Bubbles and bloodymindedness: Glyndebourne’s Robin Ticciati on getting the show back on the road

The strictures of the past year seem to have left little mark on Glyndebourne, who open the 2021 summer opera season this week with an ambitious programme. The festival’s music director talks improvisation, imagination, and the joy of dressing up

It’s quiet at Glyndebourne on this late April morning, but pockets of business-as-usual are all around – a group of singers having coffee outside the stage door; a team installing the last of the sculpture exhibits in the garden (this year by Halima Cassell). For anyone aching to flip down a theatre seat and settle back into live performances, this is heartening stuff. For Robin Ticciati, the conductor who has been the company’s music director since 2014, it feels like a gift. “A gift with a huge responsibility. It’s on a knife edge, isn’t it, the situation? Not just with Covid, but also with culture. And so what we’ve felt here is: Come on! Let’s do all we can to make this happen.”

Ticciati exudes energy even after a long morning rehearsing the cast of Kát’a Kabanová with the director Damiano Michieletto. Janáček’s opera, which opens the 2021 Glyndebourne season on 20 May, is about isolation and confinement and the desire to fly free. The timing, though, is pure serendipity: the season was put together way before the pandemic hit. What is more remarkable is that it is happening almost as originally planned.

Throughout the pandemic Glyndebourne has been notably agile, putting on outdoor performances last summer and leading the brief UK return to theatres in the autumn. Now, for summer 2021, the only real casualty of the originally planned season is a revival of Barbe & Doucet’s staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute, which, with its huge drop sets and puppets, would have required too many people working too closely together behind the scenes. Three other operas – Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Verdi’s Luisa Miller – will be given more or less as planned, albeit with a reduced and socially distanced orchestra in the pit. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – one opera for which nobody wants to compromise on orchestral size – will now be a semi-staging so that the orchestra can expand on to the stage, behind the singers. In the auditorium, 50% of seats are currently on sale, and if all goes to plan there will be more on offer later in the summer.

The Glyndebourne experience … opening night in May 2018.
The Glyndebourne experience … opening night in May 2018. Photograph: Sam Stephenson/Glyndebourne Productions

As for the preparations, they are going ahead thanks to what Ticciati describes as “a Fort Knox-like structure” of Covid tests, bubbles and cohorts, the “spirit and bloody-mindedness” of the chairman Gus Christie – grandson of Glyndebourne’s founder – and the inclusive leadership of Stephen Langridge, the company’s artistic director. “It’s a huge company, but it’s also a family opera house,” says Ticciati. “From day one, the message was that we would not be leaving anyone behind.”

Glyndebourne had saved up reserves for just such a situation as this following the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis, which nearly resulted in the festival’s cancellation that year. Thanks to that foresightedness – plus a loan, the furlough scheme, and the generosity of last year’s ticket holders, almost half of whom gave some or all of their refund back to the house – there have been no redundancies, the company has been able to keep on an even keel, and was able to offer at least some payment last summer to its freelancers and seasonal staff. There have been a couple of cast changes and one change of conductor due to quarantine requirements, but Glyndebourne’s status as a permit-free festival has so far shielded it from the kind of chaos that Brexit is wreaking on other arts companies.

What is new this year is a series of four concerts (three will be conducted by Ticciati) by the company’s resident orchestras, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. “The concerts have come out of improvisation, which is what all arts organisations have had to do,” says Ticciati. “ I’m really interested in leading people through the theatricality of a concert. We won’t just put pieces on the stage. We’ll use the fact that it’s theatre.”

Rehearsals for Kat’a Kabanova, which opens this year’s season.
Rehearsals for Kát’a Kabanová, which opens this year’s season. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions

The concerts will be streamed by Marquee TV, but, perhaps surprisingly given that Glyndebourne was one of the first companies to start livestreaming performances more than a decade ago, the main productions won’t be streamed this year. The priority has been to get the works on stage, with teams that are as small and manageable as possible; the addition of the crew and infrastructure needed for a livestream would have been a logistical step too far.

Ticciati has had to deal with a period of enforced silence before. In 2016, a back injury forced him to take nine months out of conducting with, initially at least, no indication of when or indeed whether he would be able to return. It was, he says, a horrible time, “but the beauty of wisdom and new shoots come out of it – maybe not at that moment, but in retrospect – and you can feed off that time. It helps one to live very much in the present. So, in this new enforced time off, I was able to have more space to reflect and to give more energy to my two homes, Glyndebourne and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.”

In Ticciati’s role as music director of the DSO, he has been able to do some imaginative programming that might not have happened in normal circumstances. He talks enthusiastically about an animated film of Martinú’s rarely heard opera The Tears of the Knife and an outdoor concert of Strauss’s colossal Alpine Symphony, in which the music was punctuated by film clips of the mountaineer Reinhold Messner describing the psychological impact of ascent and descent. “Although the toll is huge in so many ways, Covid has given us the necessity to go deeper into the creative pool.”

Ticciati grew up in London, but Berlin is now home for him and his wife, a singer – they got married during a brief lull in lockdown last autumn. His contract with the DSO has recently been extended until 2027. I ask if he’d be interested in the top job at the Royal Opera when Antonio Pappano stands down in 2024, but he just reaffirms how happy he is where he is now, in Berlin and at Glyndebourne.

Before the Berlin job, he spent a decade as principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – a “magical time” he says. “But if there was a regret, it was to do with somehow not tapping into Edinburgh properly, into the people that come. Now I’ve had a bit more space to grapple with the idea of escaping the ivory tower of one’s own mind, and with the questions of why we are doing this and who it’s for.”

Ilya Kutyukhin, Kirsten MacKinnon, Bogdan Volkov and Rachel Kelly in 2017 in Nicholas Hytner’s staging of Cosi Fan Tutte, one of this season’s revivals
Ilya Kutyukhin, Kirsten MacKinnon, Bogdan Volkov and Rachel Kelly in Nicholas Hytner’s 2017 staging of Cosí fan tutte, one of this season’s revivals. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Glyndebourne certainly exists within a hubbub of mixed messages about who it’s for. On one hand, it presents one of England’s best and most extensive touring seasons during the autumn and puts on inclusive and ambitious youth operas and education programmes. On the other, there’s the fact that in February society magazine Harper’s Bazaar took Glyndebourne’s season announcement to be “the first sign that the traditional British summer season, however altered, may be back on track”.

How does Ticciati reconcile those aspects? “Glyndebourne … is about immersing yourself and giving the works the space and freedom to get into your consciousness in a different way. That’s on many levels. One is that people like to dress up – and how beautiful and celebratory is that? In a world that is full of instantaneous opportunity, I am so happy to be part of something where the consumption isn’t at fast-food level. Glyndebourne is a place where that sanctity and that magic can happen.”

Kát’a Kabanová opens on 20 May and Il Turco in Italia on 23 May. The Glyndebourne season continues until 29 August.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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