Friday, 30 May 2014

A fair hearing

Spectacular staging - and failures of trust - in two new productions

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
COSÌ FAN TUTTE
Coliseum, until July 6

Richard Strauss
DER ROSENKAVALIER
Glyndebourne Festival, until July 3

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, May 30

Overtures play a variety of roles in opera. Often the function is a formal one of introducing the prevailing mood, or ethos, of the drama, but they are also used to prefigure the coming action, or to introduce the principal themes around which the musical drama is built. Mozart, in Così fan tutte, uses the “Sinfonia” to do all these things, by making the music apparently poke fun at itself, running rings round the pompous cadential theme in which comes to be inscribed the pseudo-moral edict of the title. And as an ingenious and irresistible piece of music which commits neither to being entirely frivolous nor entirely serious, it perfectly describes the philosophical scope of the opera to come.

There is a sense, however, in which all overtures serve the same purpose, and that is to announce to the audience that it is now time to prick up your ears, and listen. And in English National Opera’s new production of Così, this is precisely the element that proved problematic. The opening chords have barely registered before Despina and Don Alfonso, in the guise of a motel chambermaid and fairground shyster, bring a magician’s box out to the front of the stage, against the lurid backdrop of glittering circus curtain. A pair of circus artists climb out of the box, only to be replaced by another, and another, and another until the central area is crammed with exotic characters, who include a fire-eater, two dwarfs, a “Mongolian” strong-man, a sword-eater, a bearded lady and more. Each holds a placard which, when reversed, one by one, and in time with the music, spell out the sentence “Opera . . . starting . . . now . . . [Pause] . . . please . . . concentrate . . . for . . . sophisticated . . . arias . . . and . . . chocolate”. But then everyone jumbles around to reveal “Starting . . . now . . . women . . . love . . . chocolate . . . in . . . sophisticated . . . arias”, before further jumbles produce more and more nonsensical constructions. It is hilarious to watch. Indeed, so convulsed were the audience by peals of laughter, directed at the action on stage, that the music was nigh-on inaudible.

For readers who like things in a nutshell, this conflict between the stage action and music encapsulates all that is excellent and much that is distressing about the show – and by extension, about the way in which opera is considered in general. For in an art form which has always struggled to generate belly laughs, and the concomitant sense of total submission such laughter often yields, it is a triumph of some significant sort to have an audience rolling around in the aisles before the overture is even finished. And yet at the same time, for the action to be so intricate and intriguing that, even without the laughter, the music of the overture is reduced to a perfunctory role, is to lose the sense of its being an opera in the first place.

ENO’s new Così is conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and directed by Phelim McDermott. Neither has done a Mozart opera before, but the whole is so slick and polished that one would never have guessed it. McDermott and his ingenious designer, Tom Pye, have set the action on Coney Island in the 1950s, the conceit being that the fairground attractions and circus freaks conspire to build an environment in which the usual rules don’t apply. It allows for a riot of colour and garish imagery to contradict the prim silhouettes cast by the sisters’ skirts and twinsets and has some wonderful set-piece extensions, such as the teacup waltzer ride which helps seal the deal between the disguised Gugliemo and Dorabella. Particularly effective are the three rooms of the Skyline Motel where the sisters are staying, whose walls rotate so that characters may pass from outside to inside without leaving the front areas of the stage, serving to make the third scene of Act One (in Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s boudoir) unusually fluid and precariously balanced.

In the pit, Wigglesworth has clearly worked tremendously hard to balance his phrasing and to keep the singers within his fluid orbit. His usual repertoire is twentieth and twenty-first-century music, so he is used to giving a clear beat and pointed leads, and the orchestra respond beautifully, by and large. Even so, there were moments on the opening night when pit and stage came apart, during which Wigglesworth kept a cool head – commendably so when one considers that the problem was usually caused by excessive activity on stage. Indeed, with the exception of Fiordiligi’s impassioned Act Two aria, “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona”, for which Wigglesworth has, I think, demanded that the frenzied stage action come to a temporary standstill, there is a rising sense that Mozart’s music is not being trusted to do its work. And despite the staging’s many merits, this comes, increasingly, to feel like a waste.

The sense of waste is exacerbated by the use of the circus artists, who are of course spectacular to look at but consigned to operating at the margin of the dramatic focus in a way that seems increasingly awkward, especially as their principal employment throughout is the manipulation of the sets. There is a wonderful little set-piece, during the gloating exchange between the men in Act Two, when the bored-looking curly blonde who runs the drinks stall is joined, successively, by the other female members of the “skills ensemble” (as McDermott terms them), wearing matching wigs, echoing the growing intensity of Ferrando’s jealousy and the precariousness of Guglielmo’s bravado. But as the second act progresses their presence increasingly requires justification through dumb-show reactions to each new development, and becomes distracting and unwonted.

That aside, there are superb performances from the principals. The undoubted highlight is Christine Rice, who luxuriates in the comic potential of Dorabella and has every vocal nuance to match. Kate Valentine’s rich soprano is a little less naturally suited to Fiordiligi, but she acts superbly and rises to the occasion when required. Mary Bevan’s Despina, though lacking a little evenness in the upper register, is also well suited to the role, and possessed of a stage presence well beyond her years, which McDermott doesn’t hesitate to use. Indeed, although both Randall Bills and Marcus Farnsworth were admirable, and interestingly contrasted, as Ferrando and Guglielmo, by far the strongest couple chemistry was that between Bevan and Roderick Williams’s sleazy and, for once, clearly vulnerable Don Alfonso. A further highlight was the surtitle machine, which was broken, though pleas for the management to leave it that way have fallen on deaf ears.

If the production stumbles, then, it is for its basic lack of trust in the work itself. The very premiss that a kind of exotic space is needed to curb the absurdities of the plot is flawed in the crucial sense that it is Mozart’s music that drives the lovers’ fluctuating sense of direction, just as it drives the heat which allows the characters to fall in love in the first – and second – place. The question of realism and suspended disbelief is irrelevant because, as the opera tells us, love is primarily a question of characters and their dispositions, not persons and the contracts between them.

The overture to Richard Strauss’s first essay in the genre of Mozartian comedy is entirely unambiguous in its intent, as it is largely assigned the task of depicting the yearnings and writhings of sexual congress of a field marshal’s wife and her cousin and seventeen-year-old lover, Count Octavian Rofrano. Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original idea had been for the curtain to open and find the two lovers breakfasting in bed, enjoying, in a manner strongly contrasted with the breakfast served to Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the sensuous and restorative delights of hot chocolate. But they were advised against sailing so close to Dresden’s prevailing morally conservative wind by the intendant of the city’s Königliches Opernhaus. Richard Jones, in his new staging of the opera, which opened the Glyndebourne Festival, goes better than both by raising the curtain to reveal the Marschallin stark naked in a shower of golden glitter. The scene is ravishing, discreetly lit and with the stillness of a pre-Raphaelite Venus, and the sight is audibly devoured by all sections of the audience and, from closer quarters, Octavian, who drinks it in with the easy calmness of one who fully expects the same again tomorrow.

It’s a striking opening, to say the least, and the act that follows it shows Jones, and Glyndebourne, at their best, with a gorgeously styled staging which revels in the task of colouring in a twentieth-century fantasy about an eighteenth-century liaison. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is in gleaming form, clearly delighting in the subtlety of Robin Ticciati’s wonderfully fluid conducting (rather too fluid in the overture, in fact, where the orchestra rather struggled to follow his lead). Kate Royal is in splendid voice as the Marschallin, floating moodily through her high-lying part. Tara Erraught’s Octavian, cast as a callous young Cherubino, matches her in tonal beauty but exceeds her in richness of tone; the frisson between the two creates all sorts of possibilities. There have in fact been overtly lesbian stagings of Der Rosenkavalier, but this turned out not to be one of them. Indeed, it turned out not really to know what it was about at all, as if the opening gesture was all show. To be sure, there is no shortage of ideas: there is the Octavian /Cherubino pairing, which is reinforced in Act Two by Octavian’s ineffectual stamping at the boorish Ochs’s vulgarity, and by the latter’s being wounded not by the thrust of a sword but by a thorn on the silver rose’s stem, haphazardly wielded by Octavian as he shrinks from the confrontation. Teodora Gheorghiu’s Sophie, meanwhile, is initially deployed as a bluestocking whose intellectual and romantic desires clearly outweigh the social ambition of her father – a sort of Straussian version of Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. There are also cleverly placed references to Freud – who appears out of nowhere while the Marschallin sings her great “Da geht er hint” scene, recumbent on an exceedingly long sofa – and to proto-fascist sentiment in the Austrian parochial nationalism of Ochs’s son and servants. The costume and set designs, by Nicky Gillibrand and Paul Steinberg, are virtuosic, effortlessly traversing fifty years of change while keeping the visual lens firmly fixed on the timeless aspect of the fantasy.

But as in Così, there is an issue of trust here which seems to untie all these efforts. Indeed, if one thing has been left out of Jones’s exquisite dismantling and reassembling of the work, it is the work’s explicitly romantic heart. The result is that the staging eventually turns against all three principals. Just at the moment when the burning desire of the younger and the blissful compassion of the elder should triumph over all in soaring contours of the great final trio, each is instead presented as imprisoned within their own little cut-out worlds, denied any true meeting of hearts and minds. One hears it in the unsteadiness of some of the singing, and an inflexibility in the blending of the voices. One is left with the odd feeling that only Ochs’s role, played and sung magnificently by Lars Woldt, and the other minor characters whom Strauss and Hoffmansthal were content to leave stranded in the burlesque regions of the drama, are really permitted to flourish.

