A little less than a month ago, Warner Classics released a 9-CD box set that continues their ongoing interest in historic recordings. The title of the collection is Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne; and it consists of performances of music for four major operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492), Così fan tutte (thus do all women, K. 588), Don Giovanni (K. 527), and Idomeneo (K. 366). However, this release is as much about the history of Glyndebourne itself as it is about Busch’s artistic achievements.
Dealing with the latter first, those who have been following my work back to the days of Examiner.com are likely to recognize the significance of the Busch name for reasons that have much more to do with music than with beer. Fritz was the older brother, by about a year, of Adolf, who led one of the earliest string quartets to prepare an extensive series of recordings of chamber music. November of 2015 saw the release of Adolf Busch & Busch Quartet: The Complete Warner Recordings, an impressive collection of sixteen CDs that amounted to a significant profile of the performance of chamber music during the first half of the twentieth century. (One of the “guest artists” in this collection is Rudolf Serkin, who would eventually marry Adolf’s daughter Irene.)
Fritz made his conducting debut in 1908 and quickly established a strong reputation, which included a close association with Mozart’s music. However, the rise of Adolf Hitler led to Busch losing his position with the Dresden State Opera. Both of the Busch brothers realized that it would be necessary to leave Germany. After several tours of South America, Fritz was offered the position as the first Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which he accepted.
By the time Fritz was approached, Glyndebourne had a history that exceeded Busch’s lifetime by centuries. It is the name of a manor house in East Sussex that dates back to the fifteenth century. The significant figure in the site’s history is John Christie, who obtained use of the house in 1913 after the death of his grandfather, William Langham Christie, and would subsequently come into full legal possession in 1920. He would host amateur opera evenings at the house; and at one of them, in 1931, he met the soprano Audrey Mildmay, who would become his wife. Their honeymoon took them to the festivals at both Salzburg and Bayreuth and became the seeds of the project to host a similar festival at Glyndebourne. The first season, with Busch as Music Director, began on May 28, 1934 and lasted six weeks. The first opera to be performed was The Marriage of Figaro, followed by Così fan tutte.
Christie was also responsible for starting the tradition that members of the audience should attend in formal evening dress. As a Web page on the Glyndebourne Web site explains, Christie “felt that it was one of the ways the audience could show its respect for the performers.” The very fact that this Web page exists testifies that this tradition still holds, complete with photographs to affirm the case:
Members of the Glyndebourne audience fortify themselves prior to the performance
Less than two weeks after Figaro was first performed, the Glyndebourne Theatre hosted the first recording crew. A fair amount of the musical numbers (but none of the recitatives) was recorded; and the project would have to wait until the following summer to be completed. That meant that the entire project had two different basses singing the role of Bartolo, Norman Allin in 1934 and Italo Tajo in 1935. Here in the United States RCA would subsequently release this as a “complete” recording; but, even overlooking the recitative omissions, this was not the case. The chorus in the first act was never recorded; and, particularly critical to the plot, Barbarina’s (only) aria at the beginning of the final act (which is critical to the plot) is missing.
Nevertheless, the recordings that Busch made are a significant element in the overall history of opera performance. Today, however, their major contribution is to demonstrate just how much things have changed, particularly in how we approach Mozart. While it may not have been Busch’s intention, the prevailing rhetoric of performances of all of the operas seems to have more to do with the expectations of the polite society that took the trouble to show up than with any of the characteristics that we now recognize as revolutionary in Mozart’s capacity for invention. To say that these performances reduce the libretto texts of Lorenzo Da Ponte to episodes of Downton Abbey would be a bit of an exaggeration but would still probably capture the mindset behind the rhetorical stances taken by both singers and instrumentalists.
On the other hand it may be that Busch needed the benefit of a few consecutive seasons before figuring out just how far he could push his audience. Thus, among the Da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni was the last to be recorded (in the summer of 1936). Even with the limitations of recording technology on factors such as dynamics, one gets the sense that Busch had finally reached a secure position from which he could see how far he could push the envelope. If you want your Don to be downright diabolical, there are any number of recordings (including some very recent ones) that never rise to the intensity of Busch’s rhetoric. Furthermore, by this time recitatives had become an expected part of the package, meaning that the recording is as much about the narrative as it is about the vocalists.
Also, as a matter of historical record, it is worth nothing that Mildmay (now Mrs. John Christie) sings in two of the opera recordings. She was there at the very first recording sessions in the role of Suzanna. She then went on to put her personal stamp on the part of Zerlina, and that stamp is now there for all audiences to experience as a result of those 1936 recording sessions.
The summer festival suspended production with the outbreak of the Second World War. Glyndebourne itself became an evacuation center for children from London. Activities resumed with the conclusion of hostilities, and Busch would return for two more summers in 1950 and 1951, respectively. His 1950 visit led to a recording of excerpts from Così involving somewhat more familiar names: Sena Jurinac and Blanche Thebom as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and Richard Lewis and Erich Kunz as their lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo. Curiously (and a bit sadly), Despina never shows up on these excerpts. The following summer Busch conducted Idomeneo. This time the recording sessions took place in the Abbey Road Studios and involved only excerpts; but this was an era before a culture emerged that figured out how to bring dramatic intensity to opera seria, regardless of its vintage.