The Glyndebourne opera festival, held every summer in the sumptuous grounds of the Sussex country house that gives it its name, is steeped in glorious tradition. Founded in 1934 by Sir John Christie and his wife, soprano Audrey Mildmay, it has over time become one of the go-to operatic events in the UK, offering visitors the chance to enjoy world class productions, explore the beautiful house and gardens that host them, and while away the long interval that’s so key to the proceedings with a picnic and a stroll in their finery.
In this, its 78th year, though, Glyndebourne also seems keen to reach out to those audiences who might previously have felt that such an experience is “for other people”. With an eye-catching marketing campaign that urges us to “see opera differently”, and some clever programming choices, this is a Glyndebourne that isn’t just for traditionalists. Though rightly it values its history and those dedicated followers who attend every year, it clearly wants to invite a new cohort through its opulent gates to share in the experience.
What an inspired decision, then, to open this year’s festival with Melly Still’s vibrant, fun-filled new production of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. With a narrative following the eponymous vixen as she interacts with the creatures who share her woodland home, collides with the nearby humans who regard her as a pest, and falls in love with a handsome fox, this is by no means “heavy opera”. On the contrary, it’s just the right kind of fare to wash over you when you’ve just enjoyed a glass of champagne or two on the lawn; an ideal piece for those perhaps dipping their toe into operatic waters for the first time.
Still’s collaborators assist greatly in creating the lighthearted and magical feel of the production. Tom Pye’s masterful set design takes us deep into the vixen’s forest territory; its centrepiece a grand old tree which reflects at every turn the story’s changing seasons. Costume Designer Dinah Collin adopts a less-is-more approach in turning the Glyndebourne company into woodland animals; superbly crafted bushy tails are enough in the hands of leads Lucy Crowe and Emma Bell (Vixen and Fox, respectively) to make entirely believable foxes, for instance. Collin’s work also shows fantastic humour, especially in early scenes featuring a group of hens – literally members of the Glyndebourne ladies’ chorus dressed in gaudy pink as if at a hen party. Also bringing characters vividly to life is Maxine Doyle’s choreography, another factor which ensures there’s always something visually interesting happening on stage.
As well as being a treat for the eye, the production is as accomplished musically as one might expect – with London Philharmonic Orchestra revelling in the chirpy liveliness of Janáček’s score – and it’s no exaggeration to say that the singing is flawless. In recent years, sopranos Crowe and Bell have come to be regarded as leading lights in the opera world, and in The Cunning Little Vixen it is easy to hear why. Also outstanding is the lovely rich baritone of Sergei Leiferkus as the forester, but the company as a whole is so strong vocally that each performance would be worthy of an individual mention, space permitting. The characteristic class of this aspect of the production ensures that there’s plenty here to delight the opera aficionados as well as the Glyndebourne first-timers.
There’s no doubt that The Cunning Little Vixen is both theatre and opera at its best, but it can safely be said that whichever of the six productions you choose to attend from this year’s programme, and whether it’s your first or fiftieth time, you’ll have a delightful evening. With the heady mix it offers of quality live performance, breathtaking surroundings, the opportunity to mingle with fellow festival-goers and a relaxed atmosphere set up for enjoyment, Glyndebourne is the experience of a lifetime. Don’t miss it.
The full Glyndebourne programme comprises new productions of The Cunning Little Vixen, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and a Ravel double bill (L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et Les Sortilèges), and revival productions of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Puccini’s La Bohème.
Glyndebourne Festival 2012, 20/05/2012 until 26/08/2012, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU. This year Glyndebourne will be touring around the UK until 8 December. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.glyndebourne.com
Text: Grace Henderson
Photography: Bill Cooper