Glyndebourne: not just for snobs

Beyond its elite image, country house opera is a source of artistic invention.

Tomorrow evening on BBC2, we will see Gareth Malone - classical music's preppiest and cleanest-shaven champion - face his greatest challenge. He won't be bringing Puccini to Peckham or persuading ASBO teenagers to embrace choral singing, but attempting to convince television viewers that Glyndebourne is not the elitist institution we've been led to believe.

We follow Malone on his latest mission - recruiting and training a chorus of rowdy teenagers for Knight Crew, Glyndebourne's latest educational opera project. The formula is similar to Malone's previous series The Choir, but it's the program's secondary agenda that is most interesting. As Glyndebourne's director, David Pickard, explains:

A lot of people out there know exactly what Glyndebourne is - it does these lovely operas. Everybody has a picnic and they all dress up. Actually it's so much more than that.

In a political environment in which even the Proms face charges of "elitism", country house opera with its black-tie dress code and conspicuous champagne consumption has long been the mad wife in the cultural attic. The glossy image of the big three - Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park - has been both blight and blessing, the cachet ensuring a steady flow of private funding but also allowing these institutions to be dismissed as culturally conservative and nostalgic.

A glance through past seasons' programmes however is revealing: far from sticking to the safe ground of Figaro and La Bohème, the major institutions have deliberately pursued a progressive artistic agenda, "branching out into more esoteric repertoires", as the veteran critic David Nice puts it.

Quietly racking up a disproportionate number of UK premieres and rarely performed productions, these institutions are guaranteed audiences almost regardless of musical content thanks to long-term (and expensive) membership schemes. It allows them an artistic freedom that publicly funded institutions such as the Royal Opera are denied.

Glyndebourne, for example, can choose to champion obscurity or novelty, to program a season such as 2002, which featured Weber's Euryanthe, Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide and Janacek's Katya Kabanova - a daring (and, as it proved, fairly disastrous) collective line up no government-funded institution would even be able to contemplate. Indeed, one of the first reactions to last year's economic straitening was a Royal Opera House proposal to scrap a new production of Prokofiev rarity The Gambler.

This season alone sees a much-hyped UK premiere of Rossini's Armida at Garsington, and performances of Richard Strauss' Capriccio together with Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges at Grange Park - two works that have not been staged professionally in England for over ten years.

Yet what of the audience in all of this? Despite extensive outreach programs and reduced-price ticket schemes targeting younger opera-goers, the basic demographic has seen little discernable change. Artistic progressiveness does not, it seems, necessarily promote social mobility. Prohibitive ticket prices - so essential to the survival of these companies - continue to work their narrowing effect

Central to the ethos of country house opera is the idea of opera as a social experience - art embedded into broader human rituals and rhythms. A public genre almost from its inception, it was only in the 20th century that opera became isolated from mainstream culture. Look for an equivalent of Handel's raucous King's Theatre - a place as much for business, socialising and gossip as art - and you'll find its equivalent more readily in the leisured process of Glyndebourne than the efficient formality of the Royal Opera House.

With cuts to public arts funding imminent, and Conservative talk of a move towards a "US-Style culture of philanthropy", it seems a good time to look to at the unique artistic model of country house opera - to try and translate this crucial element of its structure back into the bigger halls and broader audiences of the public sector.

Gareth Malone goes to Glyndebourne is on BBC2, Thursday 17 June, at 9pm

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle