Glyndebourne Inspired

I didn’t mean to write about what inspired me this week. But on Tuesday I went to Glyndebourne to hear Handel’s Rinaldo. And it’s rather put everything else out of my mind.

There was a sadness to this particular visit. The one person to whom I would have expected to pour out an account of the opera is no longer with us. As a result, I knew I was a little off my game.

Only, instead, my Glyndebourne visit gave me everything back, music, magic and memory. The whole nine yards. So I thought I would share.

Opera Inspired Me

As I said on this blog earlier this year, opera has nearly always inspired me. I started young, going to amateur productions with my mother. Probably half of them were Gilbert and Sullivan or similar. But I remember Fidelio, Carmen and Gluck’s Orfeo among others. I didn’t think one genre was superior to the other as, indeed, I still don’t.

In fact, for the duration of the performance, any performance, I went into a trance, completely absorbed. I suspended disbelief without even noticing. The fire buckets could rattle against the walls of St John’s Church Hall, but all I heard was an advancing army on the march. Or ghosts begging for a voice. Or Carmen ditching the wimp.

smell evokes memory when couples kissMy one caveat was that I didn’t like silly kissing. On the other hand (slightly to my mother’s consternation, I suspect) I was just fine with sex, death, war, prison, and the afterlife.

These days I’m more tolerant of kissing, as long as it doesn’t go on too long and get in the way of the music. But I can’t be doing with on-stage torture, as some of the more extreme modernist directors have offered me. Grrrr.

Glyndebourne Inspired Me

Glyndebourne is, quite simply, magic. A place of orchards and flowers, trees and water; of gentle winds and quiet. Where a warming-up soprano in a window catches the ear of a blackbird, who answers.

John Christie, whose family built organs, was running a Pro-Am performance in his wonderful Jacobean house in Sussex when, aged 50, he fell in love with soprano Audrey Mildmay. He built her an opera house in the stables. This was in the thirties, as Jewish and other liberal-minded musicians were fleeing an increasingly Nazi Europe

Christie formed a miraculous triumvirate with German exiles, conductor Fritz Busch and director  Carl Ebert. Both were early and voluntary exiles, as soon as the Nazis came to power — Ebert even turned down Göring’s offer of controlling all the Berlin opera houses. They inspired me to look for others who saw the situation that clearly, that early, for my World War 2 novel.

Jonathan Kent calls Glyndeboune ravishing — and it is. The house is set in a gentle fold of hills, where sheep may safely graze and frequently do. There is a gorgeous lake, with water lilies that the moorhens can pick their way across in a good year.

Two smaller lakes adjoin, progressively more enclosed by woodland and stinging nettles. A younger me explored, though I don’t think many did and maybe you can’t any more.

Kind friends invited me first. On one occasion Peter Hall, director of that season’s Barber of Seville, joined our party at the interval dressed in bow tie, smoking jacket — and gardening trousers. His leading lady had sent an SOS. He had been mowing the lawn. She was his wife. No contest.

Then, older, I contributed to the new opera house appeal and Became A Friend. The new house is golden, with a wonderful acoustic. But sometimes I miss the old not-quite-stables, where swallows would get in and swoop about the auditorium and you discussed the programme with people sitting next to you.

But that still moment when the lights go down inspired me on Tuesday, as it has inspired me all my life. Breath-taking.

Handel Inspired Me

I’ve loved Handel for as long as I can remember. One of the operas I saw with my mother was The Handel Opera Society’s Serse, back in the day when GFH was still out of favour and we had to trek to Camden to see it.

Indeed, I have notes on a possible country house murder: summer 1717, rural Middlesex, Handel, still only 30, is writing music and overseeing the house band for a musical aristocrat. Then the footman who plays their only viola  goes missing…

Too great a liberty? Handel is no Poirot. He might be a Georgian Lord Peter, maybe?

Rinaldo — um, had Never Inspired Me Before

Right. This where it gets a tiny bit disrespectful. Rinaldo was Handel’s debut in London. He wrote it in two weeks.

