The English summer season would not be complete without a visit to Glyndebourne, and there is perhaps no more bucolic setting in the world for an opera house than this verdant country estate.
The glorious gardens have been playing host to the most refined picnickers and music-lovers since May 1934, when the curtain rose on the first performance. That inaugural Festival was the culmination of one man’s obsession with the idea of presenting ‘not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere’ – a mantra that Glyndebourne follows to this day. Those were John Christie’s words, owner of the Glyndebourne estate and country house, which has been in existence since the early 16th century and which he had inherited in 1920. Today, John’s grandson, Gus, continues the tradition and is the custodian of Glyndebourne’s ideals.
Glyndebourne soon developed a reputation for staging productions on a par with the world’s greatest houses by employing the best international talent. And yet it is the idyllic countryside, set in the rolling hills of Sussex’s South Downs, that makes it so remarkably different from other opera houses. As well as a place to see some of the world’s finest opera productions, Glyndebourne is unique because the audience can wander by the lake or picnic on the grass before curtain up, or during the 90-minute interval.
There are the gardens to explore too, as well as White Cube at Glyndebourne, a pavilion displaying work from the celebrated London contemporary art gallery. Visitors can easily opt not to bring their own picnics but instead take advantage of the onsite picnic – and porter – service, or enjoy a spot of dinner at one of the three restaurants on the estate. There’s no reason to leave the magic behind at Glyndebourne: thanks to the shop, guests can take the memory home with a range of gifts, from hats to kitchenware, inspired by the Festival and the surrounding landscape.
The 2017 Festival is particularly innovative, and will open with the UK’s first ever production of composer Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera Hipermestra. Cavalli was working in 17th-century Venice soon after the world’s first public opera houses opened, so he had no tradition to follow. He therefore gave his fertile imagination free rein, tinkering with the brand-new art form. The result is a lively opera with melodious arias, sprightly dance rhythms, historical plots and generous dollops of comedy.
The season also includes the world premiere of an opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Composer Brett Dean’s colourful, energetic, witty and richly lyrical music expertly captures the modernity of Shakespeare’s timeless tale.
The final new production is Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. Loosely inspired by the life of the Roman Emperor Titus, this opera distills the suspense of Don Giovanni, the warmth of Le nozze di Figaro and the nobility of Die Zauberflöte into a powerful parable of love and friendship, vengeance and mercy.
2017 also sees the revival of Richard Strauss’s extraordinary masterpiece Ariadne auf Naxos. Katharina Thoma’s production debuted at the Festival in 2013 and sets Strauss’s story in 1940s England, in a country house very much like Glyndebourne. The opera sees one troupe of tragic actors and another of comedians arrive at a country estate to provide entertainment. In the midst of classic backstage chaos, the two troupes are told that since everything’s behind schedule, to save time, both shows must be performed simultaneously. The lofty tale of the lovelorn Ariadne is thus repeatedly disrupted by the music hall antics of the comedians – and Strauss showcases some of the most sublime music he ever composed.
Completing next summer’s Festival will be revivals of Verdi’s story of self-sacrifice and love, La traviata, and Donizetti’s tale of deception, vanity and folly, Don Pasquale. The programme should please the most eclectic of tastes but, with its pastoral setting, Glyndebourne is, above all, a place to create memories and spend a lazy summer’s afternoon with loved ones culminating in some excellent world-class opera.
GLYNDEBOURNE LEWES, EAST SUSSEX BN8 5UU +44 (0)1273 815000