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Glyndebourne - then and now

As the new Glyndebourne season begins, we place this year's 80th anniversary programme in its historical context

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Don Giovanni (Glyndebourne 2011)
© Robbie Jack

Maverick directors do surprisingly well at Glyndebourne, if company archivist Julia Aries is to be believed. "Audiences are conservative by instinct but give them a while and they can be surprisingly susceptible to new ideas.

"As often as not, everyone thinks something controversial is fantastic when we revive it. Take Handel's Rinaldo. There was an outcry when we first did it in 2011, but it's selling very well this year. People need time to cope with the shock of the new".

Glyndebourne has never tried to cramp its creatives' style. "They always have a free hand, and that's one of the big pulls for directors here. We're a small, privately-run concern; we cannot offer huge fees but we do provide wonderful freedom and rehearsal facilities".

The origins of today's Glyndebourne can be traced back to in 1930 when John Christie met Audrey Mildmay, a professional soprano with the Carl Rosa Opera Company; and when Christie heard her singing in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, he fell for her. He showed her round his Glyndebourne estate, flung open his bedroom door and declared (a little forwardly for the time) "This is where we will sleep when we are married" – which they duly were in June 1931.

That same year, Christie planned to extend the Organ Room to accommodate slightly larger am-dram projects. That was when Audrey sowed a seed in his mind that would grow beyond their wildest dreams, saying "If you're going to spend all that money, for God's sake do the thing properly". He did, and three years later the Glyndebourne Festival was born.

One of Christie's thwarted ambitions had been to produce a Wagner opera. Sadly for him, alas, that would have to wait for the new opera house was built. As it was, the original house was only suited to mid-size work, hence the preponderance of Mozart in the early years of the festival.

Six operas for an 80th birthday party

The half-dozen operas in the 2014 anniversary season have been cunningly chosen to reflect eight decades-worth of Glyndebourne values – with the exception that there are no major new commissions, That is understandable in the present climate, but it's still a shame for the company that gave the world Knussen's Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia.

- The operas of Richard Strauss have been Glyndebourne staples from early on. While a pre-war attempt to stage Der Rosenkavalier failed, it is known that the then music director Fritz Busch approached the composer, who was a personal friend, and asked him to prepare a reduced, Glyndebourne-sized orchestration for it. While that never happened, it shows that a relationship with Strauss has always been there. The new production by Richard Jones and conducted by incoming music director Robin Ticciati (opening Saturday 17 May) will be the company's third since 1959.

- Former director of productions Graham Vick won the Royal Society Award for his 1994 production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, part of the very first season in the new Michael Hopkins-designed opera house. It is revived this summer for a run of 15 performances, opening on Sunday 18 May. Andrei Bondarenko sings the title role.

- The new production (by Tom Cairns) of Verdi's La traviata will only be the company's second. Surprising, perhaps, until one remembers that Peter Hall's much-loved 1987 production lived to be revived several times over, racking up 79 performances in all. Its successor, conducted by Mark Elder, opens on 17 July.

- In a nod back to those early days there are two operas by Mozart this season, although they couldn't be more different from one another. Jonathan Kent's 2010 production of the mature masterpiece Don Giovanni returns on 7 June, accompanied by a modern orchestra (the indefatigable London Philharmonic Orchestra), while on 28 June the youthful composer's little-known but utterly delightful La finta giardiniera makes its Glyndebourne debut in Frederic Wake-Walker's new production with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ticciati.

- Sixth and last is an opera by another composer strongly associated with Glyndebourne, Handel, and the return (on 9 August) of Rinaldo. Director Robert Carsen's controversially bold reimagining of this swashbuckling baroque epic was a surprise hit in 2011, when the majority of its high-voice roles were taken by women. The twist this time is to keep all the characters gender-specific, which will mean a stageful of top counter-tenors led by Iestyn Davies in the title role.

In casting the 2014 operas, Glyndebourne has followed its usual pattern of mixing established artists with barely-known names on the threshold of renown. Such faith in new talent probably makes economic sense for a company that operates without public subsidy, although only if it's exercised with skill and care. But the track record is startlingly good and always has been. For instance, when in 1945 Sir Thomas Beecham airily declined an invitation to conduct at Glyndebourne, saying "I won't have anything to do with raw talent", he missed the opportunity to work with a promising young contralto from Lancashire. Her name: Kathleen Ferrier.