On my recent vacation in the U.K., I had the chance to attend a performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex. Following so closely on my latest expedition to Santa Fe, as described in my last "Off the Cuff", it was a unique opportunity to savor the similarities and differences between two long-standing, and highly successful, international Festivals—Glyndebourne, founded in 1934, and the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) which opened its doors in 1956.
The two festivals share several important elements. First, and perhaps most important, they were founded by one man (John Crosby for Santa Fe) and one couple (John Christie and his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay). The founders' passion and commitment to opera, and their willingness to invest their own considerable resources, is still self-evident in both institutions many decades later. Both institutions have upgraded their theaters over time (SFO is on its third theater, Glyndebourne, its second). Both companies are located on what were originally family properties located in areas of great scenic beauty. Both adopted site placements and architectural styles that incorporate their theaters into superb naturalistic settings. In the case of SFO, the facility includes a sparkling swimming pool and ranch-style administrative buildings, as well as a stage that opens to sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Glyndebourne incorporates the original country house—dating back centuries—rolling lawns and a lake into its bucolic setting. The company has also installed a new wind turbine, becoming the first U.K. arts organization to generate its own power (while simultaneously generating great eco-conscious publicity), at the site of a windmill that existed at that same location throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Both companies have also been committed from their conception to producing opera held to the highest possible international standard. During the construction of the original Glyndebourne theater, Audrey Mildmay famously remarked "If you're going to spend all that money, John, for God's sake do the thing properly" (I am indebted in this piece to Michael Kennedy's absorbing Glyndebourne, A Short History). Both companies attract top-tier international artists for a season built around five or six productions (give or take) plus ancillary events. And both festivals attract large numbers of out-of-town visitors who augment the local audience.
But there are also some important differences. Most notable, perhaps, is the contrast between the high-altitude desert in New Mexico and the verdant English countryside. As Mr. Kennedy puts it, "The view of the Downs is breathtaking; the cows and sheep graze beyond the ha-ha; the gardens are fragrant; the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming; there is the joy of reunion with friends, who include the staff at the box-office and in the restaurants." The seating capacities of the theaters are quite different, with SFO's theater able to seat a little over 2,100 (similar to the Winspear Opera House) and Glyndebourne seating an intimate 1,200 per performance. Whereas SFO's theater is open to the sky and surrounding mountains, Glyndebourne is designed around a more conventional fly tower.
Glyndebourne also shows a quintessentially British charm in the manner in which it operates. Patrons wear tuxes and elegant dresses and gowns, on the whole, but are also encouraged to picnic on the lawn. There is a "long interval" for dining – nearly 90 minutes long, even longer than the extended intervals at Bayreuth, which lends to a thoroughly relaxed atmosphere. The tickets proclaim a start time of 4:45 p.m. for an evening performance, but in fact the performance does not begin until closer to 5 p.m. (As I said, "relaxed.") And there is a shuttle bus service timed so that patrons can catch the train up to London immediately after the performance. Patrons travel home feeling like they have been invited to a private performance at a friend's country estate, and that warmth complements the outstanding artistic quality of each performance.
It is interesting to note that The Dallas Opera has strong links with Glyndebourne. Our Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, was Music Director for Glyndebourne Touring Opera from 1986-1991, and one of our previous General Directors, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, was General Administrator for Glyndebourne between 1989-1990 and General Director from 1991-1998. The city of Chicago, too, has had similar ties to Glyndebourne. Sir Andrew Davis, now Music Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was Music Director at Glyndebourne from 1989-2000, and the recently retired General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, Brian Dickie, served as General Administrator of Glyndebourne between 1982 and 1988.
It was just plain good luck that I happened to be on hand for a production of Figaro, an opera closely associated with Glyndebourne. The festival opened with this Mozartean masterpiece in 1934, and when the new theater made its debut in 1994, it again featured Figaro—60 years to the day from the original opening. Future Music Director (as of January, 2014) Robin Ticciati elicited a sparkling, energetic performance from the orchestra the night my wife and I attended. The famous Act II finale was particularly memorable, and Maestro Ticciati led a well-paced and lyrical performance while keeping both orchestra and soloists tightly in synch. Michael Grandage's production skillfully emphasized the comic elements of Da Ponte's libretto—even approaching the level of British farce at times—while staying true to the spirit of the piece. The outstanding ensemble cast featured a blend of household names and lesser-known talent; I particularly enjoyed Vito Priante's interpretation of Figaro. Isabel Leonard was an especial delight as Cherubino. And who could resist Andrew Shore as Bartolo?
All in all, a perfect evening in a delightful setting! Yet, as we leave, my thoughts are already drifting back to Dallas, and preparations for Aida and the new season just ahead.
Here's a behind-the-scenes video for Glyndebourne's 2012 production of Figaro:
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, seventh here and eighth here.