My Glyndebourne Experience: Sheep, Tea, and Ariadne auf Naxos

Yesterday afternoon I returned from a week long “holiday” to the incredibly music-filled city of London. My family and I toured several venues such as Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, and the British Museum, but we also attended performances at Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The first performance that we attended, which was a week ago tonight, was Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne.

Photo: Glyndebourne in bright sunshine when we arrived

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Glyndebourne was the part of the vacation that I was most looking forward to, and boy did it meet my expectations. It was a very special operatic experience, and one that I will never forget.

My parents and I took the train from London to Lewes, England, where the buses are located to transport opera patrons to Glyndebourne. We arrived in Lewes and looked for the Glyndebourne bus. There was a bus marked “Glyndebourne” across the street, but we found out it was for cast members only! Luckily we made the mistake of finding the wrong bus, because we got to meet and shake hands with Sir Thomas Allen, the Music Master in Ariadne. He was so incredibly nice and he told us that he would look for us in the audience. From then on, I knew that Glyndebourne would be the amazing experience that I heard about.

We arrived and I saw the opera house with the big green lawn for picnicking. We also saw the rolling green hills where you could see at least a hundred sheep munching on grass and making noise! Once we finished taking in the breathtaking view, my parents and I went for afternoon tea (yes, we became cultural very quickly) at the Middle and Over Wallop. We enjoyed the tea, tarts, and scones with jam and clotted cream that were part of the whole British cultural experience. Between the opera, at the interval, we would have dinner at the Nether Wallop (I know, what’s up with all of these ‘wallops’?!). After tea I met up and spoke with the renowned dramaturg of Glyndebourne, Cori Ellison. She worked part-time at the Met, where she was my stage mother in Die Meistersinger in 2007. It was lovely speaking with her again, and an honor to talk with someone of such a high position at one of the world’s leading opera festivals.

Photo: Tea at Glyndebourne (with Dad in the background)

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Overall, I enjoyed the performance of Ariadne. Seeing Ariadne in an opera house for 1,200 people made a huge impression on the girl who regularly attends performances at the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera House. The orchestra for Ariadne has only 38 players: At the Met, the sound can be small and sometimes muffled, while at Glyndebourne, the sound filled the house and rang through the horseshoe-shaped theater.

The singing was wonderful. Kate Lindsey was my particular favorite. Her interpretation of the Composer was so intense and deep, and she showed an obvious understanding of the role. Her facial expressions and her way of showing the conflicting emotions the Composer experiences lured the audience in, including me. The Zerbinetta in the July 5th performance that I attended was sung by Russian soprano Ulyana Aleksyuk, replacing Laura Claycomb who was ill. What an incredible voice! Her “Großmächtige Prinzessin” knocked me off my feet, even though I was sitting down. Soile Isokoski played a hilariously diva-like Ariadne, and Sir Thomas Allen was a wonderful Music Master.

Photo: Kate Lindsey as the Composer in Ariadne

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The London Philharmonic under Maestro Vladimir Jurowski gave a great performance as well. There were a few balance problems  in the second act, but that may have been due to the smaller house and things being louder than usual. This performance of Ariadne was also the fastest performance of the work I have seen (tempi wise), in some spots good while in others bad. Overall, it was a special opportunity to hear one of London’s five great orchestras.

The production of Ariadne was the one weak spot in my Glyndebourne experience. It took place in Britain in World War II: The prologue took place in Britain right before an air raid, and the opera took place in the hospital afterwards. Why? The entire opera is supposed to take place in the house of the richest man in Vienna. It doesn’t say Britain or hospital anywhere in Strauss’ notes. The end of the prologue with the swelling music of the Composer and its inspiring build-up, was ruined by fire and smoke filling the stage from the air raid. It broke my heart. The second act’s setting at the hospital left me depressed, and begging for charm and color. The only happiness in the act was Zerbinetta’s team of entertainers and their dance routine. The production so obviously and desperately wanted to work, that mistakes were made in delivery of the lines. For example: When Bacchus arrives at the end of the opera to rescue Ariadne, Ariadne sings “Theseus!”, crying out for him to come back to the island. In this production, when Ariadne sang “Theseus!”, she sang it at Bacchus, making it seem as if she were suffering from dementia in the hospital and she did not recognize that Bacchus was not Theseus. The production tried so hard to fit into Strauss’ measures, that it confusingly and offensively disturbed Hofmannsthal’s libretto. The only parts of the production that I really enjoyed were the majority of the prologue, and the hilarious entertainers with Zerbinetta and their dance routine.

No matter my dislike of the production, Glyndebourne was one of my favorite parts of my trip to London. I had been listening to broadcasts from that opera house for such a long time, and it was incredible to finally go and see a performance at the actual house. For a girl in New York that goes regularly to the largest opera house in the world, Glyndebourne made a real impression on me. I look forward to going back one day!

PS: Here is a photo (not taken by me) of the sheep at Glyndebourne

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