Intimate romp gives a novel fillip to the autumn tour
One of the several pleasures of a visit to Glyndebourne in the balmy days of summer is the overall quality of not only young almost unknown soloists – think Kate Royal, Danielle de Niese, Miah Persson – but also of its chorus. The unknown soloists go on to become some of the most in-demand international stars. And so, you can be assured, will at least some members of the Glyndebourne chorus and its Jerwood Chorus Development Scheme does a fine job of showcasing just how good they really are.
Each summer during the Festival young singers, conductors and directors are given the opportunity to work together on a short, staged work which is then presented in front of an audience. And make no mistake, these new chamber operas can be challenging works – for audiences as much as for the performers.
One such has now been accorded the privilege of a place within this autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour, which traditionally takes three modified Festival productions to, this year, some nine theatres around the country. The Yellow Sofa, written specially for Glyndebourne by the house’s first composer-in-residence, Julian Philips, was originally performed in the margins of the 2009 Festival and is the first of Glyndebourne’s chamber operas to be given this wider airing. The libretto, by Edward Kemp, is based on a short story by Portugal’s most eminent novelist Eça de Queirós and set on (and around) a yellow sofa in 1880s Lisbon. It’s a romp featuring perceived infidelity on the yellow sofa, sung with great gusto by Lauren Easton!
Philips explains that he and Kemp decided early on to theatricalise the sofa as a female voice, Amarela, and to strip de Queirós’s story down to the psychological journey of his ‘hero’ Godofredo. The work is scored for 11 strings, two guitars and a piano which, Philips says, ‘are deployed sometimes orchestrally and sometimes like over-grown chamber or salon music’. As for the guitars, ‘one provides a harmonic core, the other distilling the story’s fragile and vulnerable emotions into its uniquely sweet and soulful sound’.
Philips’ work is certainly worthy of this wider exposure and the quality of the singing throughout is testament to the calibre of the Glyndebourne chorus, though I wonder whether as much attention is paid to diction, even when a work is sung in English, now that audiences are so used to following the text on surtitles, which are absent from the Royal Opera House’s second stage, the Linbury Studio Theatre, where the Glyndebourne Tour’s first Covent Garden outing took place last night to a packed house.
Gareth Hancock conducted a deliciously musical evening and Glyndebourne can count its decision to take The Yellow Sofa on tour a success. It’s a braver move than putting on its new Le Nozze di Figaro, which is part of the tour in a scaled-down and less successful version of the fabulous Festival production.
This year’s tour is also giving the wider public a chance to see Danielle de Niese’s stunningly seductive Cleopatra in cinema screenings from the 2005 Festival production of Giulio Cesare, which at the time wowed critics and the public as well as Glyndebourne’s boss Gus Christie, now de Niese’s husband.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.