That said, it is gorgeously produced and played; this is Ticciati’s first production as Glyndebourne’s music director, and a good reminder of how well suited he is to the space, and of the delight he takes in fractional contrasts of texture and in the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. Indeed, Strauss’s stipulation that the (large) orchestra can be held back where necessary in order to let the female voices through seems entirely superfluous. It’s just a shame that the staging seems to want to clip their wings instead.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Holy Communion

Musical explorations of the best of all possible worlds

Richard Wagner
PARSIFAL
Royal Opera House, until December 18

Leonard Bernstein
CANDIDE!
Menier Chocolate Factory, until February 22

Review from the Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013

Wer ist der Gral?", asks Wagner's Parsifal, shortly after recovering from a fainting fit. Having only just learned his own name, that the woman who gave it to him has died, and now that something called "the Grail" will give him food and drink (provided he is pure), he is entitled to a certain amount of confusion. The form of the question - "who", not "what" - is always taken as an expression of the naivety of Wagner's most naive hero. But it has always struck me as odd that Gurnemanz, the wisest and most trustworthy of the Grail's servants, fails to correct him on this point: "Das sagt sich nicht".

In the Royal Opera's new and, for fans of bicentennial celebrations, long-awaited production of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal's question - no less than Gurnemanz's obfuscatory answer - is more than usually significant. The Grail, it turns out, is a young boy, held in captivity by the brotherhood and brought out periodically from an opaque glass box to have his side pierced by a scalpel, in a position analogous to the Christ's wound. Naked but for a loin cloth, the grail-boy is then carried among the faithful who, having used similar scalpels to cut stigmata wounds in the palms of their hands, mingle their own blood with that of the boy. It's not the image of the mysterious relic and vessel of blood of Christ that most of us have in mind, but as a reflection of the brotherhood's fetishization of the blood of Christ, the idea has a shocking but authentically Wagnerian logic to it.

Very few staged Parsifals have ever really satisfied my idealized, naturalized picture of the opera as a work which makes perfect, beautiful sense, and which is capable of forming the core of a coherent, ethical picture of the world. But Stephen Langridge and Antonio Pappano's new production for the Royal Opera is the first that made me question my understanding of the work altogether. Is the piece simply too weird in its obsessions (its misogyny, its eroticization of the idea of atonement and de-eroticization of the idea of love), too nasty in its misanthropy and ultimately too schoolboyish in its two-dimensional characterizations, the elements of a powerful but overly simplistic moral-aesthetic philosophical system?

Some of this response comes down to Pappano's handling of the piece, which in parts - the Act One and Three preludes, the transformation music of Act One - is superlative. Combined with some astonishingly controlled and expressive playing by the orchestra, as ever completely responsive to the wishes of their music director, the music reached moments of otherworldly, hypnotic beauty. Put together, though, the playing comes across as far too choppy. The sense of symphonic process - crucial if the work is to retain its full gravity - is sacrificed in favour of immediate contrasts in emotion and texture.

The leitmotifs seem to jump out at one eagerly - look out, here comes Parsifal, here comes Kundry! - rather than emerging, as they should, as expressions of the music's inner thematic logic. The result is that both the music and drama feel unusually volatile, and strangely fragile in their foundations.

The same is true of Stephen Langridge's staging which, thanks to Alison Chitty's elegantly conceived design, gives the illusion of being crisp and clearly thought through but which, as things progress, begins to fall apart at the seams. This is a result of an entirely misplaced sense that things must keep moving on stage (if ever there was an opera where you can afford to let your cast stay where they are, it's this one), and of some equally misplaced directorial ideas. Act Two, in particular, is a mess; the flower maidens are singularly unprepossessing in their garish nightclub gladrags, and too many details are left dangling, such as the identification of four of the brotherhood as terrorist martyrs at the end of Act One, or Parsifal's blinding of himself at the end of Act Two. Chitty's central cube, which houses first Amfortas's sick bed, then the Grail, then Kundry's love nest, is also overworked, used to display flashed tableaux which recreate aspects of the narrative, such as Amfortas's seduction by Kundry, or Klingsor's self-castration. Progressively, the flood of unwonted details hijacks Wagner's carefully articulated dramatic arc.

This notwithstanding, the underlying idea behind Langridge's treatment of the drama is undeniably a strong one. The brotherhood are a sinister, secretive closed society, whose mistaken loyalty to Titurel's vision of the Grail as a literal re-enactment of the wounds of Christ has led to a closeted world in which sexual relations have been replaced by a kind of ritualized child abuse. Their final redemption by Parsifal takes the form of his washing away the wound rituals and replacing them with a virtual conception of the Grail as pure compassion. When he opens the central cube for the last time, the boy has vanished. Amfortas is released from the hellish duties enforced on him by his bullying father and exits with Kundry, the two reunited as lovers. Somewhat in the same manner, Gurnemanz is left to tend the corpse of Titurel.

The vocal performances are also mixed, Simon O'Neill's sure command of Parsifal's role hampered by his poor acting while Angela Denoke's sinewy characterization of Kundry begins to fall apart just as the role requires the voice to be at its strongest. The real triumphs of the evening are Gerald Finley's Amfortas and René Pape's Gurnemanz, both rock solid, beautifully paced and nobly acted. Amfortas's spiritual desperation in the second scene of Act One is among the most moving things I have witnessed on any operatic stage. Given the central motivational role played by our, and Parsifal's, compassionate identification with the character, it goes a long way towards rescuing the entire show. But Pape's Gurnemanz is powerful, noble and immensely compassionate himself: how do we square this with his unquestioned, continuing support for a regime that is rotten at its heart?

It is a nice though perhaps unintended touch that in the little stretch of garden which the Grail community must till, in the shamefully fallen state in which they find themselves in Act Three, the one fertile patch is precisely where the swan shot by Parsifal in Act One lies buried. Perhaps Parsifal's hunter-gatherer bent is his redeeming feature after all. Certainly, Langridge's reading of the opera as an imperative to set aside all crypto-mythological pursuits in favour of getting on with the practicalities of harmonious living bears striking parallels with the famous conclusion reached by another of Western civilization's most prized holy fools, Voltaire's Candide. Langridge's Parsifal simply strides off at the end, leaving his compassionate miracle to work its mundane magic by itself. But had he left his newly acquired flock with an instruction, it might well have been something along the lines of "il faut cultiver notre jardin".

Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide!, like Parsifal, is not an easy work to stage successfully. A new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed and slightly reworked by Matthew White, comes close to overcoming its many obstacles, however. Taken as a highoctane fairground ride of bravura ensemble acting and playing, and featuring some very creditable singing, it is also the perfect comic antidote to the excesses of the Royal Opera's Parsifal.

Presented as the creation of a medieval-style travelling troupe, with the action unfolding in a central rectangle but continually spilling up the aisles and along the galleries (and frequently co-opting unsuspecting members of the audience into the fray), the operetta rolls along at a tremendous lick, the more formal musical numbers emerging as natural and necessary pauses for breath. That said, many of the songs - particularly Scarlett Strallen's "Glitter and Be Gay", in which her coloratura roulades find a hilarious visual corollary in Cunégonde's pulling strings of pearls and diamonds from an overhead chandelier - are show-stopping in their own right. The sole problem in this otherwise flawlessly paced riot of musico-theatrical enchantment relates to the piece itself, and the way in which the El Dorado sequence is over before the audience has a chance to realize why Candide has no choice but to leave it behind. Just as Wagner suggested in his depiction of the Grail kingdom, the best of all possible worlds is no better than the worst when it comes to the basic need to live one's own life.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Stop, Look, Listen

HUDDERSFIELD CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVAL
Various venues

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 29 November 2013

At the conclusion of François Sarhan's multimedia opera Enough Already!(Lachez Tout), we find the protagonist facing down the audience, staring at us in total silence. He has Just distributed sticks of dynamite around the stage and front stalls and connected them to a detonator, and he now holds the plunger in its upright position, fixing the auditorium with an unfathomable gaze, inscrutable in its mixture of disdain and indifference. His body tenses as he shifts his weight over the plunger and . . . .

Well nothing, obviously - it's a piece of theatre, and this is the end. But it's a sufficiently unnerving moment to send shivers down the spine. Could this be the moment when opera finally becomes revolutionary, in the non-art-historical sense of the term? Not only does the piece depict an effort to cause a giant explosion, specifically designed to change the structure of society and unleash anarchy, albeit of a highly poeticized variety, but the performance seems to be a one-off (or so I thought at the time), staged, scripted and composed by someone I've never heard of. It is, furthermore, fronted by a mime artist whose control of every muscle in his body and face is such that it elicits a kind of involuntary submission, a nervous fascination bound up with the marvel of someone's mental states being so hermetically sealed that they are entirely unaffected by anyone else around them.

One learns to expect the unexpected at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, now in its thirty-sixth year and widely recognized as one of the most interesting and influential new music gatherings in the world, but the blowing up of the Lawrence Batley Theatre would have exceeded by some margin what is meant by "unexpected". Still, the explosion would have been an interesting one to observe from a greater distance because its purpose, within the framework of the drama, was not merely to cause damage but to distribute a highly volatile though sadly fictional compound called "Sibuline". Created by Adolphe Riouls (also fictional) in order to perfect the working of an automatic guitar, an instrument capable of playing by itself whatever has previously been performed on it, the concoction endows inanimate obJects with autonomy. The things around us are thereby freed from the tyranny of commodification and returned, as Heidegger might have put it, to the thingness of themselves.

