Which is the greatest opera of them all?

Antony CraigMon 10th June 2013
Which is the greatest opera of them all?Glyndebourne's Falstaff revival stars Laurent Naouri in the title role (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Glyndebourne makes compelling cases for leading contenders Falstaff and Figaro

When asked to name ‘the greatest opera’, or even my own personal favourite, I have always equivocated. How on earth might one compare Die Meistersinger, say, with Peter Grimes, or L’incoronazione di Poppea with Madama Butterfly or Wozzeck? In any event, one’s choices must be subjective and, no doubt, say more about the chooser than the operas. Nonetheless, it is sometimes irresistible and we’re coming up to that time of year when Gramophone’s critics pick the year’s best recordings to win the coveted Gramophone Awards, so ranking in order is the name of the game.

So I’m getting off the fence, perhaps because over the past two weekends I have seen cracking performances of two of my leading candidates – both ‘comedies’, but comedies with bite and a social context, both of them pieces where feisty women get the better of lecherous, aristocratic gents.

My single most sublime operatic musical moment would be the trio in Rosenkavalier; my single most dramatic moment Leonora’s appearance in the dungeon flourishing a pistol to stop Pizarro killing her Florestan, followed by the trumpet announcing the arrival of the minister and the triumph of virtue and conjugal love. I can’t imagine a musical landscape without Fidelio, but opera did not come naturally to the master.

But which is the greatest opera? My first candidate is Falstaff. Glyndebourne’s revival convinces me that the wonderful scene where the fat rogue goes a-wooing Alice Ford and ends up being tossed into the Thames from a basket full of dirty laundry is the ultimate. Verdi was in his 80th year when he completed Falstaff, a comedy laced with social observation and a prescient forerunner of the fights for women’s rights. His only other comedy, the pleasant but slight Un giorno di regno, was completed more than half a century earlier. Yet in six short quicksilver scenes Verdi showed an astonishing versatility. Some 26 tragedies had not blunted a wickedly ironic sense of fun that was finally given its head, and in Arrigo Boito’s hands The Merry Wives of Windsor becomes a work of art that Verdi could clothe in music that left the 19th century, and all that had gone before, behind.

Glyndebourne’s 2009 production by Richard Jones was one of my choices in a Specialist’s Guide on Falstaff (Gramophone, September 2012), where I praised the inspired choice to cast one-time rocker Christopher Purves in the title-role. The revival cast is wholly new but Jones’s production, revived by Sarah Fahie, sparkles as brightly and Laurent Naouri’s gloriously voiced Falstaff is a worthy match for Purves. His masterful ‘Va vecchio John’ is pure pathos. For all Falstaff’s faults, he is the real thing and true to himself. Flustered Ford, top hat and tails with an incongruous red bow-tie, and jealousy incarnate, is all nouveau riche and mock-Tudor. Roman Burdenko is Ford to a T. But, if anything, the women have the edge, Ailyn Pérez’s radiant Alice – ‘We’ll show these men that honest fun is the sign of honest women’ – the lynch-pin of the proceedings, with Lucia Cirillo as Meg, Susanne Resmark a terrifying Quickly and Elena Tsallagova a charming Nannetta making up a faultless quartet.

Into this melting-pot, throw in the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, albeit we are well beyond Enlightenment in 1893 let alone the Windsor of austere 1946, to which Jones moves the action. There is a darker sheen to the orchestra, a golden glow which Mark Elder exploits to perfection, with a rare mastery of pace, letting this fine group of musicians sing.

Given such a performance as this, Falstaff has to be a candidate. But an astonishing 1964 performance of Otello at Covent Garden with James McCracken and Tito Gobbi (and fully an hour of applause altogether) persuades me that both Verdi’s ultimate operas have to stay in contention to the end.

Die Meistersinger, Wagner’s sole comedy, is a glorious creation, albeit there are disturbing narratives at play. Glyndebourne’s massive production, with a definitive Sachs in Gerald Finley, ought to make this a contender but, by comparison with Falstaff, Meistersinger seems long-winded. The riot scene is, well, a riot, but the organised chaos of Falstaff’s laundry basket scene is one of the polished gems of the operatic canon.

