Tara Erraught as Octavian, Lars Woldt as Baron Ochs and Kate Royal as the Marschallin in the 2014 Glyndebourne production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Glyndebourne 2014: Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

From acid social satire to romance, the new season at Glyndebourne has something to offer those willing to go beyond mere appearances.

Glyndebourne’s season opened last week with a tragedy and a comedy, but overpowering both was a scandal. When the “big five” broadsheet music critics voted as one to christen Tara Erraught’s Octavian in the company’s new Der Rosenkavalier “dumpy”,  “unsightly and unappealing”, and “a chubby bundle of puppy-fat” it touched a national nerve that still continues to twinge with opinion pieces and radio interviews.

The question of physical appearance in opera in an old wound that flares up periodically. Must singers be held to the same standards as actors, or should appearance be irrelevant as long as the voice is good enough? Are we favouring model-like Mimìs while indulging portly or elderly Rodolfos? Good questions all, but ones with little place in a review. I pay Erraught and her cast-mates the compliment of discussing the production as the thoroughly entertaining and impeccably executed art that it was, rather than getting bogged down in soap-boxing or sermonising. Anyone hoping for invective should consult the Guardian (whose own critic was a prime-mover in all of this) instead.

Richard Jones was always going to be a bold choice to direct Rosenkavalier in Strauss’s anniversary year. Witty and provocative, his productions don’t always offer quite the veneration to the original work that devotees desire. Everything in Jones-land is brighter and bigger – thought-provoking, certainly, but also thoughtful.

Here, aided by Paul Steinerg’s designs, Jones creates a Rosenkavalier that’s polished up so brightly that we can see our very twenty-first century faces reflected back at us in its glinting surface. There’s a certain elegance to a production that sees the young Sophie (sold in status-enhancing marriage to the ghastly Baron Ochs) paraded up and down a boardroom table like livestock at an auction provoking the same kind of dispassionate physical scrutiny by critics. We live in an age of glittering surfaces, and Strauss’s Vienna is no different.

Signature Jones wallpaper covers the sets from floor to ceiling like the pastel-coloured interior of a box of Viennese truffles. His characters’ psychodramas – real and vivid – chafe fruitfully against this belittling confinement, before being liberated into the glorious pomposity of the Faninals’ home – reimagined here, deliciously, as an Art Deco hotel.

Much of the impish delight of Jones’s production stems from his casting. Too often we see Marschallins well past their prime. Here, as Hofmannsthal intended, she is young and beautiful. Kate Royal makes a fine role debut; vocally this isn’t the largest or the most generous heroine, but for clarity and energy it’s a winner, sparking and sparring with Erraught’s Octavian in a way that’s both playful and deeply affectionate.

Erraught brings full-toned directness and real character to her role, channelling a youth that makes for a particularly innocent and touching courtship with Teodora Gheorghiu’s jewel-box ballerina of a Sophie. But though dramatically effective, Gheorghiu as yet lacks the vocal control (especially at the top of the voice) for the role, and with Royal’s lighter Marschallin this makes for some less-than-grounded ensembles. The final trio is moving, certainly, but not musically quite as exquisite as it could be, tending slightly shrill.

They aren’t helped by Ticciati’s pit, who produce lovely sounds but far too little of them. A good Rosenkavalier should float, supported by its billowy orchestra, but here the singers are left to fend for themselves too often.

At risk of spoiling the trick for those yet to see it, I will say only that Jones has plenty of other innovations and reimaginings up his sleeve. The final stage direction concerning the Marschallin’s forgotten clothing has rarely felt so natural a conclusion.

Ekaterina Sergeeva as Olga in the 2014 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

From acid social satire to romance in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production celebrates its twentieth birthday this year by returning in the hands of the original director himself. Much of the gilt-and-velvet excess of Pushkin’s Russia is stripped away here, leaving just its essence in the ballrooms and drawing rooms of St Petersburg. There’s a Baltic cleanness to Richard Hudson’s sets for the rural scenes that balances this, giving us wide emptiness and grandeur where we more often get busy domestic scenes and colourful peasantry.

The effect is to focus us more directly on the characters, rather than losing them in the bustle of atmospheric action. Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Tatyana is more contained than most, an introverted teenager with a vivid inner life. She is paired with a slightly-too-manic Olga (Ekaterina Sergeeva) in an opposition that feels more extreme than usual. The women lead the cast, from Scherbachenko’s ecstatic letter scene to Irina Tchistjakova’s earthily resonant Filipyevna.

The men are more problematic. Though solidly sung, Andrei Bondarenko’s Onegin never really catches fire. Physically stilted and ill at ease in his movements, he makes a plausible enough judge in the early scenes, but not a sufficiently passionate lover in the latter. Edgaras Montvidas feels miscast as Lensky. This Lithuanian tenor is no more capable of forgetting he is a star than of singing badly, and the result is a Lensky who lacks anything of innocence or sweetness, but gains a rather unexpectedly glossy assurance.

Moving from the naturalism of the countryside to the grotesque exaggerations of the closing scenes, Vick’s drama has a natural crescendo to it that heightens Tchaikovsky’s tale excitingly. It would help if lengthy scene-changes didn’t threaten continuity of emotion and if the director had perhaps moderated his fondness for curtains, but quibbles aside this is still a fine production and one that wears its age lightly.

 

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge