Two Days At The Opera: Fairfield’s match with Glyndebourne

Cheap seats: the ENO performance at the Fairfield, after a cancellation elsewhere, gave the Croydon audience its tickets for just £5 each. Still the Halls was not a full house

It’s been a non-stop summer of social whirl for our veteran arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, who has popped her corks at Glyndebourne one week and found herself sitting in the ‘cheap seats’ at the Fairfield Halls the next…

Recycling with style: at Glyndebourne, special arrangements are made to collect the champagne corks from the lawns

The expensively refurbished Fairfield Halls’ hosting of the English National Opera’s La Bohème concert performance last Sunday afternoon was a huge success.

The under-fire management at BHLive will be both pleased and relieved at the day going well, and grateful for their good fortune in securing such a high-powered concert that was originally meant to be performed at Crystal Palace. The members of the audience will have been grateful, too, because every one of us were in the cheap seats for the day, with all tickets just a fiver.

Even so, the place was still not sold out: the seats in the balcony of the Concert Hall were all empty.

The audience showed their gratitude, ecstatic in giving as rousing a set of curtain calls as the ENO performers would expect at the London Coliseum. Without the curtains, of course.

Happily, Fairfield’s Concert Hall’s renowned acoustic quality remains, to the benefit of the ensemble.

Speaking to the artists afterwards they said they could see that the audience was clearly moved by the performance.

It was a bit of a different stage door experience, speaking to artists over the noise of Croydon’s busy four-lane Barclay Road, compared to the Long Bar at Glyndebourne, which I was able to enjoy just a few days earlier.

New York, Paris, Milan, Croydon: ENO’s impressive singers have a new line for their CVs

The ENO artists do now have Fairfield, Croydon, to add to their performance CV of appearances at international venues like the Royal Opera House, La Scala, Salzburg, the National Theatre Prague, the Concertgebouw and the Sydney Opera House.

Their matinee performance proved that there is a demand for opera in Croydon and from those who can travel here. One audience member told me that they were surprised how easy it was to get to Croydon.

This was the ENO reaching out to those who find opera prices just too much. Just £5 to see top-ranking international opera stars perform was extraordinary, and a delight. This was the ENO delivering on their aspiration of being “the Opera House for Everyone”. BHLive added a 20per cent surcharge on top…

Summer delights: the lawns at Glyndebourne are always popular with their £200-a-ticket opera festival-going picnickers during the 90-minute interval

Colline sings in Act 2 that “I hate the common crowd… as much as Horace did”, but Croydon residents are opera buffs who know their stuff.

It was just a few days earlier, when at the Glyndebourne Festival for their Bohème production, that I heard another Croydon resident exclaim in horror from their £206 front row seats before the curtain went up when it was announced that the exquisite international tenor Long Long was indisposed.

“We’ve come all the way from bloody Croydon and now there’s no fucking Long Long!” they said, clearly put out. “We’re going… to Brighton.”

So how do the Croydon and Glyndebourne experiences compare?

Hard standing: the back-of-house area at the Fairfield Halls lacks some of the charm of its rival Sussex venue

Obviously, there is price and convenience of proximity for Croydon residents. It’s £258 cheaper than the box seats for Bohème at Glyndebourne. It’s even and £9 cheaper than the top of the house at Glyndebourne.

If you don’t do Glyndebourne, you miss out on meeting up with chums decked out in black tie or evening dress, complete with hampers and appropriate amounts of alcohol, on the 13.54 afternoon train to Lewes.

Marcello sings in Bohème, “These intervals are very tiresome”. But the intervals are not tiresome at all at Glyndebourne in the summertime. The gardens are in the South Downs, with sheep grazing on neighbouring fields. Down in Sussex the main interval is 90 minutes long. That’s plenty long enough to empty the contents of that picnic hamper, as well as at least one bottle of fizz.

