Glyndebourne 2020 – A little brightness in all the pandemic doom and gloom

Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s In the Market for Love (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Like all arts organisations during these gloomy times of the Covid-19 pandemic, Glyndebourne was forced to cancel their Festival 2020 and faced with a financial struggle. Unlike most, however, the Glyndebourne opera house is set in the middle of the Sussex countryside, with beautiful grounds, pleasant gardens and the lovely backdrop of the old country house where the festivals started in 1934. They decided to take full of advantage of their outdoor settings and since July have run a varied programme of garden concerts, outdoor opera and simple garden visits. These events have been well organised and compliant with all the Covid-19 safety rules. Timed tickets for a limited number of visitors and seats for audiences suitably separated and sat by household, easily achievable in their spacious grounds. To top the music programme one could order an afternoon tea in a take-away cardboard box (collected at the end from various places on the grounds) or one of the famous Glyndebourne picnics in cool boxes and baskets with the food in reusable glass containers. The Long Bar, which faces the new opera house, is open during the events and there are a couple of places scattered on the grounds where one can buy drinks and snacks. It is also possible to take your own picnic but organisers ask visitors to use Glyndebourne’s garden furniture, all suitably cleaned and disinfected before each event starts.

This write-up is not a review of their events as such, simply an impression of what went on and how I personally enjoyed the music and the settings.

The Garden Concert (and the only event I didn’t visit) comprises a programme of Mozart and Beethoven arranged for Wind Octet and performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Aidan Oliver. It also includes a piece by Jonathan Dove, his suite Figures in the Garden, inspired by Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and originally composed for the Glyndebourne gardens.

The Outdoor Opera ran during August and had its last performance on Friday 28 August. It comprised two parts. The first an orchestral performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati in a programme that included Gabrielli, Wagner, Ives, Takemitsu and four songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn sung by mezzo Karen Cargill who did a solid job. The LPO, in a reduced ‘edition’ so musicians could be kept apart, delivered an excellent performance of the various pieces, especially a moving, heartfelt rendition of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. It was a windy day when I went. The music sheets were fixed with large rubber pegs but musicians struggled to keep them from flying away whenever they needed to change the page. However, it was all taken philosophically and with humour. No major glitches. For this first half with the orchestra, Glyndebourne took full advantage of the grounds. The stage, made of wood, was set close to the lake where the winds and strings sat with the conductor. The brass section was placed across the lake and a lonely trumpeter in the middle of the sheep paddock. Unusual but it worked well and added to the fun.

After a long interval (75 minutes) to give people opportunity to finish their picnics, the second half of the ‘Outdoor Opera’ – with the opera proper – took place on a different larger stage, with the pretty old buildings, the old country house and part of the garden as their backdrop. The orchestra (the LPO again conducted by Ticciati) were to the right of the stage separated with plastic screens from the singers on the other side. The opera was a clever update of Jacques Offenbach’s one act bouffe Mesdames de la Halle, premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, in March 1858. With a libretto by Armand Lapointe, the story is set in Paris at the Marché des Innocents in the reign of Louis XV. The updated Glyndebourne version, written by Stephen Plaice and Marcia Bellamy, in English, largely follows the plot but transported it to modern day Paris. Offenbach’s lovely music is all there. Plaice and Bellamy gave the piece a different title – In the Market for Love (or Onions are forever) – but kept the characters’ names and features with some exceptions where the names were possibly changed for something that modern audiences could better relate to. For example, the kitchen boy Croûte-au-pot becomes a young cook by the name of Harry Coe. The updated plot by Plaice and Bellamy, as presented at Glyndebourne and pasted from the programme notes, is as follows:

Recently reopened after an epidemic, Paris’ Market of the Innocents is bustling with business. Customers (all wearing their masks) queue for macarons, herring, camembert and cabbages, while stallholders (all scrupulously socially distanced) ply their wares under the beady eye of the Police Inspector. Raflafla, a smooth-talking drum major nearing retirement, enters and makes a beeline for three of the market’s ladies. First he tries his charms on Madame Mangetout, sounding out both her feelings and the size of her savings. Rebuffed, he moves onto Madame Beurrefondu, where he meets a similarly frosty reception. Both have set their hearts on the Market Café’s handsome young chef Harry Coe. But Harry only has eyes for fruit seller Ciboulette, a young orphan-girl who has grown up in the market, and refuses their increasingly determined offers of cheese, vegetables and love. The rivalry escalates into an all-out fight between the women, further intensified by the arrival of Madame Bouillabaisse the fish-seller – another passionate admirer of Harry’s. The Police Inspector attempts to restore order, but in the chaos he tumbles into a tub of sprouts. Once he has emerged he promptly marches all the ladies down to the police station to explain themselves. Unnoticed in the commotion, Ciboulette arrives. Now, left alone, she sings about her life on the stall and her strict rejection of her customers’ romantic advances. Raflafla is furiously looking for Harry Coe, and when Ciboulette realises it, she rushes off to warn him. Raflafla decides to try his luck with Bouillabaisse, but she too refuses him. At last Ciboulette and Harry are reunited. After declaring their love, they vow to marry. Caught dallying by Madame Beurrefondu who is returning with Raflafla, Harry flees the angry Major, leaving Ciboulette to share their plans with Beurrefondu. The only problem, she explains, is that to marry she needs the consent of her father – a sergeant in the Guardes Françaises who abandoned her as a baby. Beurrefondu faints, recognising Ciboulette as her long-lost child. Bouillabaisse interrupts the mother-daughter reunion. She relates the details of Ciboulette’s provenance to Mangetout who immediately faints because they match those of the child that was taken away from her. Faced with two possible mothers, Ciboulette produces a letter from her father, sent to her at just three months old and never before opened. Harry reads it aloud to all, revealing that Ciboulette’s father is none other than Raflafla, who took her away from her mother as a baby in case she grew up smelling of haddock. She can find her mother on the fish stall in the market. The newly discovered parents immediately grant permission for Harry and Ciboulette to marry and everyone breaks into song.