Well, actually he cobbled together a lot of his existing material and added a couple of new arias to a new libretto. All was commissioned by Aaron Hill, “playwright, critic, poet and adventurer” who had taken over the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket from Vanbrugh and was after a success, even though its acoustics weren’t great. Answer? Spectacle. So Handel accommodated that requirement, too. Birds, white horses, Dreadful Monsters Spitting Fire and Smoke, a grove…  He and Hill were both 25.

Jane Glover, in her fabulous Handel in London says that Rinaldo had more performances in his lifetime than any of his other operas. It was revived annually for the next 3 years, again in 1717. (Aha. See above!)

Rinaldo opened on 24th February 1711 and by April, Publisher John Walsh was offering “All the Songs set to Musick in the last new Opera call’d Rinaldo” for amateurs to have a go at.

Addison (who had spectacularly failed as a librettist himself) was spiteful, and his fellow-Spectator, Richard Steele, also mocked the spectacle. But basically the Spectator hated Rinaldo because it was in Italian. Foreigners ought to learn and write in English “and not to be so insolent”, as three of Handel and Hill’s rivals wrote in a letter to The Spectator in December 1711.

So — I’ve always thought of Rinaldo as a bit of a recycled ragbag. John Gay even pinched the March for his Highwaymen in The Beggar’s Opera. It swings along nicely to the English words: Let us take the road. I hear the sound of coaches, the hour of attack approaches, and we are for the road,” as far as I remember. I have been known to sing it in the bath. While splashing.

Rinaldo this Time

It was a revelation. This production takes all the excesses and says: they’re a fantasy. Whereas the glorification of military triumph was almost certainly a compliment to the Duke of Marlborough — with a side order of slightly wimpy enemy to insult the French.

The conceit is that the whole plot is not a Crusader battle at all, but a story in the mind of a bullied schoolboy. Rinaldo casts his bullying classmates as adoring subordinate soldiers and a nasty teacher as the enemy general, with a dominatrix school mistress as his sorceress-lover.

It’s inspired. They go to war on bicycles. The Sirens are pure St Trinians. All very teenage.

The emotion, therefore, is utterly believable, even though there is no supporting Spectacle. And even if there were, I for one wouldn’t believe it. This is overheated fantasy, pure wish-fulfilment. I was with it every step of the way. The nods to teen movies (ET, John Travolta dancing, St Trinians) raise a laugh but it is in sympathy, not scorn.

Da Capo arias are supposed to set out theme, then the reverse emotion, then repeat theme, now enhanced by emotions aroused by the reverse. Doesn’t always work. A friend of mine won’t come to Handel because of what he calls the old plod of Da Capo. I suppose it means roughly,”from the top, one more time, boys” and you do need to add “with feeling”.

But as soon as the villain sang his first aria on Tuesday, I knew that this time it was working, and how. Mind you, I was so stunned I didn’t applaud in time — along with the rest of the audience. For which I apologise.  Bass baritone Brandon Cedel sang beautifully and played Argante, even at his most daft, with total conviction. Irresistible.

In one way “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto” was textbook. “I’m angry” Argante sings, striding about to trumpets. Then — I can still feel the chill up my spine — “I’m poisoned by fear”. So when the first theme comes back again, you know that while he’s stamping about in fury, he’s really trying to psych himself up. Stunning. (And then you get the aria to the sorceress he’s in love with, dependent on, controlled by…. and there’s a whole conflicted character just in that one song.)

So I was wrong. And so were Addison and Steele. Rinaldo is not a ragbag. This is white-hot creativity at its best.

And that, too, has inspired me. To infinity — well to the end of the current MS in the immediate future, anyway — and beyond!