Bring your own prosecco, if that’s your preference. Prosecco is definitely not served at Glyndebourne. Dominic Raab, the sad man, could not have charged Angela Rayner with being a champagne socialist otherwise.

Chin, chin, comrade: Labour’s Angela Rayner demonstrates that going to Glyndebourne is not the sole preserve of the upper classes

But no one goes to Glyndebourne just for the opera. Glyndebourne is firmly part of The Season, alongside Wimbledon, Henley Royal Regatta and Royal Ascot. You go for the place, the setting, the occasion, bumping into long-lost friends and, probably most of all, to be seen (although maybe not in the case of Labour’s deputy leader…).

It’s hard to see, though, where you might have a similarly relaxed picnic at Fairfield, since Brick by Brick managed to rip out all the 60-year-old trees at the front of the Halls (without ever getting planning permission to do so), and leaving nothing but an unremitting tarmac expanse.

The neglected paved expanse between the Halls and Croydon College is equally uninviting. Perhaps the Queen’s Gardens across the road might serve the purpose, but its newly installed cruel seating, designed to combat the homeless, is deliberately hostile and unwelcoming. I couldn’t enjoy my cucumber sandwiches perched there.

Some coming to the Fairfield last week, perhaps for the first time in a while, must have imagined that they could do in Croydon what’s allowed at Glyndebourne, and so brought their own refreshment. The Fairfield security was having none of that, though.

With unnecessary officiousness the order of the day, the queues quickly built up and ran out of the building, as the clocks ticked down to the concert. Needless to say, it’s a lot quicker to get in at Glyndebourne, and the gardens there open nearly two hours before curtain up. No one at the BHLive management considered opening up early and getting the tills ringing at their much under-used refurbished bars. Easy money…

Patient wait: zealous security on the front door saw opera-goers forced to queue in the summer heat outside the Fairfield Halls

After the Fairfield show, a survey asked whether our tickets were bought from the Box Office. That would have been a bit of an achievement, with the Fairfield Halls Box Office only open in the next-door Cube for just two hours a day, Tuesday to Friday. It’s almost as if they don’t want to sell any tickets.

There were no programmes on sale at the Fairfield. The Glyndebourne season programme costs £20 but the Glyndebourne branded tissues were free for the purposes of the expected profuse amount of crying in Bohème‘s second half.

It’s always a privilege to be at Glyndebourne, bearing in mind the cost of most of the tickets. It’s a privilege to get into Fairfield, as the operator BHLive seems to regard being open as just too great a drain on their troubled budget.

Both Bohème audiences were elderly. Glyndebourne’s was the more ethnically diverse.

Vertigo warning: £15 tickets in Glyndebourne’s Upper Circle can bring on altitude-induced nose bleeds

Glyndebourne does have lower-priced tickets, too. But they come with a health warning. The steepling upper circle is not recommended for those who suffer from vertigo. Prices can be £15 up there.

After covid, Glyndebourne are now charging £10 for the dedicated double-decker bus to get the dinner-suited audience to and from the railway station.

It’s an hour’s or so drive to Glyndebourne from south London and the parking is right by the gardens and the opera house.

That’s a much more enticing prospect than the Fairfield Halls car park, recently re-opened.

Concert-goers there struggle to get reception to pay their parking fee using their mobile phones. And there were no signs about how to get to the Halls, with either a very unkempt exit next to the College or back up the traffic ramp behind the Halls being the options. That’s all Croydon Council’s responsibility, not the Halls’.

There were queues, yet again, for the disabled using the lift. It’s nearly three years since the refurbishment work was supposedly completed, at huge cost. The management ought to have got this sorted long ago. Maybe BHLive don’t bother because there are just so few events being staged at the Halls these days.

The botched £67.5million incomplete refurbishment has left the Fairfield Halls with a challenging task to be successful. Glyndebourne works well with its 1,200-seat opera house which was completed in 1994 at a cost of a “mere” £34million.