Bobok, the work's fanatical protagonist, has reproduced Sibuline through reading about it in Henri-Jacques Glaçon's "Encyclopaedia of Imaginary Knowledge", and seems to intend his explosion to restore some dignity and richness to our relationship with our environment. I say "seems to" because nothing is entirely what it seems in this surreal opera and its series of interlocking imaginary worlds. The richness of Bobok's relations with the obJects around him is caused by (or is the cause of) the fact that nothing does what it is supposed to. The first scene is a veritable circus comedy act, Bobok balancing on collapsing chairs, leaping to answer recalcitrant telephones and attempting to read his beloved Encyclopaedia with the aid of lamps whose switches only ever turn on other lamps. Generically, too, the piece is radically disobedient: an opera whose only stage actor is silent, and where the musicians - distributed around the edges of the stage - also speak and chant, acting both as narrators and inner voices, vainly trying to keep Bobok's mind from straying (his urge to kick yapping dogs is a particular cause for distraction). Much of the action takes place on screen, but the sound - produced by two onstage Foley artists - is often at odds with what one sees. Collage techniques and location footage also collide on screen while towards the end, when Bobok returns to the stage to change his wet clothes (after swimming across the Vltava; the film portions are mostly shot in Prague, where Sarhan now lives), he uses the musicians' fingers to hang his clothes and then gets in a tussle with one of the Foley artists over the latter's Jacket, which is dry. Arguably, given that the Jacket only exists to enhance our aural sense of Bobok's own Jacket, he has every right to take it, and the sound artist soon yields, with a rather forlorn gesture of resignation.

The anarchic structure of the action is enhanced by a poly-stylistic and often ironic musical layer, which sounds improvised but is in fact precisely scored (for violin, electric guitar, percussion, keyboard and saxophone). Performed by the Red Note Ensemble, a recently formed and admirably versatile Scottish new music group, the music served less to add an expressive dimension to the drama than to enhance our sense of semi-automatic, anarchically conceived processes pursuing their own ends. The performances of the mimic Claudio Stellato, also a dancer and circus artist, and the two Foley artists, Julien Baissat and Céline Bernard, also had a bravura element. Perhaps the most striking element of the piece, however, and it holds this in common with much "classical" surrealism, is not that the opera's animating force is gradually dominated by a kind of violent call to arms, an irrepressible railing against the status quo, but that the only valid response nonetheless seems to remain a purely artistic one. The revolution the piece seems to call for, though it has many political extensions, is primarily aesthetic in nature: stop, look, listen.

Performed on the final day of the festival's opening weekend, Sarhan's wonderfully executed anti-opera echoed, in this respect, the "shadow opera" by the Norwegian composer Cecilie Ore, performed at the end of the festival's opening day. Entitled simply A, Ore's piece - in its latest incarnation at least - entirely lacks live performative elements, consisting of pre-recorded audio and visual tracks, and has neither characters nor a plot of any kind. It is perhaps better conceived as a kind of soundsculpture, which may be why the organizers chose to stage it not in Huddersfield itself but some 20 miles away in one of the galleries of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The "A" of the title stands both for Agamemnon but also for the Norwegian "allmenn", meaning "general" or "extending to everyone". The text, written in Norwegian dialect by Hilde Andersen and intoned beautifully by the deep, gravelly voice of Joachim Calmeyer, centres on Agamemnon's efforts to overcome his remorse at the death of his daughter Iphigenia. The figure of remorse is then refracted through a panhistorical lens in which acts of atrocity are Justified by the invocation of historical necessity and the bloody, self-fulfilling cycle of revenge.

In this respect, A offers something of a meditation on the central theme of Aeschylus' Oresteia, but much of its power comes from the circular structure of the musical presentation, in which gongs resonate remorselessly to create an oppressive and encircling soundscape that seems both ancient and directionless. Towards the end, the cycles accelerate, and the attempts to obliterate regret begin to reveal more and more cracks. The voice keeps returning to the details of Iphigenia's appearance on the beach at Aulis, her hair and luminous face turned against the ground. But the gongs maintain their order, impassive and entirely unmoved.

The effect of Ore's "shadow-opera" was somewhat hampered by the visual elements, which consisted of phrases and letters proJected onto four screens (which formed a square room around the audience) and gave the impression of a whizzbang PowerPoint presentation gone awry. But the piece retained much of its power nonetheless, and rather more so than the Norwegian composer's latest piece, Come to the Edge, composed for the BBC Singers and given its premiere the following afternoon. The piece uses Christopher Logue's poster-poem to enclose a selection of aphorisms on the subJect of freedom of speech (Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Harry Belafonte), into which are woven extracts from the infamous trial of the Russian protest group, Pussy Riot. The music's use of simple, repetitive rhythmical patterns was interesting for its quasi-liturgical style and for the way in which individual words and phrases slipped in and out of focus, but its stylistic directness had the odd, unwonted effect of highlighting its political impotence.

The opposite effect was achieved later the same evening by the long awaited UK premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain, given by the London Sinfonietta (the performance will be repeated in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on December 6). Like Ore's work, Haas's 70-minute piece (for twenty-four-piece orchestra) uses strikingly simple material so the expressive effect is more accumulative than immediate, but the sense of gradual expansion and contraction gives an extraordinary sense of a composite consciousness being roused to life. In political terms, this was Haas's intention, and the work was composed in 1999 as a response to the resurgence of the far Right in Austrian politics. There are two extended periods when the hall descends into total darkness. The musical material simplifies further, increasing the electric sense of listening and response on stage, and drawing the audience further into the music's constantly shifting ground. The first dark period ends with a single harp suddenly flooded in light. The image of ancient splendour, with the harp tuned to the natural harmonic series, is clearly marshalled as an emblem of hope. The second period is ambiguous and ends indecisively. Played with extraordinary commitment by the Sinfonietta under Emilio Pomarico, it is hard to imagine a more powerful - and, paradoxically, inspiring - expression of latent, impotent rage.

Monday, 25 November 2013

A human heart laid bare

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
THE MAGIC FLUTE
Coliseum, until December 7

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 22 November 2013

It may reflect an aspect of the evolving nature of opera performance that one of the most successful new productions I have seen this year happened to field one of the least distinguished casts. On the other hand, it may simply reflect my own peculiarities as a critic. Either way, English National Opera's first new staging of Mozart's Magic Flute for some twenty-five years - a co-production with Complicite - is remarkable for the absence of the kind of vocal charisma on which the idea of opera in general, and of Mozart's familiar late masterpiece in particular, by and large depends.

The reason for the production's success is twofold. The first is that the orchestra, under the direction of the inexperienced but calm, precise and energetic Gergely Madaras, recipient of the company's first Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellowship, play their socks off, taking advantage of a spell in the limelight for a fine display of crisp ensemble and elegant but distinctly high-spirited phrasing.

Nor is the limelight merely of the metaphorical kind, but it derives from the orchestra pit having been raised much as it would in Mozart's day, to a point where, with a few steps, it becomes continuous with the stage. One notable advantage, aside from an increased directional clarity (and thus immediacy) in the sound, is that the usual rather silly attempts to marry pretend flute and bell playing on stage with their real, subterranean corollaries, could be sidestepped altogether. Both the flautist Katie Bedford and the celeste player SooJeong Joo rise (literally) to the occasion, managing the interaction with the stage characters with remarkable naturalness. In a nice comic flourish, Papageno himself takes the final celeste solo, shooing away Joo on her return from a coffee break.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Simon McBurney and the theatre he founded now thirty years ago that the openly collaborative spirit of the staging goes a great deal further than this. Mozart's score is supplemented with radio-style sound effects, produced by an on-stage Foley artist and amplified (and electronically enhanced) from their source to the right of the stage, which takes the form of a glass cupboard, stocked with buckets of gravel, bottles, metal sheets, etc. Across to the left is the similarly low-tech origin of the maJority of the visual effects. These comprise a chalk board, a row of fake book spines representing the walls of Sarastro's domain, and a handheld camera used to proJect images onto the backdrop, scrim, or the suspended platform that forms the central section of the stage. The effects range from the informative ("The Magic Flute, by W A Mozart") to complex designs interacting with the stage movement, and only on one or two occasions (the trials by fire and water) are they generated by anything more high-tech than a man showing images of something he has Just drawn with chalk. Another lovely touch comes with Papageno's birds, simple folded leaves of paper given vivid life by Complicite actors. Their response to Papageno's countdown to threatened suicide - flutter, droop, drop - is quite heartbreaking.

There's an extra dimension to McBurney's direction, however, in that his intention is clearly to render the entire theatrical apparatus as transparent as possible. And the point of this, besides adding extra layers of "live" excitement to the audience experience, is that it undercuts the main traJectory of the drama in the way it lays bare the workings of its own magic. To express this simply, the flute here seems more powerful for being a real, playable one. But the matter runs deeper. While Schikaneder's scenario centres on Tamino and Pamina's spiritual Journey from an enchanted realm to an enlightened one, the contrast is rarely wholly satisfying. Sarastro's power may reflect the love his subJects feel for him, but it is an absolute and unquestioned power nonetheless, and upheld in a web of magic no less mysterious and unaccountable than that of the Queen of the Night. This quasi-dictatorial status enJoyed by Sarastro is exposed via McBurney's decision to cast the character as a televangelist, operating at the centre of a world of brightly lit, eerily calm, air-brushed perfection. Tamino is thus desirable primarily for the way he appears, rather than as an actual hero searching for truth and wisdom - which, given that he falls in love with a snapshot, transfers his loyalties at the flick of a switch and seems inexplicably to lose track of his uniquely conspicuous guide (Papageno), explains rather a lot. Those who lie outside Sarastro's reach appear, by contrast, prematurely aged, or decrepit. The Queen of the Night is pushed about in a wheelchair by shadowy minions in dishevelled army fatigues, while the three boys are emaciated, wizened little sages. Monostatos, disgraced, quickly becomes disgusting, sprouting hair in all directions, his flesh spilling out from every seam.