Saturday night’s revival of Michael Grandage’s Le nozze di Figaro, however, restates a compelling case for the first of Mozart’s da Ponte operas. I saw my first Figaro 50 years ago in a production at Covent Garden that boasted one of the starriest casts that can ever have been assembled – Solti conducting Ilva Ligabue as the Countess, Mirella Freni as Susanna, Teresa Berganza an incomparable Cherubino, Geraint Evans as Figaro and Gobbi (in a role he never recorded) as the Count. I will never forget Gobbi’s horrified reaction when he pulled back a sheet to uncover Cherubino cowering in the armchair in Act 1.

Fifty years on Mozart’s most perfect opera – the action takes place within a single day – has lost none of its power to overwhelm. Grandage has moved Mozart and da Ponte’s setting of Beaumarchais’s subversive 1778 pre-French Revolution ‘comedy’ into the 1960s when ‘the idea of free love was just starting, part of the complex sexual politics of the day’. For all that the satire loses some of its purely political bite, I love this staging – ‘a visual and vocal treat’ I said last year – and the baffling final act, which defeats most directors, is here a model of comedic clarity. (The cut-back version used for the Glyndebourne Tour in the autumn didn’t really work.)

Each of the four acts has an inherent momentum that drives the drama forward relentlessly. The momentum never flags here, though in a couple of respects the revival casting is less successful than the original (recently released on DVD and Blu-ray). Sally Matthews’s Countess – pure perfection, with a breathtakingly beautiful 'Porgi amor' – was always going to be a hard act to follow and Amanda Majeski, making her Glyndebourne (and UK) debut, is impressive in her own right – and almost as moving as Matthews – without quite soaring to such vocal heights. In this production she is visibly affected by Cherubino’s every gesture and almost succumbs to the spunky pageboy here and now (Beaumarchais would have us wait for La Mère coupable, the third part of his Figaro trilogy, for that little infidelity); all the way through you feel that if the two of them were left alone for long enough Rosina’s fidelity would certainly be breached. Last year’s Cherubino was Glyndebourne newcomer Isabel Leonard, whose stunning portrayal was as fine as any I could recall since Berganza half a century ago. This time the part is taken by Lydia Teuscher, last year’s Susanna, a role in which she excells. Another fine interpretation, but I’m not convinced the switch is entirely to her advantage. Meanwhile her place as Susanna, the driving force of so much of the action, is taken by Laura Tatulescu, yet another Glyndebourne newcomer, vocally at the top of her game and further evidence of this house’s uncanny ability to recruit young newcomers of the highest quality. But why does she have to keep tapping her guitar instead of making some pretence of playing it when she is ‘accompanying’ Cherubino’s ‘Voi Che Sapete’?

Newcomers Joshua Hopkins and Adam Plachetka embrace their roles as the Count (more rich Sixties playboy than anything) and Figaro respectively with gusto and I adored Timothy Robinson’s oily scandal-monger Basilio. And never for a moment does Jérémie Rhorer in the pit with Glyndebourne’s other first-class orchestra, the London Philharmonic, let the momentum flag. Le nozze di Figaro builds to the most magical musical apotheosis when the philandering Count finally comprehends that he has been comprehensively outflanked – by two women. And with moments of incandescent beauty, Mozart brings his greatest masterpiece (I said this was subjective!) to a close.

Opera buffa, yes. But the emotions provoked by such a fine performance and production are not the stuff of comedy. You know there will be no ‘happily ever after’, but that you have witnessed the pinnacle of operatic achievement. Figaro is a revolutionary work – one that Glyndebourne, not your obvious hotbed of revolution, has made its own. When it first opened in 1934 it was Figaro that was on stage, with the then maitresse of Glyndebourne, Audrey Mildmay, as Susanna. The house is now on its seventh production and, incredibly, Saturday night’s performance was its 529th. No wonder they do it so well!

Le nozze di Figaro the greatest opera of them all? Yes, I think so.

My top 10 (what are yours?)
We love lists and mine will change! But today I offer these suggestions …

1.    Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
2.    Verdi: Falstaff
3.    Verdi: Otello
4.    Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
5.    Puccini: Madama Butterfly
6.    Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
7.    Wagner: Die Meistersinger
8.    Delius: A Village Romeo and Juliet
9.    Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie
10.  Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Antony Craig

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.

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