Glyndebourne is Nordic in its plentiful use of wood for the auditorium. Fairfield has old-fashioned, plusher and non-refurbished seats.

How did the two performances compare?

Starkly staged: Bohème at Glyndebourne made much of the drama and misery in Puccini’s classic opera

Both performances were graced with singers going places in their careers. The Glyndebourne production was a new one, directed by Floris Visser.

Here, in Croydon (which was a concert performance, rather than a full staging of the opera as a dramatic piece), we had David Junghoon Kim, who came to the Halls match fit having filled in for the last three performances at Glyndebourne, finishing that gig just a week before. Wow! The power these opera singers possess in their voices. But Kim was gracefully sensitive, too, in delivery as the Ronaldo part requires, especially if you have to cradle hands needing warming.

The performances also shared performers from the world-famous Trinity School boys’ choir. Singers from Sutton High School were in the Croydon production as well.

Both performances did well in telling the story.

Glyndebourne is getting a very sound reputation for telling an opera’s story in a modern context, with very clear signalling of story direction too.

Tight fit: there was no much space for all the ENO singers as well as the orchestra on the Concert Hall’s stage

Perhaps strong signalling helps when not all understand Italian. The ENO, as part of its mission statement, sings in English. The Fairfield tickets were sold eccentrically with the words in bold “Warning. Sung in English”.

I’m not sure whether the shouted word employed at Fairfield of “slut” is in Amanda Holden’s translation. It has more immediacy and controversy in its use than Glyndebourne for sure.

Clearly, an opera about not being able to afford to heat your home and dying from respiratory illness has obvious modern relevancy.

Glyndebourne cast the production all in monotone save for Parpignol’s red balloons, with the whole performance on a bleak cobbled Parisienne street.

The introduction of a constant companion of death in the Glyndebourne production was inspired and effective. Crystal Palace resident Christopher Lemmings was just great in that Glyndebourne performance, where Mimi is eventually reconciled to the death that she perceives.

It brought even more tearful grief to the end of Glyndebourne’s Bohème. Such drama is not possible in a concert performance, with Mimi shutting her eyes all that could be done at Fairfield. Any decent doomed soprano heroine needs the space to fall dramatically, but cellists on an overcrowded stage are not very good at getting out of the way.

Death and the maiden: Glyndebourne’s Bohème stressed the tragedy of Puccini’s opera

While Glyndebourne disciplined itself to perform everything on one bleak street, the ENO troupe more than met the challenges of performing on what was left of the stage after accommodating the generously-sized orchestra, which left the singers a space measuring some 3ft by 60ft.

The conductor’s balustrade was well employed.

It’s very hard to make Puccini’s oft-used technique of slowly, lingeringly, almost unnoticeably taking romantic duetting principals up stage and off the set into dimmed lighting work at the Fairfield. It looks contrived when you have to set off along the thin track to Fairfield’s black wing curtains. We know you’ve set off and where you are going.

The curtains don’t look as though they were part of the £67.5million refurbishment, either.

But Crispin Lord did a great job in producing here in constrained circumstances for the ENO. What was there was used well; clear stage sectioning was employed and singing from outside the signalled choir fire exit door was effective. Lighting is difficult, though, and some choir up-lighting was more Bohemian Rhapsody than Bohème.

Didn’t we do well: the ENO seemed pleased enough with their one-off afternoon appearance in Croydon

In some ways being in concert gives too much strength to what is a delicate story. The choir size and its projection were declamatory and Glyndebourne’s Yaritza Véliz seemed more appropriately vulnerable than the ENO’s Sinéad Campbell-Wallace.

Campbell-Wallace’s big, bright voice seems to make her set for significant future operatic roles. Even under the restrictions of the concert performance, the opera’s story was told through some great acting, and by the end the cast and audience were crying together.

Seeing the performance in concert gives a better sight of how the orchestral music comes together and the performance burdens on the leader of the orchestra that this score provides.

