Glyndebourne is a famous centre for opera in East Sussex. Every summer, hundreds of Londoners make their way to Glyndebourne from Victoria station. You can recognise them on the afternoon train bound for Lewes because they are beautifully dressed. There’s a man wearing a tuxedo and bow tie and he’s carrying a large Fortnum and Mason wicker box, and the woman with him is in an Antonio Berardi emerald green twist front gown. You know they are headed for Glyndebourne. The convention of wearing evening dress was established from the beginning by the founder, John Christie. He felt it was a way in which the audience could show respect for the performers.
When opera began in 1934 at Glyndebourne, the first troupe of critics arrived in a somewhat annoyed mood. They didn’t like the rule about evening dress and they resented the fact that they had to take a train 50 miles. But something happened at that first performance. The opera was Le nozze di Figaro and all the critics gave it rave reviews.
One reason was the high standard of production. The lead roles were not given to big name stars. Without considering reputations, Christie and his wife, Audrey Mildmay, selected the best singers from all over the world. And the performers had to be young and attractive, and they had to be able to act – the whole opera had to work as ensemble. That was, and still is, the key to the Glyndebourne way.
And there were other factors at work at that first performance. There was a long interval with time for a good dinner and then a stroll through the gardens. This is still part of Glyndebourne. In fact, the custom now is to come early with picnic gear, and establish one’s place in the garden, or under cover if the weather is threatening. I’m sure the champagne before and at the interval has something to do with the warm glow one feels at Glyndebourne.
The opera that we came to see on Tuesday, 23 August, was Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. And yes, we had consumed a bottle of champagne and had eaten some smoked salmon sandwiches before the start. But that just sharpened our delight. We, Sira and Julia and I, had seats second row from the front, right in the centre.
Young Thomas Parfitt (age 12) was wonderful as Miles. Likewise, Joanna Songi, as Flora. Miah Persson was perfect as the Governess and all the rest, excellent. The production achieved that “ensemble” mode of the early days.
The gardens were particularly beautiful as we strolled. The day was overcast but not raining. In the 1920′s, when John Christie had come to his inheritance here at Glyndebourne, he hired a new head gardener, Mr Harvey, who extended the flower gardens and created surprising combinations of formality and informality. He opened up new vistas. In the following pictures we see how those fine gardens, basically set in place in the 1920′s, are still imparting their magic, almost a century later.