The question of whether Sarastro's illusion is false or not is left open, but there is great ingenuity in the way the grand drama of good and evil is subtly pushed aside for something a little more palpable, and palatable. Indeed, this Magic Flute really seems to centre on the figure of the bird-catcher Papageno, here distinctly middle-aged, but also the one character who really seems to have an actual skill, or craft, and also a functioning human heart.

This is satisfying on a number of levels, not the least of which is that Roland Wood, who sings the role, provides the one really outstanding vocal performance of the evening. Particularly striking is the lack of artifice in Wood's singing, reflecting the general tenor of the show without sacrificing power or proJection (he is in fact better known as a Verdian baritone), and facilitating the move to speaking voice with remarkable naturalness and command of comic timing. ENO's rising star tenor Ben Johnson, by contrast, seems rather detached, while both Devon Guthrie's Pamina and Cornelia Götz's Queen lack fullness of tone. Mary Bevan, in her delightful but all too brief appearance as Papagena, offers a glimpse of how enchanting this otherwise very enlightening production could one day become.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The eyes have it

Salvatore Sciarrino
THE KILLING FLOWER
Linbury Studio

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 2013

The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino is one of those rare figures who command universal respect, at least among the relatively small community of those who listen to what one finds oneself increasingly forced to call, through gritted teeth, "contemporary classical" music. Unusually, Sciarrino taught himself to compose, a badge of artistic independence he wears proudly; but in reality a stylistic line of descent can be heard coming through Luigi Nono and his pupil Helmut Lachenmann. Like theirs, his music delights in half-lit sonorities and operates at the margins of positive expression, resulting in a musical experience that sharpens the senses. A quiet but irrepressible delight accompanies the feeling of growing power as a listener.

Sciarrino's music is widely performed both in Europe and further afield, but for some reason none of his fifteen operas has made it to Britain until this year, when the ever enterprising Music Theatre Wales decided to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by mounting a production of Luci mie traditrici, first staged at the 1998 Schwetzingen Festival and performed widely ever since. For its British premiere the libretto has been sensitively translated into English by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with the title given as The Killing Flower in reference to the rose on which the female protagonist pricks herself in the first scene - though it is her husband whom the wound causes to faint.

Literally, the title translates as "my betraying eyes". The change in the English version was Sciarrino's choice because he wanted to retain something of the erotic charge of the original. Nonetheless, it loses the crucial idea that it is the eyes, and the act of seeing, which are responsible for the betrayal. The opera is based on a seventeenth-century play, Il tradimento per l'honore, about a young nobleman who murders his wife and her lover. The setting was chosen by Sciarrino because he had long wanted to write an opera about the similar story of Carlo Gesualdo, but had been put off by the interest in Gesualdo taken by other composers, notably Alfred Schnittke.

The instrumental sections of Sciarrino's score take the form of fragmentary variations on a sixteenth-century song setting by Claude Le Jeune of the words "What happened to the lovely eyes which once brightened my soul with their rays?" But the opera itself unfolds another account of whose eyes are doing the betraying. Through the visual testimony of his servant, it is the Duke's recognition of the flaw in his image of his marriage that does the betraying, and which honour commands must be recompensed. The idea may seem an odd one, but the notion that the Duke's love for his young wife is, in his eyes, a kind of flower whose beauty is destroyed by the discovery of an imperfection matches perfectly the fleeting aesthetic of Sciarrino's style, whose exquisite beauty also seems to vanish if examined too closely. To be themselves, both love and music must remain tantalizingly Just out of focus.

Like many composers, Sciarrino continues to write operas in the belief that he can do something new with the form. Unlike many, however, he succeeds, perhaps largely because he is unafraid to look to the past. The vocal style employed exclusively in Luci is one of murmurs and sighs, and the lines take their quantities and variations in pitch and intensity directly from the words. In this respect, the opera is much closer in spirit to the early experiments in opera in late sixteenth-century Florence. The dramatic and musical momentum generated by Sciarrino, however, is quite unique because of the almost tantric manner in which the music builds up its charge. By the final act, in which the Duke leads his wife to their bed, on which is already lying her murdered lover, the music bristles with an electricity so urgent that one quite shares the Duke's picture of things. The experience is unsettling, to say the least.

The production is a collaboration between Music Theatre Wales's two founding co-artistic directors, the conductor Michael Rafferty and the director Michael McCarthy. Musically, Sciarrino's delicate sonorities survive well in the stuffy atmosphere of the Linbury Studio, and the instrumental sections were particularly well handled. It is hard to fault the singers - Amanda Forbes (Duchess), George Humphreys (Duke), William Towers (Guest) and Michael Bennett (Servant) - all of whom fully embraced the sensuous qualities of the vocal lines without forcing them. One odd feature of the production, however, stylishly and sparsely designed by Simon Banham and beautifully lit by Ace McCarron, is that the singers often appear to be over-acting. The vocal line is so rich and powerful in capturing the minutely variegated emotional spectrum of the drama that only the slightest trace of anger, fear and adoration in facial expression and bodily gesture is called for. But this is a minor quibble over a production which commands praise on every other level and which I hope will lead to a widening interest among British opera companies in Salvatore Sciarrino's work.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Children of violence

Giuseppe Verdi
LES VÊPRES SICILIENNES
Royal Opera House, until November 11

Benjamin Britten
THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA
Touring until December 6

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2013

Je n'accorde à personne le droit de diriger mes voeux!", exclaims Henri, the headstrong young hero of Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes. Without its context, his outburst reads like a universal exclamation, an article of faith for anyone who believes in the idea of moral freedom: others may decide my destiny and hold power over my movements and even actions, but no one can tell me how to feel about it. Coming from Henri, though, the exclamation is a particularly urgent one, and drenched in dramatic irony. It is urgent because Henri, a young Sicilian rebel, is standing before the tyrannical French governor of medieval Sicily, Guy de Montfort, who has Just released him from prison for unknown reasons and, while maintaining his freedom of movement, is expressly forbidding him from pursuing his passion for Hélène, a prominent Sicilian noblewoman and a sworn enemy of de Montfort. At the same time, the article of faith is simply mistaken.

Unbeknownst to him, de Montfort is his father, who raped his mother shortly after the French conquest of Sicily in a manner selfconsciously redolent of the abduction of the Sabine women by the early Romans. Born of violent conquest, and of the brutal elision of political and private acts of possession, Henri cannot help discovering filial affection for a man he had formerly sworn to hate.

Les Vêpres siciliennes was Verdi's first attempt to storm the fortress of French Grand Opera. When the invitation from the Opéra came, he made sure his contract stipulated he would work with the capital's most highly regarded librettist, Eugène Scribe. The partnership took some time to bear fruit; "J'ai besoin d'un suJet grandiose, passionné, original", Verdi wrote to the librettist before they eventually settled on Scribe's rewriting an earlier treatment about the Duc d'Albe (written for Fromental Halévy) which, though not exactly original, was not lacking in grand passions. Verdi also insisted on changing the setting to the 1282 uprising of Sicily against French occupying forces.

The problems Verdi experienced with the libretto and its author have often been held to account for the work's perceived failings. At its premiere, however, it was a notable success, one of the highlights of the Parisian world exhibition in 1855. If it lacks the levels of musical inspiration typical of Verdi at his very best, Vêpres is nonetheless an impressive and often profoundly beautiful score. Dramatically, too, it is cleverly structured, with the choruses and the duets acting as pivot points and conduits for the tangled analogies and contradictions between public and private conceptions of love and loyalty. The first scene of Act Three, during which Henri learns of his kinship with de Montfort, is a masterpiece of musico-dramatic fluency, in which Henri's eventual acceptance of the truth is shadowed by the formal progression towards a genuine duet.

All this goes some way to explain both why the Royal Opera's new production of the work is the first in the company's history, and why the company is to be congratulated on making it the centrepiece of their celebrations of Verdi's bicentenary. It is a brave undertaking, for the opera will not reward half-hearted attempts to mount it, and to their credit, the company have thrown everything at the show, with Antonio Pappano's preparation of his orchestra and cast demonstrating his customary mix of diligence, passion and panache. The casting, too, is stellar. Michael Volle is peerless as de Montfort, stinting neither on showing his character's odious and capricious nature nor on revealing his loneliness, selfpity and need to be loved. His voice has the requisite power as well as agility, and in the role's more lyrical moments - such as in Act Three - it has a disturbing beauty which, when combined with Volle's acting skills, proved irresistible in its demand for his audience's - and son's - unlikely sympathy. Bryan Hymel's portrayal of Henri is also emotionally and technically faultless. One can think of bigger names for the part, but Hymel has proved himself repeatedly on the Covent Garden stage in comparable roles such as Berlioz's Enée and Meyerbeer's Robert, and the decision to cast him here was absolutely right. Despite suffering from the early stages of a throat infection, Lianna Haroutounian, who is replacing Marina Poplavskaya for a portion of the run, is a moving and commanding Hélène, while Erwin Schrott's vocal command of the part of the fanatical rebel Jean Procida is so assured and effortlessly powerful that one can overlook his exaggerated acting.

In this respect, however, he seems to have been encouraged by his director, Stefan Herheim. Herheim has placed the idea of theatricality at the centre of his presentation of the work by incorporating the side elevation of an opera house auditorium into the sets for the chorus scenes, and some of the more intimate moments too, so that the French soldiers and others are watching, with various degrees of amusement, the stage action unfold. In doing so, he has added a further layer of irony to the work's central examination of the irreconcilability of public and private passions. For, if there is a sphere where people, if only temporarily, readily and actively submit to being told by others how to feel, it is the theatre.

