McVicar knows his audience well, in this stylish bonbon of a production. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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David McVicar’s new production of Mozart’s first successful opera is a vision innocent of its own Orientalism

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio, hits the spot when staged at Glyndebourne.

The curtain rising on David McVicar’s new production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail reveals a set that could have been designed by Lord Frederic Leighton. This is the idealised exotic East as viewed through Western eyes: shady loggias, the sea glimpsed distantly through intricate latticework screens, formal gardens filled with brightly-clothed children.

It’s a vision innocent of its own Orientalism, and one that echoes the gleeful exoticism of Mozart’s youthful score, with its jangling percussion and primary-coloured wind and brass. There’s a darker, more cynical take to be had on this tricky opera, heavy with moral absolutes, but on a summer evening in Glyndebourne’s own glorious gardens, this is the version that hits the spot.

McVicar knows his audience well, and this stylish bonbon of a production – beautifully designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Paule Constable – taps into the same visual vein that so delighted in his now-classic Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. Moving screens and panels form and reform in endless permutations, keeping a long evening of music dramatically fluid and lithe, fresh with new spaces to enjoy and new views to explore in Pasha Selim’s gorgeous summer residence.

The acres of dialogue so often cut from this singspiel are reinstated, changing the pace of the piece for the better. Entführung is often criticised for lacking the psychological depth of the composer’s later works, and here music that simply wasn’t intended to propel drama is allowed simply to illustrate and amplify, generating some delicious comic set-pieces as well as some moments of emotive stillness. McVicar is aided by a strong ensemble cast, delivering the slightly stilted dialogue with as much energetic conviction as the arias.

Supplying the necessary patrician tragedy and gravitas are Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte) and Sally Matthews (Konstanze) – young lovers with an agile line in coloratura. Konstanze is a good role for Matthews, giving full scope to her emotional intensity, and showcasing the strong points of her technique while forgiving some of its odder quirks. Memories of the darkened vowels and slightly swallowed delivery we so often hear in the concert hall are banished by a ferociously poised “Martern alle artern”. Montvidas cuts a heroic figure, playing nicely off Breden Gunnell’s Pedrillo in the comic sections, while bringing us back to an altogether more lyrical sincerity with his arias.

While Gunnell gives hints of real beauty in his decoy Moorish song, his is a Pedrillo played skilfully for laughs, sung with character to the fore. He’s almost outdone for presence, however, by Mari Eriksmoen’s fiery Blonde – the outspoken Englishwoman we truly believe is subjugated by no man. Vocally all glittering brilliance and precision in this, her Glyndebourne debut, it’s dramatically that she really comes into her own, sparring vividly with Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin, and delivering an unforgettable lesson in gender equality.

If there’s a star here, though, it’s unquestionably Kehrer – another debut artist, and a basso profondo whose beast of a voice and comic instincts make for a potent pairing and an unusually human villain. His Act I spat with Pedrillo is a highlight, his expressivity and tonal variety set against a charming and ingenious horticultural conceit from McVicar. Robin Ticciati and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment romp their way through this unusual score, and it’s particularly lovely to hear the orchestra’s wind and brass sections so extensively in this unusually colourful and texturally varied music.

Michael Grandage’s 2012 Figaro for Glyndebourne had the music on its side but lacked charm, while the festival’s 2014 Finta Giardiniera looked stylish but couldn’t muster enough dramatic friction with this early score. In David McVicar’s Entführung, Glyndebourne finally have a five-star Mozart – a production whose visuals are every bit the equal of its aural pleasures. This is a show we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future seasons.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was on at Glyndebourne, Saturday 13 June, 2015

 

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.