I must say that this Glyndebourne production of Offenbach’s opera was brilliantly done with a lot of humour and wit. The famous fountain of the Marché des Innocents from the original libretto is here a huge plastic container with sanitizing gel, which everyone continuously uses. The police are always around to keep everyone social distancing but often join in the fun. There are small but relevant details regarding the situation we’re currently experiencing and that help make this production very funny, original and imaginative. A few noteworthy examples: When Ciboulette, the orphan girl, suddenly has three potential mothers and is supposed to hug them, the police officers come in with a very large plastic sheet. She sort of pirouettes into it, getting wrapped up in it and moving towards each mum so they can hug her. Or when the characters try to kiss or hug, which isn’t possible due to mandatory social distancing, we have extremely effective sound effects, gestures and comedy in the style of pantomime. Then, there’s the wedding scene at the end where the young cook and the orphan girl must put on plastic aprons, latex gloves and visors before they can kiss. Each movement is brilliantly choreographed, in time with the music, amusing and playful. Some of the best and most memorable moments of the piece are however the scenes with the three market ladies and potential mothers of the orphan girl. They were sung, as in the original, by men in transvestite and the three were simply hilarious, causing people to laugh to tears.

The orphan girl Ciboulette was sung by Lady Glyndebourne herself, soprano Danielle de Niese. She was in fine voice and exceptionally believable as the young girl. Her comic timing spot on. The young cook Harry was performed by the outstanding and incredibly versatile mezzo Kate Lindsey who was her usual extraordinary self. I’ve never watched anyone play a young man as perfectly as she does and so, so believable. I saw her in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Handel’s Agrippina in February this year, alongside Joyce DiDonato in the title role. Lindsey played the young Nerone and she completely stole the show. Her rendition of a teenage boy was then as now spectacular in every sense of the word.

The rest of the cast I saw and heard on the day I visited Glyndebourne was solid and with a fine talent for comedy. I must mention here the three men playing the main three market ladies, as they were sublimely funny – tenor Brenden Gunnell as Mademoiselle Bouillabaisse, tenor Nicky Spence as Madame Beurrefondu and baritone Michael Wallace as Madame Mangetout. Robin Ticciati and the LPO provided fine support to the singers and it was obvious they were all enjoying themselves.

The only slight glitch was perhaps the fact that there were no microphones and when one sings outside even classical singers need it, as depending on the direction of the wind, the voices could be diluted and not clearly heard.

Apart from the Garden Concerts and the Outdoor Opera as described above, Glyndebourne also staged two concerts to showcase some young artists they supported in the Jerwood Young Artists Programme of different years. I went to one of these recitals and it was a pleasing, rather enjoyable affair. The programme was short – each singer performed two arias accompanied on the piano by Matthew Fletcher. We heard mezzo Emma Kerr from the 2015 programme, baritone Huw Montague Rendall from 2016, tenor Frederick Jones from 2019 and soprano Madison Nonoa-Horsefield from the current year. Worth noting their names, as they all are promising young talent and a delight to listen to.

In spite of the pandemic and the cancelling of Festival 2020 it was a glorious feeling to return to Glyndebourne and be able to enjoy live performances with a like-minded audience even if we all had to keep our distance. Glyndebourne is lucky to be set in the middle of such beautiful natural grounds. They used it to their full advantage but who can blame them?

The musical events were of exceptional quality though reduced in size and less spectacular as the Festival usually is, however, they brought joy to many people. If you’re not interested in the music, a visit of the gardens for only £10 per person is well worth the money and effort. The Outdoor Opera is now finished but the Garden Visits are on until 5th and the Garden Concerts until 13th September.

Margarida Mota-Bull

For more about Glyndebourne Festival Opera now or in the future click here.

Leave a Comment