Herheim has set the action in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, the (far from uncommon) idea being that the society which produced the work is examining itself through it. In addition to Gesine Völlm's lavish but largely traditional costume designs, the visual manifestion of this self-reflexive turn takes the spectacular form of gilded interior sections of an opera house which, in spite of their appearance of massive solidity, silently float off into the wings without warning, or swing round so the proceedings are viewed the other way around. Nor are the rest of Philipp Fürhofer's sets really what they seem to be, as mirrored wall sections reverse to reveal Sicilian landscapes.

That said, the success of Herheim's staging owes less to its Konzept than to the way each interlocking visual tableau seems so fluently to move with and from the music. The result is that each scene is marked by an extraordinary grace and conviction, and carried by a momentum which allows the audience to set to one side any puzzling directorial details without becoming irritated by their residual ambiguities. Perhaps a little too much is made of the theatre idea in the final act, which ends with floodlights shining into the auditorium from the stage so brightly that the stage becomes invisible by the end. But Verdi's final act is a troublesome creation - a series of increasingly awkward postponements of what is dramatically inevitable - and Herheim succeeds admirably in rebuilding the lost tension from the preceding act.

One of the best directorial interventions is the casting of Procida as director of the ballet corps, who is roughly beaten during a rehearsal (the overture) by the boorish French troops before the dancers are taken aside, the inference is, to be raped. As a reminder, the dancers - including the ghost of Henri's mother - frequently revisit the stage as the action unfolds. Their elegant and entirely classical dancing style becomes awkward and disJointed when "directed" by the French, so their continued presence on the stage acquires a kind of subversive and eventually nightmarish aspect. The dancing, by members of the Royal Danish ballet together with students from our own Royal Ballet school, is nicely done but the main ballet set-piece has been cut, following the decision by the Royal Ballet to withdraw from co-producing the opera.

One of the most interesting features of the production is the way it casts light on the psychology of rape and its changing portrayal, from the French soldiers' modelling of themselves on the ancient Romans to the presentation of Henri as a child of violence now himself imprisoned by the violence of his own contradictory passions. This plurality of perspective is echoed in one of BenJamin Britten's most neglected operas, The Rape of Lucretia, which has now been staged at Glyndebourne - by the company's touring division - for the first time since the work's unpromising premiere there in 1946. The neglect in the latter case is arguably Justified by Ronald Duncan's libretto, which is relentlessly "poetic" in away that drowns all the characters in a thick soup of laboured similes ("the oatmeal slippers of sleep" is one of many prime examples).

The production's director, Fiona Shaw, is obviously unable to do much about this, but she has provided an elegant solution to the work's other main question, which is how to handle the rather prudish-seeming Christian framework and the way, in the form of the two "choruses" (the male and female narrators), this leaks into the stage action proper. Britten's taut, glittering and superbly elegant score aside, this narrative seepage has always struck me as one of the opera's most compelling features. In particular, the way the supposedly detached male chorus seems almost actively to persuade Tarquin to forget his conscience and make a conquest of his friend's wife has interesting dramatic implications. Shaw's solution is to cast the two choruses as a pair of 1940s missionaries at an archaeological dig. The two "choruses" can therefore be seen to be actively reconstructing the story as it unfolds on stage, leading to a situation where their own beliefs and desires have a role to play in the account of the ancient Roman characters' motivations and actions. In addition to being visually simple and efficient - and thus of a piece with Britten's score - the device allows Shaw to dramatize not only the pair's overtly Christian response to the legend, but also their darker side. When night falls, the two archaeologists get so carried away in their outraged imaginings they end up tearing off their clothes and hopping into bed together, awakening the next morning to their own guilt and to the beautiful, innocent duetting of Lucretia's two maids.

The opera is wonderfully conducted by Nicholas Collon and benefits from some stunning performances, notably from Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine as the two narrators, and from Claudia Huckle as Lucretia, with a wonderfully rich but clear contralto. Duncan Rock's portrayal of Tarquin, too, was quite superb, portraying him as a complex character both excited and rather appalled by his actions.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Their own narrators

from the Times Literary Supplement, 17 August 2012

George Benjamin
WRITTEN ON SKIN
Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence

Robin de Raaf
WAITING FOR MISS MONROE
Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam

George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's first collaboration was a short chamber opera based on the folk tale of the Pied Piper. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006 and a number of subsequent productions in Britain and elsewhere, Into the Little Hill quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most successful recent British operas, with an unlaboured but forceful political message and a notably ambiguous treatment of the idea of music - personified by the figure of the piper - as an agent both of compassion and illusion, powerfully human yet at the same time coldly indifferent. In the marriage between the painstaking craftsmanship of Benjamin's musical idiom and the taut, troubling simplicities of Crimp's text, it also suggested a creative partnership of significant promise.

It took some time before the pair saw eye to eye, Benjamin struggling to adapt to Crimp's insistence on inserting abrasively contemporary, secular terminology into what was supposed to be a time-neutral setting of the myth. The word "concrete" represented a particular sticking point for the famously fastidious composer, who complained he had no idea how one might go about setting such lifeless words. As it turned out, the apparent mismatch between Benjamin's elevated, shimmering musical world and these recurrent signifiers of an everyday marked by dull aesthetic indifference proved to be one of the opera's most fertile tensions. Crimp and Benjamin have much to thank each other for.

Perhaps provocatively, the pair's latest collaboration opens with a chain of references to modern building materials. A full-scale opera this time, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence festival together with a consortium of European opera houses, the work received its premiere at this year's Aix festival and will resurface in the coming season in London, Amsterdam, Florence and elsewhere. Like the previous work, the opera centres on an ambiguous and mysterious artist figure, although the wandering troubadour-like Stranger of the earlier opera is here transposed to an equally morally ambiguous illustrator and writer, commissioned by a medieval nobleman to make an allegorical manuscript - "a precious object, written on skin" - capable of reflecting and amplifying his worldly authority and heavenly ambition.

The story is adapted from a gruesome Provençal folk tale - a condensed version of which is related by Filostrato during the fourth day of Boccaccio's Decameron - in which a nobleman murders his wife's lover and serves her a supper prepared from the dead man's heart. She eats the dish, is informed of its principal ingredient, and jumps to her death from a high window. The nobleman's comeuppance stems from the two lovers eventually being buried side by side, with verses immortalizing their union.

In Crimp and Benjamin's version, the bloody fable is turned into a far-reaching philosophical parable. The wife's lover, in Boccaccio a nobleman from a neighbouring province, becomes the illustrator, employed by the husband so that his mastery of the arts of writing and drawing may amplify and extend his power. The husband - called "The Protector" - is aware of his environment only insofar as it consists of his property, including his young wife, and conforms to his sense of propriety, enforced with a violence in which he is known to take a particular delight. With the addition to his property of the precious vellum he intends to magnify this sense of propriety. "Do not fault the book", he insists with quiet menace to his visiting brother-in-law, "or you will not pass the black dog at my gate." His insistence contains the seeds of his eventual downfall, and the opera revolves around the Protector's inability to realize that what he seeks to control through writing and idealized representation is in fact governed by interests rooted not in his sense of propriety but in the laws of invention and its implicit thirst for sensual beauty. The precious book becomes the principal instrument of his young bride's awakening, as she sees her likeness take shape on the illustrator's pages and comes to know what it is to lust for another's body, and to love as a free woman. As the situation spirals beyond the Protector's control, destroying the previously unquestioned rule of his authority, his dominion crumbles.

Beyond the messy revenge tragedy, the underlying theme that emerges is the binding of being to its representation in text and narrative, an idea which perhaps owes more to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida than to Boccaccio's morality tale. Certainly the play of textual distance and presence, scrutinized by Derrida in his early study De la Grammatologie, and refracted through the oft-quoted remark to the effect that "il n'y a pas de horstexte" (translated somewhat over-zealously in the first English version of the book as "there is nothing beyond the text", but probably better construed along the more modest lines of "there is nothing without context"), is ubiquitous in the opera, almost to the point of discomfort, and the idea that the "technology of absence" - writing, drawing - is in fact an irrevocable part of our being, is dramatized with an easy clarity and keen drama that the French philosopher might well have envied.

The most conspicuous "distancing" device in the opera, familiar from Into the Little Hill but employed to significantly greater effect, is that the characters are also their own narrators, the roles moving seamlessly between indirect and direct speech as it suits them. The device is also mirrored at a structural level by the way the perspective of the contemporary audience is kept in focus throughout. "Strip out the wires . . . . Force chrome and aluminium back into the earth . . . . Cancel all flights from the international airport and people the sky with angels", commands the Prelude, in a passage whose emphatic violence is only really rediscovered at the end, asking us to peel back the present to examine a distant past characterized by fuller, emotionally richer modes of being. But the process of uncovering is illusory: even at its most visceral and absorbing, the story remains anchored in the conscious perspective of those trying to achieve the uncovering. The technology of representation is visible and audible at all times, principally in the figures of the three "angels" - indifferent visitors simply interested in running a kind of archaeological experiment: the third angel takes the role of the artist for this purpose - and in their tight and unflinching grip on dramatic time.

This "distancing" is particularly apparent in Benjamin's score, which eschews any overt archaisms (beyond the sparing use of a few "exotic" instruments, including glass harmonica and viola da gamba) and never seeks to overcome its compact, tightly ordered modernity in order to attain a fuller or more natural lyricism. Instead it seeks to drive and colour the dramatic action with a kind of relentless dynamism reminiscent of Richard Strauss's Elektra, but without sacrificing its wondrously limpid textures and idiomatic elegance. The modal transpositions between direct and narrated speech in the vocal roles are handled straightforwardly enough, usually turning to shorter, breathier notes for the narrated phrases. But the divisions are not clear-cut and the dry rhythms of phrases such as "— said the woman", work their way into the orchestra before pushing back to the voice with greater intensity.

