‘Top Gun’ tenor flies to the rescue to save Glyndebourne show

With the lead star and understudy both ill, a helicopter ferried in the only other person who could play the part from 280 miles away

Access all arias: Adam Gilbert arrives at Glyndebourne Credit: Wales News Service

When the tenor for the role of Marc in Ethel Smith’s The Wreckers came down with an illness at the last minute, the organisers of Glyndebourne Opera Festival were facing disaster.

The understudy was already out of action and the only other person on the planet capable of playing the part was a 280-mile drive away.

The Wreckers, which tells the tale of a small Cornish village driven mad by an imminent storm, is rarely performed as it is. Yet Glyndebourne chose to put it on in the original French, something that had never been done before.

Only Rodrigo Porras Garulo, as well as his understudy, and Adam Gilbert of Cenarth, Carmarthenshire, had ever learned the part.

“There were only three people in the world, really, that knew it. There was Rodrigo, the first cover, and then me as the second cover. So when they were both ill, I was sort of the last man standing. It was very bizarre,” Mr Gilbert told The Telegraph.

Adam Gilbert: 'A bit like Tom Cruise but actually more like Mr Bean' Credit: Wales News Service

There were also just four-and-a-half hours before curtain-up when Mr Gilbert got the call.

“Usually you get an inkling maybe the day before, they'll say, ‘Oh, he's not feeling very well, can you be prepared?’ Or at least by 10 o'clock in the morning, but you know, quarter past 12 is quite late,” the tenor said. 

Plans to take his young son to see the seals at nearby Cardigan Island were abandoned and he hastily dropped his son off with his wife before jumping in the car and heading for southern England.

“I’d promised him he’d see the seals. He was very disappointed. I'm not sure he's quite forgiven me yet for not taking him,” said Mr Gilbert.

With rail strikes crippling the nation and progress by road proving less than speedy, it was becoming clear Mr Gilbert would not be making it to Glyndebourne in time.

Cue another frantic phone call as the emergency tenor was passing near Bristol. Could he, the festival team wanted to know, make it to Bath to meet a specially chartered helicopter?

Of course, came the response, and with the start of the show less than an hour away Mr Gilbert raced for the Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa.

When Mr Gilbert, 33, arrived at the luxurious retreat he had the surreal experience of walking into reception and telling them “I need to meet a helicopter.”

To his surprise, the response came: “It’s on the front lawn waiting.”

He ran outside and found “this lovely big helicopter, but no pilots, nobody there. So I thought oh my gosh, what's happening now?”

Lucknam, it turned out, was no stranger to helicoptering guests. “It wasn’t for me. What are the chances of that?”

Eventually, the correct, and somewhat smaller, helicopter turned up and lifted off with Mr Gilbert aboard.

Explain to the audience

Meanwhile, in Glyndebourne, artistic director Stephen Langridge was getting ready to go on stage to explain the situation to the audience.

Cancelling the show was out of the question, he told the BBC. The rail strike meant many in the audience had driven hours to be there so it was “not an option”.

Mr Porras Garulo, the original, under-the-weather star, was sent on for the first act and did his best to perform.

“Rodrigo soldiered on,” said Mr Gilbert. “Luckily the first act doesn't really feature that role too much.”

While Mr Porras Garulo persevered, his second understudy was having the time of his life soaring through the skies along the South Coast. “It was a nice, clear day. The pilot Alex was brilliant. He was pointing out different things and showing me what was around."

The Wreckers was able to go ahead Credit: Wales News Service

In less than an hour, he was landing on the lawn of Glyndebourne house and racing to the theatre. “It was very bizarre, with my bag, running over a field. A bit like Tom Cruise but actually more like Mr Bean," Mr Gilbert said.

He grabbed a quick sandwich, put on his suit and on he went for a performance that six hours previously he had no idea he would be giving.

The reception at the curtain call was rapturous, he said. “It was terrific. absolutely terrific.”

There’s still one performance left of The Wreckers at Glyndebourne on Friday. When he spoke to the Telegraph, Mr Gilbert was on his way to a different production in Southampton, still waiting for news of whether he might be needed again as Marc.

For now, he said, he was staying nearby. Just in case.