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Posts tagged ‘Opera’

Onwards to Vienna, Part 1: Imperial City

It felt like we had returned to the glory days of the 20s. Fresh from a cosseted beverage in Harry’s Bar, the venerable watering hole of Hemingway, and having headed along the Grand Canal by vaporetto to the Stazione Santa Lucia, we left Venice one foggy freezing night by night train. With our own little private compartment complete with bunk beds, complementary towels (and bubbles!), and even a tuck away sink and wardrobe, the only thing missing was the inevitable Agatha Christie-esk murder. And while things certainly did go bumpety-bump-bump in the night, we (and as far as I know, the other passengers) arrived early the following morning very much alive and vibrating. Our new destination: Vienna.

Vienna is synonymous with New Year thanks to its famous New Year’s Day concert from the grand Musikverein, and likewise with the festive season owing to its multitude of Christmas markets perfumed with the scent of mulled wine and spiced pastries. The city was therefore an obvious choice after our Christmas in Venice, and with our night-journey also doubling as a hotel, it was the most convenient of onward travels.

Vienna, first views


If Venice was remarkable for its decadent, fading grandeur, Vienna was notable for its utterly breathtaking majesty. While Venice’s palaces and piazzas were to be found nestled alongside a maze of tiny canals, and hidden in cosy corners, from our first steps within Vienna, it presented as a city on show. A city-spectacular, straight out of the gilded pages of its imperial past. A city built as a manifestation of an empire’s utmost power, spectacular riches and the very best of refined taste and unceasing elegance. It felt like a city almost untouched by the turbulence of past centuries, as its resplendent monuments and palatial public buildings glittered as though brand new.

This was no more evident than on the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s principal boulevard and main inner-ringroad, an avenue whose construction 150 years ago coincided with a race to build alongside it the most spectacular buildings the city had ever seen.

Our location in the comparatively village-like Josefstadt region led us directly onto the Ringstrasse, and our first encounter was with the phenomenal neo-gothic Neues Rathaus, the new city hall built by architect Friedrich von Schmidt and including an impressive 100m central tower topped by a 3m statue of a knight in shining armour.

The Neues Rathaus


Just a few metres onwards and we came face to face with the classical masterpiece of Theophil Hansen’s Parliament Building, a temple-like construction whose positioning up a gentle sloping hill and collection of grand mythological statues imbued the site with all the majesty and power which would be expected of such a key component of the state. Meanwhile, just opposite across many of the grassy gardens which also line the Ringstrasse, further majesty could be found in the form of the Hofburg Complex, the sprawling network of former imperial apartments and the Presidential offices; a cluster of palaces whose impressive scale is softened by the elegance of its green cupolas and gilded details.

The Parliament building and the Hofburg Complex


And so with each and every step we took along this impressive broad avenue, we encountered a new masterpiece of architectural prowess, from the twin places of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Natural History Museum to the stunning State Opera House, one of the first of the grand Ringstrasse buildings to be completed, and of course the famous Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And these views only got better as night quickly fell, and the grandeur was aptly illuminated against a starry blue sky.

The Opera, and the Musikverein


As Sigmund Freud once noted, Schein über Sein – looking good is better than being good. And while Vienna struck us almost immediately as a veritable showpiece rather than a place of cosiness and homely welcome, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the show being laid out before us, a performance whose protagonist would continue to dazzle as this next leg of our winter journey moved onwards.

The Ringstrasse at night


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Ravel at Glyndebourne: the double-dip opera-session

Everyone knows that here in England, we’re wallowing in a double-dip recession. The longest for decades they say. But there was light on the horizon this week – apparently we’re not in the recession as deep as forecasters had thought. Well hey ho, that’s a positive surely? Things are looking up! And what better way to celebrate this sprightly news than to head along to where all the rich people go – to Glyndebourne Opera, home of the landed gentry, the well-coined and lovers of lavishness aplenty, for none other than a double-dip opera-session! (called such because 1. this is my second visit of the year – I know, lucky me – and 2. we got to see not one, but two operas by Ravel). I know, Ravel – hardly your Puccini or Mozart. But my, what a feast beheld us when we sat down to watch the melodic opus of this operatic genius.

