S&H Opera review

Verdi: Otello, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, July 2001 (H-T W)

The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, founded 1934 by John Christie at his country house in East Sussex, and since the January 1st 2000 under the chairmanship of his grandson Guy Christie, is in many ways in a class of its own. Glyndebourne performs six operas, two new productions and four revivals, per season, which run from mid May to the end of August. Thanks to Sir George Christie and his loyal patrons, it has its own brand new and world-renowned opera house, seating 1100, and calls the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment its 'house orchestras'.

Iin recent years, however, its international recognition as a centre of artistic excellence has not always been flawless and some of the new productions did more harm than good. Therefore, it came as a great relief, especially under very dubious circumstances, that Verdi´s Otello, performed here for the first time, showed Glyndebourne at its best. Having settled down, this new production will indubitably become another gem in the crown of England´s only renowned opera place of pilgrimage. Under the fortunately short-lived artistic directorship of Nicolas Snowman, formerly of London's South Bank Centre, it was announced that after an absence of eleven years Sir Peter Hall would return to direct Glyndebourne´s, and his own, first Otello - good news - conducted by the Kirov tsar Valery Gergiev with the Kirov tenor Vladimir Galuzin in the title role - bad news. Gergiev, used to big houses and with his overly busy schedule, would certainly not have been available for the entire rehearsal period, as is customary at Glyndebourne, which would have been a disaster. Furthermore, Glyndebourne is not in the position to pay the fees the Kirov stars demand. To bring in private sponsors for single artists would have set a precedent with unforseeable consequences. Snowman left or had to leave - Glyndebourne always covers up internal differences in style - and one can only hope that with his departure his planned Tristan und Isolde project has also died. Instead, the agent Victor Hochhauser offered the Kirov Opera an entire Verdi season at the Royal Opera House including Otello under Gergiev with the fine tenor Vladimir Galuzin. Those performances took place only days before the Glyndebourne premiere. Given all the circumstances and sudden cast changes, together with the knowledge that many in the audience would had seen the Kirov production, tension was high when the curtain rose. It says a lot for everybody involved that after the dinner interval nerves calmed down and the rush through the first two acts gave way to the most refined interpretation.

Richard Farnes, the substitute for Gergiev, certainly has a most difficult job. He will have to learn how to keep the sound under control and adjust it to the brilliant, but delicate acoustics of this opera house. At Glyndebourne does one really need such a big chorus for the first act? It is overpowering and robs the music of its tension, specifically when the festive fire is lit. With Richard Farnes one was never left in doubt that he knew the score, but too often phrasing and the necessary breadth, to give the singers space, was missing. But one could not have wished for a better cast, even if one can have conflicting opinions about Anthony Michaels-Moore as Jago. His voice seemed for me somehow too light, too charming and not demanding enough. Kurt Streit, one of the best lyric tenors around as Cassio, Peter Auty (Rodrigo), Gwynne Howell (Montano), Jean Rigby (Emilia) and the powerful Michael Druiett (Lodovico) were all vintage Glyndebourne. But the drama, which seemed to have started before the battle against the Turks and for which Jago only presses the button, embodied two outstanding singers and personalities - the English soprano Susan Chilcott as Desdemona and David Rendall as Otello. Their range of colours, their honesty and control, their ability to shape the tiniest detail were ideally suited for the intimate surrounding of Glyndebourne. Here, David Rendall reached new heights, while Susan Chilcott, whose career has up to now mainly developed on the continent, may soon become a household name in her own country.

The production, by Sir Peter Hall, may not be to everybody's taste. One has to take it as it is and believe in it; any grandeur is missing in favour of a mix between suburban drama, set in the 19th century, lust and Shakespearean detail. Hall said in an interview with John Whitley in the Daily Telegraph: "It´s quite sex-Freudery. Verdi was a passionate puritan - an over-sexed man, who tried not to be over-sexed, and his whole art is based on that tension. I feel that in the music, too - an extraordinary, ungoverned near-chaos." The designer John Gunter created a kind of Globe Theatre as a constant background, which works well with the exception of the magical love duet at the end of the first act - no dark blue night sky, no stars disappearing into the sea and more sexual desire than pure love.

All promising premieres at Glyndebourne have one problem in common: the long rehearsal period away from any distractions allows a director, and especially theatre people like Sir Peter Hall, to shape and reshape the slightest detail, an incredibly intense process. Come the premiere, the singers have not yet learnt to let loose and feel as if they are in a strait-jacket between music and stage directions. As Glyndebourne does not need critics anyway and as it is more an honour to be invited than necessity it would make more sense to call the press at a later stage, when everybody has settled down. This Otello is certainly an achievement, because the view taken is not only breathtaking music-theatre, but also suits the given environment.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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