knowing orientalism of it all was quite perfect.

It sounds amazing: I resent being on the wrong side of the sea to see it.

If you have not read Tony Harrison's Phaedra Britannica (1975), now would make an excellent double bill.

Titus said...

What an exquisitely crafted post.
First opera "The Rake's Progress" at Covent Garden (in the early eighties, I guess) also my last but even I enjoyed reading this.

Bo said...

Sovay: ooh, I shall!

Titus: glad it was fun.

Dan B. said...

I'm so envious you got to see this. Gah.

Bo said...

Gah indeed! You found it then!

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