L’heure espagnole

Once we had enjoyed our customary fill of afternoon tea and a stroll around the verdant grounds of Glyndebourne (disappointed however that for the price of half a small car, tea was presented as a Twinings tea bag. Where was my loose leaf? My high tea silver?) we entered the lavishly contemporary wood-clad opera auditorium to watch the first of the Ravel double-bill. L’heure espagnole thrilled from the moment the curtain unfurled horizontally across the stage, revealing behind it a clockworker’s shop with a wall filled to the brim of different sized clocks and other nicknacks, all wonderfully animated so that, as the curtain rolled back to reveal them, the clocks would begin spinning, the skeleton started dancing and dusters started revolving, all on their own, like some kind of enchanted wonderland.

What followed was a perfectly choreographed commedia dell’arte, a typical sexual farce as a clockmaker’s wife attempted (almost) in vain, to make the most of her husband’s one hour’s absence to throughly flirt her way through the town’s male population. But as she found one man too poetically verbose and romantically flighty, she found the robust attentions of another too overbearing. Trying to escape one and have her way with the other, a hilarious scene unfurled as the licentious Concepcion, brilliantly played by Stéphanie d’Oustrac, tried to hide one lover from another, generally speaking in cuckoo clocks, while all the time courting the attention of yet another suitor who at the start of the opera bemoaned his lack of touch with women, but by the end had bedded Concepcion, just in time before her husband arrived back.

My favourite section was the final scene, when back on stage, all five singers threw themselves into a brilliantly mastered harmony, sung in tandem, but each one of them following a differently intricate melody. I also appreciated the devilish symbolism which ran throughout the opera, as the libretto alluded to the winding up of clocks as a symbol of sexual frustration, only for the cuckoo to pop out energetically as a symbol of – well, I’ll let your imagination finish that sentence off. A few dangling pendulums and several shrill cuckoos later, and the opera ended just after an hour of comical gold with some excellent singing and a beautifully played score which evoked the sensual atmosphere of middle-Spain (the opera is set in Toledo) and the ravishing rhythms and visceral textures of that region. What this opera lacked in memorable harmonies, it gained in actorly skill and superb staging – one forgets that opera singers have to act just as well as they sing, and in L’heure espagnole, they were pretty spot-on on both fronts.

 L’enfant et les sortilèges

If the evening had ended there, we would have walked away highly satisfied. But after the customary 90 minute interval break, we returned for the second of the Ravel operas and were frankly so stunned by the creative genius of the spectacle which started to play out on the stage before us that my mouth hung open, my partner’s eyes started blinking in disbelief, and for all of us, a suspicion ensued that either the wine during dinner had been sensationally strong or the director’s staging was fantastically good, such was the brilliance and utter incredulity of the surreal spectacular which was embodied by the second opera: L’enfant et les sortilèges. 

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A night at Glyndebourne Part 2: Damp Grounds; Delicious Dinner

When you attend the opera in most theatres, doors will open half an hour before. No sooner have you arrived that the bell will go and you’ll hurry to your seats. The interval will provide at most, the opportunity for a rushed glass of something bubbly before your brisk return into the theatre again for the second half. Once the curtain goes down, it’s home as quick as your legs can carry you, avoiding the waves of leaving attendees wherever possible.

Going to see an opera at Glyndebourne is very different. It’s an event; it’s practically a day trip. Before the start of a performance, you can stroll around the grounds, walk around the dammed stream and look at the sheep, enjoy a glass of champagne on a bouncy lawn, or take high tea in one of the restaurants. There is even a small art gallery in the basement of the opera house for your entertainment, and walled gardens bursting with multi-coloured blooms. When it’s finally time for the Opera to begin you watch the first half followed by an interval of 80-90 minutes. It’s during this time that the spirit of Glyndebourne really comes alive, as picnics, already set up by opera-goers all over the perfectly maintained grounds are enjoyed, with time to sit back, sup, and discuss the first half of the performance.

A dammed stream in Glyndebourne’s extensive grounds

It’s the picnics that are, for me, emblematic of Glyndebourne, and offer a wonderful insight into a slice of English society. It’s hilarious to see how people subtly compete with one another. Far from picnicking out on a mere blanket, the Glyndebourne picnickers bring practically their whole dining room with them. They’ll be those who bring a fold up table and deck chairs which are fairly easy to carry and unpretentious. Of course they’ll have a Fortnums hamper with them, but then who doesn’t? They’ll be the ones with the plastic plates and food wrapped up in foil. But on the table next door they’ll be no such shortcuts. For those proud picnickers, the presentation of the picnic is a status symbol. So they bring chairs which are sturdy and firm. Their table is covered by a linen tablecloth with matching napkins. They’ll bring china plates and glass champagne flutes. And who could picnic without a crystal vase of flowers to set off the contents of the table? I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these picnickers bring a Butler too. I adore the charming pretention that comes with these picnics, seen equally as guests vie for the best spot on the grounds, marking their claimed territory with grand extensions of blankets and umbrellas, huge picnic baskets and other tokens of home. All done of course with a broad smile and exchanged pleasantries with the picnic table next door.