Australian Alexandra Oomens was a vivacious stand out playful Musetta. At the Fairfield’s no-curtain curtain call, she was centre stage and I’m not sure that Musetta is the lead role but Oomen’s coloratura was exact and her performance show-stopping. Oomens may well be of similar stature to compatriot Kylie Minogue, but just where does that projection and power come from?

So, you saw it first right here in Croydon. These are international operatic stars in the making.

Can Fairfield accommodate Glyndebourne’s autumn tour during Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture? And do it all for a fiver a ticket?

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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6 Responses to Two Days At The Opera: Fairfield’s match with Glyndebourne

  1. Jennifer Muschamp says:

    I enjoyed your article.

    Fairfield Halls does not appear to advertise anywhere I croydon. Some friends found the production advertised at a school fete
    I’m sure many croydonians would have jumped at the opportunity to attend
    Fairfield Halls no longer has a mailing list.
    Consequently how does anyone know what’s going on?

  2. John Woodhouse says:

    Totally agree about the Fairfield Hall car park – no signs, door in front of lifts locked! The Boheme performance was most enjoyable and fantastic value!

  3. Would be interesting to know how much money Fairfield are losing and who is funding the shortfall. £67m? It would have cost less to bulldoze it, get Norman Foster in and rebuild tbh.

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  5. Tel U says:

    Will there be another opera? I will see it

  6. Lewis White says:

    Thanks for the above article by Bella B–and the comments, which note many important factors .

    Just would like to highlight publicity, access and environment.

    Regarding publicity, the old Fairfield used to have giant posters on the front of the building outside, easily visible from the street, plus massive amounts of the then normal “paper publicity”. Businesses today have changed the way they advertise, but advertising and promotion remain key drivers of success.

    The passer by today would be forgiven for thinking that the Fairfield is closed. No signage, no posters. It would be possible to have an LED illuminated monolith, on the forecourt outside, to do a mini Picadilly Circus type of display. Commercial Ads would alternate with ads for upcoming performances. It would bring in some funds too.

    Access ? Cars seem to be regarded by some planning officers and councillors as the Devil’s instruments, which should be got off the road, so parking at Fairfeld is now restricted to the point of almost elimination. This is not a good idea for a non-central London location, which the Fairfeld is, as much of the Fairfield audience for classical music lives at a distance, down in Surrey, Kent and (in spite of Gyndebourne) Sussex. They are also over 60, and want to get home easily after evening performances. If they can’t , they won’t come.

    To be honest, potential audiences for a host of events, where the audiences are much younger, will still want to get to Fairfield by car. Think of a family of 2 adults plus 2 or more children. In a few years, all will be electric, so the pollution will be much reduced– and if the tyre dust catchers invented by students at Imperial College a fe w years ago are installed to new and old cars, that pollutant issue will go too.

    Environment ?

    Well, whilst the “Fair Field” is not like the Sussex meadows round Glyndebourne,
    I am glad that Bella mentioned the treeless, Sahara like expanse of tarmac outside the halls. Cycleways unlimited –but the trees have gone. I sincerly hope that they will be back when the adjacent open space is actually rebuilt, but quite why they were ripped out well before the new trees go in, is bemusing.

    The environment surrounding the Halls is so bleak.

    One wonders if the Council want the halls to fail or succeeed?

    Perhaps there is an as yet unrevealed Jo Negrini masterplan vision for the Halls to be demolished and replaced with a couple of 100 storey blocks of flats ?

    I have lost track of progress towards the revamping of the adjacent open space between Halls and College (aka Fairfield halls Open Space/ College Green ).

    It must have at least some scope for outdoor performance of some types, as well as the much-needed water splash zone. The “Scoop” by City Hall and Tower Bridge by the Thames would be too big for Croydon, but surely there must be potential for a smaller version and a bit more Glyndebourne-ish greenery in the re-design for the open space.

    Fig trees for Figaro.

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