A good example is the wife Agnès's first moment of aesthetic and sexual awakening on noticing the young stranger in their household and wondering at his purpose. The initially tentative arc traced by her voice gains an increasingly urgent sensuality, as she notices, as if for the first time, the grit beneath her feet, the meaning of her sleeplessness - and the latent potential of the artist's power of invention for her own sense of self. Elsewhere, the entwining of Benjamin's generously laid-out vocal lines map out the changing dynamics of the curious ménage-à-trois, while the orchestra contrives to trace the parallel arcs in which the growing menace shadows the burgeoning beauty. Purely as a musical achievement, the score is probably more impressive than anything Benjamin has composed in the past decade; as an operatic one, in which the energy and wonder of the music drive and inflect the emotional and dramatic landscape, it is an extraordinary work, confirming Benjamin's place among the very front rank of contemporary opera composers.

Katie Mitchell's production, designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Jon Clark, also succeeds in doing elegant justice to the work's curious mixture of rampant passion and energy and sharp, clinical sense of control. Mortimer's visually arresting two-storey set is divided between past and present, the angels passing freely between the house of the Protector and the rooms occupied by silent researchers who move, when the focus is away from them, in slow motion. The individual performances are also magnificently in control of the work's uniquely uncanny dramatic atmosphere and strikingly fluid yet taut vocal lines. Both Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan give the performances of their lives as the Protector and his wife while the three angels - Bejun Mehta (who plays the artist), Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton - are almost as impressive, reflecting perhaps Benjamin's careful preparation of the roles with each particular singer in mind (with the exception of Loeb, who replaces Victoria Simmonds). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who played superbly, were conducted by the composer. Though the opera is extraordinary in the degree of its self-consciousness with respect to the limits and freedoms of its medium, the dramatic and musical tension did not flag for a second.

At fifty-two, Benjamin has made a successful career out of doing nothing in a hurry. Even his early masterpiece, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which blazed a high-profile trail for the twenty-year-old undergraduate composer at its performance during the 1980 Proms season, conveyed a kind of artistry dependent on the patience and maturity necessary to allow a new musical style to fit easily in its own skin. His turn to opera has also been a patient one, and yet Written on Skin, composed pretty much in two years, marks a significant departure for the composer. The score is longer than all his works of the past decade put together; and it has an energetic, unleashed character which suggests that Benjamin, though in many ways a natural miniaturist, has perhaps found his métier in full-scale operatic composition, with the form's demands not simply for strict working deadlines but also for a slight relinquishing of compositional control. As Written on Skin confirms, the marriage of talents and interests with Crimp is a powerful one, perhaps uniquely so. At the same time, one might hope for a more direct libretto in future, in the interests of discovering just how far the composer's creative unbuttoning can go.

In its use of tightly ordered musical tableaux to express a powerful dramatic continuum, Written on Skin bears comparison with another new opera by the Dutch composer and pianist Robin de Raaf which received its premiere in Amsterdam earlier in the summer. Though ostensibly very different in terms of character and subject matter, Waiting for Miss Monroe, composed to an English-language libretto by Janine Brogt, shares an emphasis with Benjamin and Crimp's work on the relation between narrative time and the more immediate time-awareness peculiar to opera. The principal scenes all revolve around the idea of waiting for the actress while she gathers herself together from the fragments left over from former relationships, photographs and past successes and failures. In this respect, although its line on the actress is similar to several other recent attempts to portray Monroe, it also shares with the Benjamin opera its use of devices unique to opera in which to frame the tension between its heroine's sense of self and the construction of this self via external forces and factors beyond her control. Like Agnès, Marilyn is both made and unmade by the brilliance of her reflection, and both operas offer a powerful exploration of the latent tragedy of the self's passing into images beyond its control, and of a subjectivity which depends and thrives on the very thing that destroys it.

Waiting for Miss Monroe is De Raaf's second opera, and suggests a considerable talent for the idiom even if it falls short of real mastery. The music, while never uninteresting and stylistically coherent and varied, often lacks energy, and this filters through into the drama, where the action is also characterized by waiting for something to happen. Nonetheless, it is memorable in many parts, particularly for the final scene in which Monroe, clutching pills and bourbon bottle, tries to warn her younger self (sung by Hendrickje Van Kerckhove) before becoming lost in wonder at her own earlier freshness, in an affecting and troubling duet. In Lotte de Beer's fluid and stylish staging, which cleverly uses film-studio settings to make one ever conscious of the ephemeral nature of the visual environment, the American soprano Laura Aikin gives a tremendously animated, virtuosic performance. Together with Dale Duesing's amiable Fox, and the counter-tenor David DQ Lee's camp but affecting portrayal of Whitey, Monroe's make-up artist, Aikin carried much of the energy, which otherwise threatened to seep out from the Netherland Chamber Orchestra's slightly lacklustre performance in the pit under Steven Sloane.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Reading in the bath

From the Times Literary Supplement, Freelance, 12 May 2012

I have in my hands a masterpiece, apparently. The information comes courtesy of Frances Wilson, a snippet of whose Sunday Times review of Edmund de Waal's book The Hare with Amber Eyes is emblazoned on the cover of my paperback edition, which I have finally got round to reading. It's a fair endorsement in some ways, but in one respect it is manifestly false. Ihave in my hands one piece of a masterpiece. The other piece is floating southwards in a nonchalant manner. I am, you see, reading de Waal's book in the bath, and the glue holding it together can no longer cope with the steam.

The reader will of course realize that unless I am also just now brandishing some kind of writing device together with my loofer and the outer portions of de Waal's book, my use of the present tense constitutes a breach of its official licence. It is true, the bath in question occurred some days ago. My choice of tense is in stylistic homage to de Waal, whose memoir sticks so doggedly to the present tense that it often encompasses two or even three periods in time simultaneously. Many writers reach for the historical present when seeking to quicken the pulse of their readers. See, here, this geographically and historically remote event is happening here, now, right before your eyes. Is it not extraordinary? Do you not feel its force? On the whole, my answer to these questions tends to be no.

Still, I am grateful because the disintegration of de Waal's book over the course of five admittedly rather hot baths allowed me to strike the final item off my list of reasons for not acquiring an e-reader, which was that they couldn't be read in the bath. They can, you just don't want to drop them. Once upon a time, this was the merest objection on a long list. I saw little in favour of buying one. The names given them, whether generic or branded, provided a powerful additional disincentive.

But I hadn't accounted for the volume of opinion pieces in newspapers about the evils of e-books and their sneaking corruption of the autonomy of the activity of reading and its associated virtues. When otherwise quite sensible authors marshal cliché-sodden arguments against some new development, the suspicion naturally arises that what is harmful is less the development itself than the inflationary growth in fatuous newspaper comment.

I am also by nature something of a contrarian. Had I been around when Socrates was railing against the evils of a new-fangled technology called writing, I would have been first in the queue at the papyrus shop.

It's a nice irony that the book which pushed me over the edge is one which is at its most eloquent when discussing the tactile qualities of beloved objects. Its principal subject is the author's collection of Japanese netsuke and their unexpected intersection with flashpoints in cultural and political history. Netsuke are pocket-sized figurines, usually carved in ivory or boxwood, which were originally intended as toggles for hanging purses or pouches from a kimono. They were never intended to be "great art", but they exemplify magnificently the traditional Japanese virtue that if something is worth making, it's worth making beautifully. De Waal is at his best describing the kind of silent companionship such objects offer, anchored in the unassuming integrity of their craftsmanship and their silent, constant testimony to the lives lived around them.

People ascribe a similar quality to books. Not just any books, but the books we've lived with and loved, a relationship traced in an amassing of creases and assorted marginalia. The physical effect our reading has on them is a nice corollary to the effect it has on our sense of self. They change as we change. Naturally, this is only true of the volumes one actually reads. Unread books, although similar in constancy, shine with a much more discomfiting aura, like neglected friends encountered guiltily on the street.

For years I've been running into Don Quixote like this, in the form of a Penguin Classic which, despite its close print, runs to a thousand or so pages. Its yellow-capped, gleaming black spine would issue occasional taunts as I passed by, casting aspersions on my readerly chivalry. It's pathetic really, but I always found it too awkward to read in bed, or in the bath, and too heavy to take on journeys. Somehow I never gained enough momentum to get past the labyrinthine ironies of the preface. Nonetheless, I recently downloaded a free electronic copy of the book. Several baths and journeys later, at least according to the screensaver on my rather natty device, I am now 78 per cent of the way through it.

Socrates' suspicions of writing were twofold. He thought the permanence of written discourse would prevent people from committing the substance of an argument to memory. He has more than amply been proved right, not least by the fact that I hastily downloaded a free copy of the Phaedrus simply to check this point. His second suspicion interests me more, however. This was that the physical separation between speaker and listener, entailed by the art of writing, would relieve the former of the responsibility to answer the latter's questions. Writing presents itself as finished - as perfected - rather than as part of a dialogue with an outcome yet to be agreed. The simple fact of its permanence brings with it an illusion of truth.

A central feature of our appreciation of the literary as well as all other arts is our sense of everything's being in just the right place, of each word and phrase having been weighed and balanced and favoured over every possible alternative. When it comes to books, this is amplified by beautiful production, which feeds into the quality of being wholly and completely intended. But all this can also get in the way of the simple process of understanding and reflecting upon what someone else has written. The grand perfection of the book elevates its author to a position of unassailable power, often unwarranted, which in turn induces a sense of powerlessness and humility in the reader.

In the case of electronic books, while the texts are identical to their printed equivalents, this imbalance of power is perceptibly weakened. There is something about the informality of the e-book, with its arbitrary pagination and punctuation mishaps, and the way the "print" literally erases itself to make way for the next page, which allows the reader to consider alternatives, and to approach the text less as something set in stone than as a conversation in progress. Reading becomes less aesthetic, more utilitarian.

