This year’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera marked the festival’s eightieth anniversary, and the twentieth of the brilliant new opera house designed by Hopkins Associates, possibly the best postwar theater in Europe. But it opened in poignant circumstances. Only days before the first night, Sir George Christie died. He was the son of John Christie, country gentleman, Eton schoolmaster, infantry officer, and all-round eccentric, who began the festival as a love-offering to his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay. George was present literally in embryo at the first first night in 1934: his mother was pregnant with him when she sang Susanna in Figaro.
This year also opened with an unseemly controversy. The critics were mostly lukewarm about the garish new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Jones (which begins in subtle fashion with the Marschallin naked in the shower), but they were unanimous in damning the appearance of Tara Erraught, the young Irish mezzo singing Octavian, and in quite unpleasant terms: she was “frumpish” and “unsightly.” The simple fact was that Jones and Nicky Gillibrand, the designer, had put Erraught in a grotesque wig and hideous costume, which was scarcely her fault.
For anyone who wants to know why, beyond all the dressing up, the picnicking, and the fading sunlight in the garden, Glyndebourne is so cherished by music-lovers, there is a superb revival of Yevgeny Onegin. Conducted by the young Israeli Omer Meir Wellber, and with a simple set beautifully lit, its very strong young cast, mostly Slavonic, shows how overwhelming Tchaikovsky’s great opera can be.
From the beginning, Glyndebourne was in the van of opera sung in the original language, for better or for worse. It is not obviously for better when operas are sung parrot-fashion in a language neither performers nor audience understands. But at least in this Onegin, if not many of the audience know Russian, all the singers do. Ekaterina Scherbachenko is a most touching Tatyana, Andrei Bondarenko is admirable in the title part, and the bass Taras Shtonda nearly steals the show as Prince Gremin. To be precise, some of the cast are Russian and some, as their names suggest, are Ukrainian, which might have led to tension in present circumstances. If so, it was creative tension on stage.
Further performances of Yevgeny Onegin at Glyndebourne run from June 20 to July 11. Der Rosenkavalier will be performed at the BBC Proms in London and broadcast on July 22. To watch livestreams of each performance, and for more information, visit glyndebourne.com.
Lewes, Great Britain