Glyndebourne heading for Norwich

Tony Cooper Glyndebourne on Tour celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and for the most part of that time Norwich has been on the list of places it visits. They return to Norwich Theatre Royal at the end of this month with productions of The Magic Flute, Carneb and Hansel and Gretel.

Tony Cooper

Glyndebourne on Tour (formerly Glyndebourne Touring Opera) celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and for the most part of that time Norwich has been, happily, on the list of towns it visits.

To help me dig up the past and talk about some great operatic moments, I'm sitting face to face in the coffee bar of Norwich's Theatre Royal with local opera aficionado Greg Chapman. He runs a taxation and accountancy service for small businesses in the city and also happens to be a board member of the theatre. He knows a lot about opera, a passion he shares with his wife Evelyn and they have seen practically everything Glyndebourne has done whether it's on tour or down at the famous Glyndebourne summer festival in East Sussex.

The inspiration for the company to tour was due to the effort and aspirations of George Christie, the son of Glyndebourne founders, John Christie and his opera-singing wife, Audrey Mildmay. "It was his desire that the Glyndebourne magic should be taken to those audiences unable to experience it in Sussex," Greg enthused. "He also wanted the excellent young Glyndebourne chorus - who are recruited mainly from the country's leading music academies and who cover leading roles in the summer festival - to be given an opportunity to tackle major roles and show off their talent. It was George's intention that from the very beginning GOT would reflect the thorough rehearsal and preparation standards for which Glyndebourne has been recognised since its incarnation and in no way be seen as second best."

The pattern of touring took at least two or three years to develop into the form that one recognises today. The original tours took place in the spring and visited theatres as far apart as Southampton, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Liverpool.

Now the programme consists of a three-week season starting at Glyndebourne in the autumn (after the main festival) followed by a five- or six-week tour to theatres suggested by the Arts Council of England, the major financial supporter of the tour. They comprise Woking, Milton Keynes, Stoke-on-Trent and Plymouth and - since 1971 - Norwich.

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This year they chalk up their 31st visit. It must, therefore, be one of the longest artistic relationships enjoyed by the theatre and during that time all of the mainstream operas by Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky have been presented as well as lesser-known ones by Handel, Haydn, Janá?ek, Britten and Richard Strauss.

New works have also been commissioned and they include Jonathan Dove's Flight (1998), Harrison Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong (1984), The Last Supper (2000) and Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are (1984) / Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1984) followed by Nigel Osborne's The Electrification of the Soviet Union (1987). All of them were subsequently taken into the repertoire of Glyndebourne's summer festival.

And bearing this in mind I asked Greg what stood out and grabbed him as being some of the best productions he has seen. I was not surprised to learn that two works by Richard Strauss came top of the list.

"I can say without any shadow of doubt that Strauss' Intermezzo and Capriccio were two of the best productions. They were simply outstanding and came to us in the 1974 and 1976 seasons - the first time that they had been performed in the city. Felicity Lott took the leading roles in both productions and she was absolutely marvellous. Her singing was crystal clear and her stage presence was immaculate.

"Another production dating from the same period I found very thrilling was Peter Hall's Don Giovanni. Thomas Allen was perfectly cast as the Don. It was an amazingly intelligent production of what can, sometimes, be a difficult opera to stage.

"It came back to the city to welcome in the restored theatre in 2007 with Simon Keenlyside in the title role who first sang the role for GOT in 1993 - also seen in Norwich. This singer has, I'm pleased to say, scaled the heights after his early days with GOT and is now firmly established on the international opera circuit.

"That, I feel, speaks volumes of what Glyndebourne's touring company is all about as its raison-d'être is to provide up-and-coming singers with the platform they need and deserve to nurture them into first-rate performers."

The mezzo-soprano Christine Rice and the soprano Kate Royal started their careers with Glyndebourne's touring company as well as Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic and music director Edward Gardner who is now music director of English National Opera.

For this year's tour, Glyndebourne will be on the road not just with a whole load of sets, costumes and props for three operas but will also be travelling with over 30 principal singers, a chorus of 40, actors and extras plus an orchestra of nearly 50. On top of this there's a stage crew and a team of technicians and management staff. All of these forces combine to bring the magic of the Sussex Downs to Norwich for opera fans to savour some of the best productions you're ever likely to see in the provinces.