Sophie Weston Author


22 thoughts on “Glyndebourne Inspired

  1. rolandclarke

    Uplifted this post as it brought back great memories. I admit to never having seen or heard Rinaldo, but I’ve been to Glyndebourne quite a few times – magical experiences. I’ve been an opera fan for decades, since my teens. I have most of my Great Aunt’s collection of librettos and opera books, some from the turn of the last century. Among my prize possessions is the complete Ring Cycle on LP, conducted by Georg Solti – 1958-1964 – which I was given as a 21st birthday present in 1974. Off to see what my Great Aunt wrote in her Kobbe’s about Rinaldo – she noted every opera attended – with cast etc.

  2. Sophie Post author

    How fascinating, Roland. So glad you enjoyed the blog.

    I wonder if and when your Great Aunt got to see Rinaldo? I remember my mother saying that she’d only ever been to Handel in the concert hall until she went to see James Bowman in Semele at the ENO in the early 70s.

  3. April Munday

    I love Handel, more for his chamber works, though. If you ever get round to writing the novel in which he’s a detective, I’ll be first in the queue to buy it and read it. It could even go to a series.

    1. Sophie Post author

      That’s very encouraging, April. Thank you!

      I would really love to do it – and there’s room to create Detective Handel because he still seems rather an opaque character, even after reading Jane Glover and Jonathan Keates. But I wouldn’t like to let him down. If I get up the courage, I will let you know.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oddly enough, my sister went to the same production at Glyndebourne just the other week and told me about this setting. So clever, it roused my directorial instincts.
    I saw an event cinema of Saul last year, so cleverly staged I was riveted. I do enjoy the music, but it’s the spectacle, if any, that captures me. Opera is able to go over the top with impunity.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah, Liz, yes. It would really have hit the spot with you, I think. Solved the problem of obscure, nonsense and morally dubious story allied to emotionally truthful music.

      Opera does revel in excess, doesn’t it? Even though I think Handel absolutely nailed resignation, which is the reverse of that. (Am thinking of the duet between murdered Pompey’s widow and son in Julius Caesar.Heartbreaking.)

      And at 25, I reckon you’re allowed, nay obliged, to go OTT from time to time.

  5. Liz

    Wonderfu!l Such joy in a blog. I am lost in envy at your experience. And please please, can we have Handel solving murder in 1717!

  6. Sophie Post author

    Oh the temptation, Liz. Mind you, my viola-playing footman is only missing so far.

    Have to admit that I was partly inspired by a chap I once met who used to work for a touring theatre company between the wars. He told me the boss had once advertised for a left-handed slow bowler to play Laertes. You wonder which came first in the job interview, the bowling or the acting skills.

  7. lesley2cats

    Well, of course he has to be missing first – then his murdered body will be found. I think it’s a brilliant idea. Think of all the other historical figures who have become detectives: Aphra Benn, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde… And one day I will get to Glyndebourne. Leo wants to go, too. Handel was playing on the radio as I began this blog, coincidentally. A joy on a Sunday morning.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh Jan, you’re like the tempter sitting on my shoulder whispering, “Write it. Go on. You know you want to. Write it now.” AAAAARGH. [Runs for current ms with hands over ears.]

  8. Princess Fi

    Being where I am, I have to get my fix vicariously. I have Mary Burchell’s Warrender series which are a lovely glimpse into the world of opera. There is even a story around a festival like Glyndebourne. I think I recall an Elizabeth Ashton story set around a music festival from the same era in the 70’s,

  9. Sophie Post author

    Love the Warrender series, Fiona.

    Mary Burchell knew a lot about opera and was a huge fan, virtually a groupie, bless her. I have the impression she helped Tito Gobbi write his autobiography, too.

    Have you read her own memoir, which talks about going to opera in Germany just before the war and helping refugees? Harlequin reprinted it some years ago under the title “Safe Passage” and attributing it to her real name, Ida Cook. Originally it was published as “We Followed our Stars” by Mary Burchell. Her enthusiasm for music – and sheer courageous goodness, as well – shine through it.

  10. Sarah Mallory

    Wonderful, your enthusiasm and joy just shines off the page here. Thank you for sharing it with us, Sophie. I love opera although I confess I find some of it difficult but boy, when it hits the spot (as this clearly did with you) it is magical.

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