Flowers in the walled gardens

Sadly, of my four trips to Glyndebourne, I have never once been able to picnic in the grounds. I’m clearly cursed, as on each of my visits, it’s been either raining, perilously windy, or both. Such is the instability of the English summer. On good days it must be amazing in those grounds. Sadly I am yet to find out. On this visit my mother and I had long given up the hope of picnicking. We were travelling from London with minimal time to prepare, so we booked a table at the Middle & Over Wallop restaurant. As the day approached, we did not regret our decision. True, the rain just about held off, but with a keen wind and grey skies, picnicking conditions were not ideal. Yet still the majority of guests braved the conditions and stuck with their picnicking plans – another apt demonstration of Englishness – to stick it out, no matter what.

For we, perhaps more cynical diners, the Middle & Over Wallop restaurant, run during the season by Leiths with chef Albert Roux overseeing operations, provided a delicious mid-Opera feast in opulent surroundings (the restaurant must be hung with about 50 or so separate chandeliers) which was, most importantly, cosy and dry. What with time being on the short side, everything was chosen in advance, so a swift service was guaranteed.

The Middle and Over Wallop Restaurant

We both started with Hure of organic salmon, smoked salmon, crab and quail egg with watercress dressing. That dressing was light and peppery, and the smoked salmon delicate and moist. It was a fairly simple arrangement but full of flavour.

Next up for me was a blanquette of veal with mint, baby onions, Chanteney carrots and basmati rice. It was exquisite. The cheesy crumb on the top of the veal was to die for, while the meat just fell apart under my knife. Meanwhile my Mummy had a loin of Cumbria fell bred lamb wrapped with saffron couscous, and cumin rataouille. She too was aptly impressed, and this once can even be recreated at home – bonus!

Blanquette of Veal

Saffron couscous encrusted lamb

Dessert was a raspberry triple – a millefeuille of Kent raspberry, raspberry mousse and raspberry coulis. It tasted as good as it looked.

The raspberry triple

Luckily the food, while swiftly served, was light with fairly small portions – I was wearing a waist-repressing cummerbund after all!

So you see, Glyndebourne ain’t all about the Opera – it’s very much an occasion, and one which I cannot wait to repeat again. You never know, next time the sun may actually come out, and I might get to enjoy that picnic after all. But just watch me coming fellow picnickers if I get out on that lawn. Competitive is my middle name.

A night at Glyndebourne Part I: The Opera – Puccini’s La bohème

There is nothing quite so wonderful as a summer evening at the opera. Don’t get me wrong, opera can be pretty cosy in the middle of the winter too, but there is something about the combined smells of champagne, Pimm’s and fresh grass, the swish of long luxurious dresses against the green tints of summer, and the descent into long, light evenings at the end of the performance that make summer operas a wholly more enchanting affair. And no where is this more true than at the Glyndebourne Opera House in East Sussex.

Glyndebourne opera house

Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Mimi (Photo: Robert Workman)

Growing up in Sussex, I was always aware of an aura of elegance surrounding Glyndebourne. Most summers, my parents would suddenly emerge from their bedroom exceptionally smartly dressed, my father in black tie, and my mother is taffeta and jewels. They would engage the babysitting services of my grandmother while they headed off to Glyndebourne, with a picnic basket in hand and some fold up furniture to boot. A few years later, when old enough to properly appreciate the occasion (and thus not waste the exorbitant ticket prices) I was lucky enough to make my first trip to Glyndebourne. The place astounded me. It has to be one of the most idyllic settings I have ever set my eyes upon. A lush green landscape of rolling hills, a field echoing with the gentle calls of sheep, a stream surrounded by willows, and in the middle of it all, an architecturally thrilling opera house – part modern, a stylish round red-brick creation, and part old manor house. Even now, with their new ultra-environmental wind turbine installed, the place is a feast for the eyes.

