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Celebrating International Women’s Day 2023

Alexandra Coghlan takes a look at the host of talented women who are bringing Festival 2023 to life, and the determined heroines you can see on stage…

‘If you’re going to spend all that money John, for God’s sake do the thing properly….’

That was the phrase with which soprano Audrey Christie – Glyndebourne’s original leading lady – set what would become the Glyndebourne Festival in motion, urging her husband John Christie to turn fantasy into reality and build an opera house in the heart of the Sussex Downs.

Nearly 90 years on, and women are more at the heart of the Festival than ever – not just on stage, but off it too: on the podium and in the director’s chair, in lighting, design, sets, costumes, choreography and crew.

2023’s season is a real celebration of female talent in all its forms, as well as a chance to meet some of the repertoire’s strongest and most determined heroines.

Three of the season’s six operas are directed by women. Annabel Arden’s classic staging of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is back, alongside new productions by Mariame Clément and Adele Thomas.

Clément, whose work has been seen in Paris, Vienna and London’s Royal Opera, is a familiar name to Glyndebourne audiences thanks to her recent five-star stagings of Don Pasquale and Il turco in Italia. Her lightly-worn intelligence and wit, as well as her humanity, make her a perfect fit for Mozart’s most elusive opera, Don Giovanni – a piece whose hero and gender politics are forced to reinvent themselves anew for each generation.

It’s a work with which Clément has a long personal history – the first she fell for as a young girl, and one she has waited until now to tackle for the very first time. Expect fresh perspectives not only on heroines Donna Elvira and Donna Anna, but also Don Ottavio – a faithful lover who is anything but the drip he is often painted, Clément argues.

Award-winning director Adele Thomas makes her Festival debut with Glyndebourne’s first ever staging of Semele – another work whose history is full of tangled gender politics and stereotypes. The brilliant young Welsh director, whose Olivier-nominated productions of Bajazet and Berenice at the Royal Opera House showcased both her flair for baroque opera and her instinct for storytelling, promises to shake the heroine free of her reputation as ‘Handel’s bimbo’, giving this mortal who falls for a god all the conflict and complexity that ripples through the composer’s score. Thomas will also draw on her own childhood growing up in Port Talbot to help explore the backstory of a young woman caught between worlds, yearning as much to escape one as to seize hold of another.

Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes alive in movement originally created for the 1981 production by choreographer Lynne Hockney. It’s thanks to her invention that Shakespeare’s magical forest seems to breathe and sway in time to Benjamin Britten’s evocative opening music, trees and bushes suddenly brought to life in the moonlight. Helping conjure that illusion for this season’s revival is conductor Dalia Stasevska – another artist making her Glyndebourne debut.

The Ukrainian-Finnish conductor is already a well-known figure in the UK thanks to her role as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom she has led both First and Last Night concerts at the BBC Proms. Stasevska’s blend of extrovert energy and control promise to bring out the youthfulness of Britten’s score – the innocent wranglings of his quartet of lovers, and the exuberant comedy of Bottom and his fellow ‘rude mechanicals’ – as well as the shifting colours and textures of the composer’s evocative orchestral writing.

2023’s solo exhibition is devoted to the work of Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid.

A pioneer of the British Black art movement, carving out space both for the female and black creative experience through her colour-saturated, often satirical works, Himid started her career as a theatre designer.

In many ways her Glyndebourne exhibition sees her come full circle, bringing her activist art back into dialogue with performance and human bodies in space – Festival audiences mirroring the kind of tableaux we see in her pictures: a living installation.

From Donizetti’s book-smart, business-savvy Adina, who knows her worth and makes no compromises, to Stravinsky’s Anne Trulove, who braves all to try and rescue her beloved fiancé Tom, 2023’s on-stage heroines are not to be outdone by their real-life counterparts. Giving the lie to opera’s reputation for downtrodden women, not only do almost all emerge from their stories alive and kicking (or singing, at any rate), but each models a strikingly different kind of authority and confidence: moral, romantic, spiritual, even economic.

Take Mozart’s Donna Anna, for example: in the face of assault and violent loss, she remains unafraid to take on her attacker, to ask for what she requires from her fiancé, to hold her ground. Semele too, often dismissed as a girl on the make, a careerist heroine trading sex for power, emerges from this season as a woman brave enough to pursue her desires, to own her sexuality and dare to love – even in the face of impossible circumstances.

And then there are Poulenc’s Carmélites. No other opera this season – perhaps in the whole repertoire – offers such a detailed and affectionate portrait of female relationships, of the webs of friendship, sisterhood, collegiality, care and love that bind groups of women together. We see bravery and self-sacrifice, but also abject terror and self-doubt, betrayal as well as loyalty. The opera demands an extraordinary ensemble cast, and in this group of artists – Sally Matthews, Golda Schultz, Katarina Dalayman, Florie Valiquette, Karen Cargill – we have a true female powerhouse, wildly different voices who all come together in Poulenc’s heart-soaring hymns to sing – defiantly, hopefully – as one.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Festival 2023 runs from 19 May – 27 August 2023

Photos: Header by Sam Stephenson | Mariame Clément by Richard Hubert Smith | Adele Thomas by Huw Evans | Dalia Stasevska by Veikko Kähkönen | Lubaina Himid by Magda Stawarska-Beavan

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