Robin Ticciati - now in his second year as Glyndebourne on Tour's music director - will conduct Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck's first opera premiered in 1893. It comes direct from this year's festival and is Glyndebourne's first staging. A masterpiece of the highest quality, the opera combines romanticism, lyricism and exuberant playfulness in a vibrantly rich orchestration that is clearly influenced by the music of Brahms and Wagner.

Like all great fairy tales, the story has darker underpinnings, evident in Humperdinck's brilliant orchestral writing that accompanies the children on their journey through a shadowy world of unknown and limitless menace. The director, Laurent Pelly - one of France's most talented opera directors who recently won the critics over for his staging of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment at Covent Garden - cleverly explores this aspect of the work.

With the popularity of Bizet's Carmen today it's hard to believe that on its premiere in Paris in 1875 it was considered a failure.

Norwich audiences lapped up Glyndebourne's production when it was first seen in 2002 with Christine Rice in the title role while this time round Katherine Rohrer takes on the fiery and feisty role of Carmen while the conductor Jakub Hrusa, who recently took over from Ji?í B?lohlávek as music director of the Prague Philharmonia, makes his debut with the company.

David McVicar, who directed it for the summer festival, described the work as "the first-ever musical". I suggest few would argue with that!

Another local link comes with Glyndebourne on Tour's third offering - Mozart's The Magic Flute - inasmuch as the revival director is Freddie Wake-Walker, who lives partly in north Norfolk and partly in north Suffolk - but just over the border may I add! Otherwise he lives where he's working. And that can be anywhere. Shortly, it'll be Glasgow for Scottish Opera. Then it's Brussels directing an evening of English opera scenes with young artists at La Monnaie followed by a trip to Japan to further his knowledge of Noh theatre as a result of directing last year Britten's Curlew River for Mahagony Opera, a company he formed in 2003.

His recent directing credits include Hansel and Gretel (Opera North), Brundibar by Hans Krasa (Jubilee Opera) and Birtwistle's Secret Theatre (Royal Academy of Music) as well as the 50th anniversary production of Britten's Noye's Fludde at Orford parish church. For his own company he has directed and produced Stravinsky's The Fox and Walton's The Bear, Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona and Offenbach's Not in Front of the Waiter at Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall.

Freddie - who has a Masters in Philosophy and Systematic Theology from Edinburgh University - has also been on the performing side of opera, too, singing the treble roles in three of Britten operas at Snape Maltings. He has also worked as an assistant at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opera North, Los Angeles Opera, New York City Opera, Innsbrucker Festwochen der Altenmusik and was staff director for Glyndebourne on Tour in 2006.

He's always interesting to talk to and I soon found out that he has distinct views on what he wants from a production. "I'm so interested in exploring various methods of theatre that I want to create works which are highly stylised and focused," he said. "I think naturalism in the theatre and particularly with opera is such a false method. That's why I'm interested in exploring different methods of theatre to reinvigorate opera, which is such a powerful and passionate medium.

"I want audiences to engage with a production as much as possible in order for them to feel the full impact. It's also important to me that a production can be understood and appreciated on a number of different levels so that everyone in the audience can take something from it.

"The Magic Flute is certainly a piece that does that. It appeals on the most basic and sophisticated levels and contains such a variety of emotion from naïve innocence to spiteful jealousy, utter silliness to pure evil that it seems to encompass humanity in its entirety. The piece, perhaps like life, fits awkwardly together and it's often hard to understand exactly what's going on.

"I have cut and reworked quite a lot of the dialogue in order, I hope, to give the piece a clearer structure. Ultimately, however, the message of the piece for me is to keep life simple. Avoid over-complicating things needlessly and, I feel, you can't go too wrong."

We shall see! The Flute is most definitely a masterful and uplifting work and conveys the adventure for love and enlightenment through a consistently entertaining mix of popular melodies, lyrical arias and staggering virtuosity particularly in the coloratura writing for the Queen of the Night (sung by Mari Moriya) while the earthly simplicity of Papageno will be realised by Daniel Schmutzhard. Douglas Boyd - guest conductor of the City of London Sinfonia and well known to local audiences, particularly in west Norfolk - makes his opera debut.

t Performance schedule: The Magic Flute (Tuesday and Thursday, November 25 and 27), Carmen (Wednesday and Saturday, November 26 and 29), Hansel and Gretel (Friday November 28). All performances start promptly at 7.15pm. Don't be late! Box office: 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk. Tickets range from £6 to £48.50.