Christmas festivities at the end of Act II (Photo: Robert Workman)

A night at Glyndebourne opera is almost like stepping back in time – as people dress up to nines, with a  strict dress code of black tie and formal dresses being unanimously imposed, and the opera-goers sit out on the lawn with picnics set up, not just on rugs, but with furniture imported (some even bring tablecloths and vases of flowers!) – the whole occasion appears to represent a last bastion of civilised society – utterly polite, completely sophisticated and awfully quite “English”.  There’s much to say about all of this, and in tomorrow’s post I will tell you all about the dining at Glyndebourne. But for today, I’m sticking to the opera which was the pull of our visit in the first place – Glyndebourne’s 2012 performance of Puccini’s La bohème.

Mimi in her last moments (Photo: Robert Workman)

The opera is familiar to many opera-lovers. It doesn’t contain some of Puccini’s most memorable arias, but the score is at all times opulent, dramatic and pretty stirring throughout – at times it was almost stressfully upsetting. The story, based on the book by Henri Murger which was in turn brought to life by librettists Illica and Giacosa, is a simple, and now well-known tale – the story of an impoverished writer in Paris who falls in love with an equally penniless heroine who then dies from tuberculosis leaving said writer devastated right at the moment when the curtain falls. Lovers of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge will probably recognise the story – it was, after all, based on Murger’s tale. It’s a simple tale of love in a cold climate, where passion provides the only warmth, and attempts to transcends the ravages of poverty only to then fall victim to the destruction of an incurable illness which only poverty, and desperation could have caused. It’s highly tragic, but utterly romantic, and all of this is helped of course by the intended backdrop of the winding-streets of Paris’ idyllic, cobbled Latin Quarter.

Michael Sumuel, David Lomeli, Andrei Bondarenko, Nahuel Di Perro (Photo: Robert Workman)

Move to Glyndebourne’s production however, originally directed by Davud McVicar and now revitalised for the 2012 festival, and the setting has been transported not to the Marais or Montmartre, but to London’s tatty present-day Soho. Thus we have policemen running after thieves, road sweepers, security men, Christmas shoppers adorned with bags from Harrods and Selfridges, and even what looked like the entrance to the underground. It’s a bold move which isn’t overly consistent with the libretto, which continues to talk of the view of Paris rooftops, nor the rousing drama and opulence of the score. However it is at least a novel retelling of the story – it’s just difficult perhaps to get all romantic about the lovers, Rodolfo and Mimi, when Rodolfo is dressed in a hoodie, and Mimi in jeans. But as David Cameron would have it, we should all be “hugging hoodies”- so why not stage them in a opera too?

David Lomeli as Rodolfo and Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Mimi (Photo: Robert Workman)

While the tatty studio flat of Rodolfo and his artist friend, full of rubbish and constructed from what resembles crumbling concrete and steel, isn’t exactly easy on the eye, the sound emanating from the opera singers themselves was certainly easy on the ears. David Lomeli as Rodolfo produced an incredible, rich and rounded sound – his aria in Act 1 (Che Gelida Manina – Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen) was exquisite and immediately had my eyes filling up. Meanwhile, Ekaterina Scherbachenko made an equally credible Mimi, with the earnest demeanor and visible courage expected of the character, but it was a little disconcerting when, upon completing her first aria with Rodolfo, she suddenly trailed off just before the top note – I wonder whether she tripped down a step when heading off stage?! High praise has to be reserved for Irina Iordachescu as Musetta who played the cocky femme fatale with swagger and style, greatly enhanced no doubt by a pair of Louboutin boots and a very sparkly top.

Irina Iordachescu as Musetta and Donald Maxwell as Alcindoro (Photo: Robert Workman)

The orchestra sounded wonderful throughout, although at times the cast struggled to hold their own against the rousing crescendos of the score. We also had the benefit of being able to see the orchestra from our seat on the circle, which greatly enhanced the overall experience – at least when I could see them. For the problem , but also the great attraction of this opera is that it is so bloody sad, with the inevitable result that my eyes were constantly blurring with tears. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the superb resonance of David Lomeli’s aria had me crying in Act 1, the end of the opera just completely devastated me. I found it so utterly traumatic that I struggled to talk for about 5 minutes after the curtain came down. Which just goes to show, London or Paris, top hat or hoodie, when you get a good orchestra, a good conductor and great singers, Puccini’s score has the enduring power to stir up its audience and tap into the rawest of emotions, taking them on a rollercoaster with a power to enthrall, charm, and ultimately, upset. Now that’s true operatic genius, and it is a genius which the Glyndebourne experience helped to enhance to new levels of dramatic intensity, with a dash of pleasing english reserve to boot, naturally.

Mimi: close to death (Photo: Robert Workman)

La bohème is on until 31 July – try to get tickets – if you can.