Half the operas at Glyndebourne this summer, and two of the three new productions, were staged by directors mainly known for work in spoken theatre in Britain. The summer festival seems to have adopted an aesthetic policy against directors and designers associated with “modern” ways. Yet, in the 1980s and 1990s it was not risk averse, and occasionally it still promotes adventurous, sometimes controversial work by Richard Jones. Melly Still, director of Dvorak’s Rusalka this season, was making her opera debut - though she has staged fairy stories by the Brothers Grimm for children before, and more importantly the prize-winning Coram Boy at London’s National Theatre and in New York. Pina Bausch, she says, was a “huge influence” on her, though you would never guess it from this much too busy opera production which relied on pictorial “realism” without providing a differentiated set for the second act at the Prince’s court that might graphically encapsulate the alienation between the opera’s two worlds. Neither designer Rae Smith’s attractive picture-book setting nor Rick Nodine’s hyperactive movement group really served the narrative, though Smith’s final scene at the forest pool was beautifully alluring. Illustration, however, is not always meaningful.
The story of Rusalka - if left to itself as here - is much less interesting than Dvořák’s fluent and intriguingly descriptive score. The London Philharmonic was not in top form, but the opera was extremely well conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek who knows instinctively how this jewel in his native Czech idiom makes its mark. So, at best this was a musical feast to which Ana María Martínez in the title role supplied a wealth of colour, dramatic edge and emotional intensity in her limited opportunities. The rest of the casting was more questionable, and much of the singing in smaller roles was undistinguished. Brandon Jovanovich, has a robust and handsome enough voice for the Prince, but remained cool and uninvolving - partly because the inexperienced director did not place him firmly enough in the story, and partly because the Court scene was remotely located deep upstage.
Why was Larissa Diadkova’s ringing peasant-like Ježibaba backed by a crowd of look-alike shadows? The cauldron scene for Rusalka’s transformation was laboured rather than comic. We saw nymphs with long penumbra lowered from the flies, and at the start of the first and third acts a running dancer symbolised the hunted “doe” with pointedly added ears and antlers. Jovanovich and Mischa Schelomianski’s disappointing unfocussed Vodnik (the latter in an undignified floppy semi-nude fat-suit) had to do vague choreographed swimming movements held aloft by a group of black-clad Japanese-style people-movers, creeping across the stage. This made plenty to watch and consider, but Still’s staging of conversations between servants or the dispute with the raucous Foreign Princess of Tatiana Pavlovskaya were clumsy, hampered by design decisions about the arrangement of the spaces, and often upstaged by an excess of business in wedding-party preparations and other episodes. Rusalka’s white feathery wedding dress was indeed fabulous (Glyndebourne has its mind on weddings just now, with Gus Christie about to espouse Danielle de Niese). The party frocks were current high fashion. But the set made any kind of formal dancing impossible.
The late 19th-century fashion for fairy stories in Slav opera surely reflected a deep-rooted fatalism about the impracticality of change. That was certainly not what interested either Shakespeare or Purcell - whose fairies are much more like Verdi’s in Windsor Park, in other words comic and satirical. Jonathan Kent’s approach to The Fairy Queen was unfortunately neither authentic nor particularly (apart from a periwig or two and a few period costumes) Restoration or baroque. It had little dancing, and it imported large chunks of real Shakespeare into an entertainment whose link to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is highly selective and idiosyncratic and almost entirely about fairies - hence the name Purcell gave it. Purcell’s “semi-opera” text, adapted by an anonymous hand, is a very “bad” version of Shakespeare. But that is what Purcell composed his extraordinary vaudeville assortment of bonbons and intermezzi for. It requires rare theatrical courage, flair and imagination if it is not to be, as it was here at Glyndebourne, merely dutiful. The solution is definitely not to introduce far more of the great play’s mechanicals, young lovers, and old Theseus and Egeus, as Kent unwisely did. If you are embarrassed to perform the bowdlerised text Purcell used, cut it out altogether - as David Pountney so brilliantly did with for ENO in 1995.
Of course, conductor William Christie brought his usual panache to bear, though he did not respond well to the passionate meaningful lyricism that distinguishes Purcell’s music from the courtly French composers he really likes. So, despite all the efforts at period practice from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the music was relentlessly lively rather than truly expressive. Even more surprisingly, the singers were throughout dull and mediocre - affected by the credit crunch or just badly selected (they are artists who have worked with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment quite frequently - and of course David Pickard, who runs Glyndebourne now, used to manage the OAE). Carolyn Sampson could not help making something of the Plaint, the best music in the whole evening. But why did tenor Ed Lyon keep forming his face into an inane inexplicable grin? Probably because Kent’s staging never provided a dramatic context where the music was not an embarrassment. There were dancers listed though they almost never danced - instead cheekily acting as extras. But the greatest mystery of all was the feeble quality of most of the actors Glyndebourne had hired (apart from Sally Dexter’s slightly out of control Titania, and Desmond Barrit’s irrepressible Bottom which almost saved the evening all alone, despite a very disappointing ass’s head and not nearly enough crude sexy naughtiness).
Designer Paul Brown’s “William and Mary” domestic interior set expanded and opened up for a few masque-like gestures and interruptions, and for the extra forest episodes. But there was no extravagance of imagination or gesture about the staging of Purcell’s various add-ons, apart from a moment of ludicrous vulgarity with a lot of literally fucking rabbits in comic bunny-suits which the mainly bored audience recognised as a moment when laughter was in order! Kent turned the comic Chinese scene into a feeble Garden of Eden episode, perhaps on the grounds of political correctness - though he wrote in the programme that the craze that led to Chippendale Chinese means nothing to people now (odd, when you consider that Glyndebourne audiences certainly own plenty of antiques). Attribute the blame for this abortion to money-saving and financial stress. Yet it was Brown who designed Graham Vick’s astonishingly brilliant King Arthur in London and at the Chatelet, also in 1995. I think the guilt is Kent’s - for mindless direction, and lack of any inspiration about the piece. Why anyway did Glyndebourne make a fuss about the mere 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth? That lame excuse is what led to such a disappointing squib.
Dvořák: Rusalka. Premiere July 5. Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek, Production: Melly Still, Designs: Rae Smith, Lighting: Paule Constable, Choreography: Rick Nodine. Cast: Ana María Martínez (Rusalka), Mischa Schelomianski (Vodnik), Larissa Diadkova (Ježibaba), Brandon Jovanovich (Prince), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Foreign Princess), Natasha Jouhl, Barbara Senator, Élodie Méchain (Wood Nymphs), John Mackenzie (Hunter), Alasdair Elliott (Gamekeeper), Diana Axentii (Kitchen Girl) etc
Purcell: The Fairy Queen. Premiere June 20. Conductor: William Christie. Production: Jonathan Kent. Design: Paul Brown. Lighting: Mark Henderson. Actors: Sally Dexter (Titania), Joseph Millson (Oberon), Jotham Annan (Puck), Desmond Barrit (Bottom) etc Soloists: Lucy Crowe, Carolyn Sampson, Ed Lyon, Robert Burt, Lukas Kargl, Andrew Foster-Williams etc