It’s been just over eight months since my last chance to see a staged opera indoors in an opera house and I can honestly say that my joy in coming to Glyndebourne and experiencing real live opera was unbridled. The occasion may not have been the full monty of Glyndebourne – no dinner jackets, the gardens bathed in autumn sunshine rather than summer heat, no long dining interval for a one hour work with no interval. But it was an emotional delight to be here.

In the market for love
© Richard Hubert Smith

We’re all in need of uncomplicated entertainment right now and presenting works at very large scale is difficult, so Glyndebourne have opted for a short operetta. The opérette bouffe in question is Jacques Offenbach’s Mesdames de la Halle (his first operetta to feature a chorus), newly translated and adapted by Stephen Plaice and relabelled “In the Market for Love”.

It’s clear from the very beginning that Covid-19 isn’t just going to be reflected in reduced instrumentation and on-stage restrictions; it’s going to form part of the comedy. The very thing we see is a government information poster labelled “Sing out to help out” and the first thing to happen is a phone call from an obviously bumbling government minister to Matthew Rose’s world-weary Police Inspector instructing him to change the social distancing rule from 2 metres to 3 metres: Rose’s roster of three hi-vis-jacket-clad constables will spend the rest of the performance making increasingly desperate efforts to enforce this on the other singers. Rose’s lugubrious voice and hangdog expression makes him the perfect foil for the outbreaks of general silliness elsewhere in the story. There are plenty more Covid-induced alterations: the “Fancy Seller” is selling face masks, the bread seller’s bread is (of course) sourdough. 

Rupert Charlesworth (Madame Beurrefondu)
© Richard Hubert Smith

There’s more cross-dressing than you can shake a baguette at: the young cook and object of all the ladies’ affections, Harry Coe (“Croûte-au-pot” in the original) is a trouser role for Kate Lindsey, while the three ladies of the title role (who sell fish, cheese and vegetables) are all in drag. The best of the evening’s singing came when Lindsey was duetting with soprano Nardus Williams, who plays Ciboulette (the young orphaned fruit seller object of Harry’s affections): we had two clear, unforced, attractive voices sung by people thoroughly at home with the comedy. Williams, in particular, impressed with a pretty voice, easy charm and bouncy cheerfulness.

The rom-com story (spoiler: Ciboulette turns out not to be an orphan after all and it ends happily ever after for her and Harry) proceeds suitably engagingly and tunefully. It’s all done in high slapstick, with several people falling into a giant tub of sprouts and fisticuffs between the ladies cleverly accompanied by a percussionist to the side of the orchestra pit acting as foley artist. 

Nardus Williams (Ciboulette)
© Richard Hubert Smith

But all in all, the comedy doesn’t quite work. Clever coronavirus wordplay and pratfalls aren’t quite enough to paper over the fact that the story is paper thin and the character development even thinner. I’m just too familiar with the stereotypes for the ooh-er-missus style of humour to really grab me. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’ Raflafla (the ageing drum major who is chasing everyone in a skirt) is being asked to make something out of almost nothing in the way of comic material and although his voice has plenty of appeal, he struggles to create comedy that isn’t staggeringly obvious. Offenbach’s original has cultural associations that simply don’t translate: riffing on the market sellers’ songs advertising their wares (the so-called “cris de Paris” have been part of Parisian culture for centuries) would have added a quantum of charm to his audience that we can’t replicate in 21st-century England.

Matthew Rose (Police Inspector)
© Richard Hubert Smith

With plenty of verve from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra and conductor Ben Glassberg, this was a well played and well sung performance. We could have done with some more comic beef, but that’s not to take away from a lovely, well organised afternoon’s opera. Truly, it was wonderful to be back.