The first thing I bought for my e-reader was The Hare with Amber Eyes. If it really is a masterpiece, it must be worth paying for twice. In this edition, de Waal's near-continuous use of the historical present seemed less irritating. I also realized that the author's inherited collection of netsuke was probably least touched during the period when their artistic and monetary value was most apparent - at the height of the fashionable Japonism which brought them to Europe to be collected rather than used. Certainly, we tend to be at our most precious around the things we consider precious rather than simply dear. Evidently this is as true of reading as it is of anything else.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The golden age of cool

AUKSO CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Barbican

BRITTEN SINFONIA Barbican

LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA Royal Festival Hall

Radiohead's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, has for some time been attracting attention for his work away from the band. Many who saw Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary film There Will Be Blood (2007) were struck by the music's hypnotic, almost misanthropic glare; and further struck when they noted that the music, which is often unusually exposed, was by Greenwood.

Though not his first music for film - Greenwood composed the score to an experimental documentary called Bodysong, initially released in 2003 - it was his first highprofile soundtrack, leading to a string of commissions, including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and a further forthcoming project with Anderson. Another striking aspect of the score of There Will Be Blood was that much of it seemed as if it might be by Krzysztof Penderecki.

Penderecki has never composed music for film, although his early, avantgarde music features prominently in David Lynch's Inland Empire (Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima, 1960) and, more famously, in Stanley Kubrick's great study of paranoia, The Shining (Polymorphia, 1961).

As it turned out, the Penderecki resemblance was intentional, the film score mostly being adapted from a concert piece written for the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2005, called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was an explicit tribute to Penderecki's Threnody. Just as Penderecki was interested in the early 1960s in adapting for traditional instruments the sound world and techniques made possible by developments in electro-acoustic technology, so Greenwood had been concerned to "translate" the hiss of analogue radio to string ensemble. More recently, Greenwood has composed 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which attempts to begin where Penderecki's Polymorphia leaves off, exploring the residue left by the build-up of sound and its strange, final crystallization in a sustained C major chord.

Both Greenwood pieces were performed together with their "originals" at a concert in Poland last September, repeated recently at the Barbican. Penderecki conducted the Katowice-based AUKSO chamber orchestra in Threnody and Polymorphia. Greenwood's works were conducted by Marek Mos, the orchestra's founder and music director.

The difference in conducting styles - between Penderecki's matter-of-fact technical direction, limited to giving cues and a beat where necessary, and the cartoonish antics of the flamboyantly attired Mos - expressed rather neatly the fact that the stylistic similarity between the two composers' works is less significant than the difference in artistic intention. Penderecki's works are both investigations of a particular set of musical possibilities opened up by a particular set of techniques.

They still sound fresh, if no longer shockingly so, because an excitement derives from the sense of compositional craft being developed in partnership with the aesthetic possibilities of what can be heard as music. Both are also relatively short, and their beauty derives partly from the concision and clarity of gestures which, once rolling, continue to unsettle the ear long after the final bar.

The two Greenwood works adopt Penderecki's tone-cluster techniques as one of a number of stylistic devices. The palette in the earlier work is more limited and has a correspondingly greater effect. In the 48 Responses, a tension is set up between a lush Bach-Stokowski sonority, based around a chorale-style harmonization, and the atonal clusters, while rhythmic gestures condense into sustained, dance-like passages which, thrummed out in unison with tapped bows and, later, shakers, seemed to push proceedings further and further in the direction of the nearest Latin nightclub. The idea is interesting enough, and there's no gainsaying the fact that Greenwood is clearly a musician of great talent, but it's a talent that needs schooling.

Both works significantly outstay their welcome and the transitions seem laboured and often arbitrary. More important, though, is an overriding sense that the techniques and sound worlds of Penderecki's early work are being mined because it has come somehow to sound cool. There is none of the white heat of genuine artistic exploration, and much more of a sense of trial-and-error experimentation, with one eye on fashion and another on the hobby shed.

Like it or not, the aesthetic of cool is definitely here to stay. Concert promoters have long been wondering why contemporary music lacks the cachet of its equivalents in the visual arts, and sounding (and looking) cool is likely to be the winning recipe. More and more interest, on both sides of the Atlantic, is being taken in a genre-crossing area of music-making which, for want of a better name, has become known as "indie-classical", characterized less by particular styles than by its refreshingly free-ranging audiences who are younger, hipper and - potentially - much more numerous than the one from which concert halls have traditionally sought sustenance.

This was borne out both by the full-to-bursting young crowds in attendance at the Greenwood concert and at one the week before in which the Barbican stage was given over to some of the biggest names on the New York indie scene, including Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Unlike Greenwood, both Muhly and Pallett come from classical backgrounds and have studied composition, but both have also worked extensively with rock artists, Pallett being best known as a solo singer-songwriter somewhat in the vein of Rufus Wainwright but with less famous parents.

The concert in question, which featured an excellent, expanded Britten Sinfonia, was centred on the premieres of two new concertos, Pallett's for violin and Muhly's for cello. I'm sorry to report that neither piece was up to much. The colours of Pallett's decidedly monochrome work were enhanced by the retuning of certain string sections, giving a pleasingly diffused air to the otherwise rather shapeless progressions. Even Pekka Kuusisto, a violinist whose body language is often as expressive as his playing, was rather muted, perhaps dispirited by the meandering profile of his solo part. Muhly's soloist was Oliver Coates, a wonderful cellist and inspiring figure on the London new music scene, but almost inaudible beneath the repetitious sequences distributed by Muhly among the orchestra. The second movement was the most interesting - though the cellist is silent for much of it - in its departures from postminimalist orthodoxy, with some lovely effects from very high string notes combined with doubling between the harp and woodwind which mimicked the plucked sonority of the harp by issuing dry staccato bursts.

A new tone poem by Julian Anderson received its premiere meanwhile at the more traditionally conceived concert given by the London Philharmonic, pairing Anderson's The Discovery of Heaven with Delius and Elgar. Anderson took his inspiration from the mystical novel by Harry Mulisch, but there is no programme as such. Instead, in three movements, over an all-too-brief twenty-five minutes, we are treated to a masterclass in the combination of orchestral colour and timbre with formal gesture. Almost Debussyian in the organic elegance of its form - which grows from the hazy sketches of the first movement through the bustling vernaculars of the second to a wonderfully passed, brassrich "hymn" of the third - there was more than sufficient finesse and beauty in this piece to make up for the worrying absence of these qualities elsewhere.

We are lucky, in the world of music, that links between craftsmanship and artistic value are still more or less intact. The sense of something being beautifully done still has impact and credibility. Perhaps this is a luxury in an age which thinks it can ill afford to invest in the levels of education and expertise needed to keep this culture alive, and it could be that the current golden age of British music is also something of an Indian summer. But we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Highs and lows

Judith Weir
MISS FORTUNE
Royal Opera House


Judith Weir is one of few composers living today whose several operas have, by and large, been a success with critics and audiences. Her first full-scale opera, the witty A Night at the Chinese Opera, from 1987, remains a favourite for its quick-witted and assured musical style, and clever, dramatically taut storytelling. Blond Eckbert, based on the fable by Ludwig Tieck, was also well received at its premiere at the Coliseum in 1994 and later the same year in Santa Fe. Her latest, Miss Fortune, jointly commissioned by the Royal Opera and the Bregenz Festival, where it premiered (as Achterbahn) on the indoor stage last year, shares with her previous stage works the same lush musical idiom, soaring off in occasional flights of lyrical fancy, and a libretto written in the same matter-of-fact, disarmingly direct style. Its single distinguishing feature, in fact, in addition to its being her first opera for the Royal Opera's main stage, is that it doesn't work.

My first instinct was to blame the production, a visually striking concoction by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng and the designer Tom Pye which nonetheless does nothing to help the opera convey its subject matter. The stage is dominated by a strange trapezoid, massive and dark and suggestive in some ways of a ship but in others of a kind of malevolent asteroid. Lit in flashes of green and red, casting vast, layered shadows, it is beautiful in an abstract way, but otherwise it projects an entirely negative energy, dwarfing the singers who throng around and even on top of it. It seems odd that a mere prop could have such a strong gravity, but its strange, alien presence dehumanizes the characters on the stage. Even though the singers' diction is mostly clear, and the orchestral score far from overbearing, one still has no real idea what anyone is talking about and, more importantly, why.

But even when the mysterious trapezoid disappears, hauled off into the surrounding blackness, the absence of human proportion remains, and I realized the fault lay with the work's clumsy and often banal libretto as much as its crude staging. The story, based on a traditional Sicilian folk tale called "Sfortuna" ("misfortune"), follows Tina, the daughter of Lord and Lady Fortune who, when her parents lose their great wealth in a stockmarket crash, decides to make her own way in the world. At first everything she touches turns to ashes, quite literally - a clothing factory burns to the ground during her first night sweeping the floor there, as does the kebab van she is asked to look after - but later she settles down in a launderette, where she attracts a wealthy and handsome young suitor and turns the tables on her destiny.

Such an unlikely fate requires, of course, the presence of Fate itself, here cast as a streetsmart countertenor with a retinue of breakdancers. Fate stalks Tina with monotonous malevolence from the beginning until, in the last scene, for some unknown reason, he changes his tune, providing the one moment of surprise in the entire two hours. Is this a role-reversing slap in the face for Fate, or just the final one in a long series of token gestures? With the kebab van (which descends, impressively but unaccountably, from the flyloft) and the launderette settings, and in its call for a troupe of breakdancers to carry out the destructive whims of Fate, Weir has clearly aimed to bring out the continuing relevance of the story, but its most contemporary feature is in the impassive gaze it attracts from its audience.

