EAST SUSSEX, ENGLAND - "There really should be a Glyndebourne club so people would know where to meet," said the woman standing in the middle of London's Victoria Station.
No need, really. Five minutes before the train to Lewes is scheduled to pull out, a small army of tuxedoed men stages a conspicuous march of the penguins through Victoria's concourse to take the hour-long ride to one of opera's great retreats.
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, in the English countryside, is presided over these days by Vladimir Jurowski, the Russian-born conductor who has been much talked about as a potential new leader for the Philadelphia Orchestra. On this warm, cloudless Saturday he is leading a new production of the unexpected masterpiece of Verdi's Indian summer, Falstaff.
But first, the distant bleating of several hundred sheep grazing next to Glyndebourne contends in the soundscape with the popping of champagne corks. Groups already are arranging elaborate table settings in the grass in anticipation of the 80-minute dinner break that comes between the opera's second and third acts. There really ought to be a better word for a meal of this sort: Picnic doesn't do justice to the spreads that gourmands have brought to Glyndebourne on tables laid out with linens, silver, and vases stuffed with spring blooms.
When the sheep get to be too much, you can walk the formal gardens of roses, fig trees and artichokes, or tour the organ room of the country house (an estimated 700 years old) from which the opera festival takes its name.
Glyndebourne is celebrating 75 years this summer with 76 performances of six works between late May and August. The festival was started by the Christie family, who still run it today. Conductor Fritz Busch of the Busch brothers clan became its first music director after fleeing Nazi Germany. (Another brother, Adolf, went to Marlboro, Vt., where he helped to start the important chamber music festival with Philadelphia pianist Rudolf Serkin.) After a modest beginning with a 300-seat auditorium, Glyndebourne opened the current 1,200-seat opera house in 1994, nestling it just a few feet from the old Edwardian structure.
The stark steel beams of the stage house rise impolitely above Glyndebourne's older brick buildings, but the interior of light wood with structural brick and patches of exposed poured concrete reveal what the architect meant when he said he was partially inspired by Louis Kahn.
Two of Glyndebourne's operas this year - Falstaff and Tristan und Isolde - are being led by Jurowski. The 37-year-old conductor may strike some in Philadelphia as serious to a fault, but here at the end of the Verdi he becomes a cheery part of the show, knocking back a pint served up by a singer who has gone out into the house during the fugal finale in a stab at audience engagement.
This new production by Richard Jones reprises a partnership with the conductor that included a Macbeth in this house and a Hansel and Gretel for the Metropolitan Opera. As in the Humperdinck, Jones has brought the action to a nearer time period, a 1940s setting, which, perhaps, he figured would be recent enough to inspire personal nostalgia in the audience.
It doesn't quite work. Because so much of librettist Arrigo Boito's reworking of Shakespeare is dependent on a greater stretch of time travel, a scene set outside a brick suburban house with a victory garden of cabbage comes across as a contrivance (though the idea of Alice Ford's playing her guitar serenade on a phonograph rather than with instrument in hand was a smart stroke).
At least you could close your eyes and marvel at the score, said one voluble critic on the bus back to Lewes station, and he had a point. But even there, this wasn't a cast for the ages. Dina Kuznetsova was Alice Ford, the object of Falstaff's attention, and though the soprano managed a nice clear run-up to the high C in her "Merry Wives of Windsor" stretch, there wasn't the kind of bubbly triumph that comes with great vocal strength.
Baritone Christopher Purves as Sir John Falstaff had obvious strength, but he was more likely to act with his body than his voice. That this oddly compelling character actually believes his corpulence to be the source of his charm was a trick Purves pulled off beautifully. But when a seriously spooked Falstaff arrives at midnight-haunted Herne's Oak just at that hour and is counting off the bells, Purves couldn't conjure true dread in his voice. It's a gorgeous voice, yet one that doesn't take the kind of chances that make it seem he's really given something of himself.
The most complete actress on stage was contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who, as Mistress Quickly, was not only rich and sturdy, but also funny without tipping over into uncomfortable caricature.
Falstaff functions much more as ensemble piece and orchestral work than many other operas. Verdi was almost 80 when he wrote it, and its language is a highly concentrated form of shorthand. Verdi approached listeners with the highest regard, knowing that titillating with a great aria can be better than actually completing one. He responds adeptly, with abrupt mood changes, to Boito's capricious libretto. And he counts on references to Berlioz, Wagner and his own earlier works not going unheeded.
Which they were not, at least by Jurowski. I almost wished the stage business would go away at various points, so extraneous did it seem to the genius in the pit. As he led the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the conductor's two tiers of work were obvious - fastidious preparation in rehearsals working on balances (not too much brass, lustrous strings), and in-the-moment gestures that kept the ensemble tight. The long fingers are a great asset; he made left-hand movements like a scissor cut that brought exactitude to the finale, which can become a thicket.
At turn after turn, Jurowski made the case that the comedy is all well and good, but that Falstaff is, at its heart, a seriously substantive score.