The moral seems to be that life has its ups and downs. The only characters with a flash of depth are Hassan the kebab van owner - whose dawn love song to his van is the musical highlight of the opera, beautifully sung by Noah Stewart - and the launderette-owner Donna, admirably sung by Anne-Marie Owens. But even here, the dignity which accrues to these two by virtue of their ownership of their own labour, in contrast to the factory workers, is too frail to rub off on the drama itself.

It is the same with the spectacular and comic aspects of the work. The breakdancing, impressive in itself, seems awkwardly conceived and takes place, almost apologetically, in the shadows. Similarly the comic drama, which might have worked well in a more intimate setting and a neater, more reined-in score, never gains enough charge to coax anything but mild amusement from the audience. This is all the more disappointing given the evident commitment of the singers and players. In the title role, Emma Bell sings with clarity and beauty, while Andrew Watts, as Fate, does amazingly well to project with conviction.

Paul Daniel's musical direction is enthusiastic and competent, but he can do nothing to overcome the music's mostly lacklustre progress. If this were Weir's first opera for the big stage, one might put the work's failure down to inexperience; as it is, Miss Fortune gives the depressing impression that contemporary opera is once more rewarding the fears rather than the hopes of audiences. The present is, in fact, a rather exciting time for new opera both on small and big stages (with George Benjamin's new Written on Skin and a revival of Harrison Birtwistle's Minotaur both booked for the Royal Opera's forthcoming season), so this misfortunate memory may prove short-lived.

Monday, 26 March 2012

A space for dreams and fears

John Adams
THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER
Coliseum

Antonín Dvorák
RUSALKA
Covent Garden


Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 23 March

It is well known that Wagner wrote the Ring backwards, first drafting the poem for an opera entitled "Siegfrieds Tod". Only later did he realize that if the death of the Nordic mythological hero were to have the full dramatic, moral and political significance he intended, a great deal of explanation would be necessary, resulting in one prequel after another. When the American opera director Peter Sellars, fresh from his triumph with Nixon in China, which he planned and staged with the composer-librettist dream team of John Adams and Alice Goodman, pitched to them a new idea for an opera, he called it "Klinghoffers Tod". The resonance will have been inescapable, especially given that neither the setting nor any of the characters was German.

Leon Klinghoffer, a retired Jewish-American businessman who, after two strokes, was confined to a wheelchair, was the sole casualty of what came to be known as the Achille Lauro incident. The Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise liner, was commandeered, on October 7, 1985, by Palestinian terrorists, led by Abu Abbas, a PLF leader and one of Yasser Arafat's right-hand men. Abbas disembarked before the remaining men took control of the vessel and 400 or so of its passengers, sailing into open water and using ship-to-shore radio to attempt to negotiate a release of fifty PLF prisoners. They succeeded only in negotiating their own release into Palestinian custody, thanks to the intervention of Arafat, before word got out either on board or in the wider world that one of the passengers had been shot in the head and chest and then thrown overboard. The manner of his death would have awoken fresh memories of the murder of US Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body had been rolled on to the tarmac of Beirut airport from the hijacked TWA Flight 847 some months before.

Why did Klinghoffer die? Because he spoke out against the hijackers, or because it was difficult to move him around the ship with the other passengers? Both are possibilities, but it was clear to the terrorists early on in the operation that their interests would be best served by keeping the passengers and crew alive. The act itself therefore remains shrouded in mystery, albeit a mystery which prevents memory of the event fading into the collage of numerous similar kidnappings and acts of terrorism and murder of the time, and makes it emblematic of the unresolved fears and loathings that keep the world glued to Middle Eastern politics no less now than in 1985.

While Wagner's idea for "Siegfrieds Tod" was predicated on the need to show why the opera's hero had to die, the idea central to what became The Death of Klinghoffer, premiered in Brussels in 1991, was predicated on the idea of preserving the event's mystery, its portentous meaninglessness.
When Adams read Goodman's full libretto, he recalls being struck by its "strange, almost biblical" quality. This impression was carried through the writing of the opera which, even if it will never escape the label of "docu-opera", rejoices in the techniques of sacred oratorio and the interspersing of narrated and direct action with more reflective episodes, usually given to the chorus.

We do not encounter Klinghoffer until the second act, and his death - though its conditions are prepared by the passing of a gun to Omar, the youngest of the terrorists - takes place outside the framework of directly represented or narrated action. In fact, it happens twice. The first time, accompanied by disturbing, descending swirls in the orchestra, there is no singing (Omar is a dancing role), and the episode is bracketed by an affecting but bland soliloquy by Marilyn Klinghoffer, who knows nothing of the event. The second time, Klinghoffer's body is doubled by another dancer while the singer stands aside in the socalled "Aria of the Falling Body", to some of the tenderest and most beautifully shaped music Adams has yet written.
For the work's London stage premiere, the director Tom Morris has chosen to represent the two deaths in mirror image, with Klinghoffer peacefully gazing over the deck railing out to sea, apparently unaware of the young Palestinian hesitating behind him. The first time he faces the audience; the second time the dancers enact the scene from the rear of the stage, with Klinghoffer's body and chair cast overboard and into the waves, to Arthur Pita's beautifully fluid slow-motion choreography, while the singing role is taken, magnificently, by Alan Opie, from just off centrestage. The dual representation of the act's mindless brutality also has an otherworldly beauty, and its mysterious negative energy radiates outward, disrupting any sense of closure around the drama or the events it relates. Klinghoffer's death, though a real enough event and still of course a painful memory to his surviving family and friends, merges with the religious rituals that bear testament to humanity's deep-rooted need to witness the shedding of its own blood.

Morris's production, to designs by Tom Pye, is every bit as good as it needs to be for mounting Adams's problematic but ultimately impressive second opera. The fluidity of the choral settings offsets their dramatic stasis without disturbing the quasi-liturgical atmosphere. The documentary-style projections interpolate a modern a sense of pacing without upsetting the powerful gravitational lurches, in both libretto and score, between folk-religious mysticism and bland vernacular.

The conducting of Baldur Brönnimann is equally assured, negotiating the challenging terrain of Adams's subtly shaded orchestral score while keeping the soloists and chorus absolutely in line across the massive and, at times, extremely busy stage. The vocal performances are mostly excellent too, Michaela Martens capturing perfectly the blank, searing tragedy of Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria and Richard Burkhard conveying the poetic beauty of Mamoud's vision of his people's suffering and his desire for vengeance, not mere settlement. The captain is also well portrayed by Christopher Magiera, a singular achievement for both the tenor and Morris because, as well as being the longest role, it is also the hardest to pull off. The dramatic framework is underpinned by his ability to lie, admittedly for the sake of his passengers, and in his failure - confessed uneasily to Mrs Klinghoffer - adequately to discharge his duties of hospitality, a failure which resonates all the more loudly in the quasi-biblical setting.

The opera has been staged several times since its Brussels premiere, though only twice fully in the US, where it remains controversial. Even in London, where it has only been heard in a concert performance at the Barbican in 2002, there were rumours and promises of disruption by a pro-Israeli faction, but besides a lone and rather dutiful-looking protester, these never materialized. The opera's most controversial moment was perhaps a planned performance of some of the choruses in September 2011 which was cancelled, partly because a relation of one of the chorus members had been killed in the World Trade Center. Adams discovered this detail only after he had noisily objected to the cancellation, and the controversy reached its peak with the publication of an extended essay in the New York Times by Richard Taruskin, arguing that the work should be boycotted (or subject to "self-control") because of the anti-Semitism of the "beautiful" music given to the terrorists and also to Klinghoffer, but only after his death - a detail which, Taruskin argued, embodied a message to the effect that "the only good Jew is a dead Jew". Goodman's response, in an interview with Rupert Christiansen in Opera magazine, didn't help matters ("a case, I believe, of pathological Jewish self-hatred on Taruskin's part"), but the Taruskin essay remains one of the great musicologist's more remarkable outbursts. If the theatre does not exist as a space in which man- kind can contemplate its dreams and fears, its unbound hopes and unhealed wounds, then I don't know what it is for. Censoring the manner and direction in which it may appeal to our sympathies is not an answer.

Opera houses, of course, survive to a certain extent on scandal, especially in Europe where controversy is often mistaken for confirmation that subsidies have been well spent. So when a sizeable and vocal minority in the audience at Covent Garden greeted the director and designers of the Royal Opera's new production of Rusalka with ferocious booing, many took this as evidence of the production's success. The real controversy here, of course, is that the Royal Opera have somehow neglected to stage this beautiful opera until now.
The production in question, conceived by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito to designs by Barbara Ehnes, was first seen in Salzburg in 2008. The directors' decision to set Dvorák and Jaroslav Kvapil's captivating fairy tale in a brothel - apparently one specializing in catering to those with liturgical and Piscean fetishes - upset audiences there, just as it upset them in London. Many objected to Rusalka's famous address to the moon in Act One being directed toward a fluffy toy cat, but those in search of verisimilitude might want to check their own memories for the last time they saw a mermaid addressing an orbiting rock.

The basic idea, though, is a strong one. The disenchanted water-spirit's desire for the capacity for human love, and her subsequent disappointment, transpose naturally to the longing of a prostitute for the freedom to love as others do. As all productions of any opera should, it asks questions of its audience and connects the drama, and thus the music, with actions, motivations and emotions to which we can relate. The problems have more to do with the confusion that ensues from attempting to preserve too many of the supernatural trappings of the fairy tale. The brothel location only really becomes clear in the third act, as does the fact that her ownership of the institution is the secret of the witch Jezibah's power. The staging, despite some clever details, is garish and ugly, but insufficiently so for these qualities to become beautiful through their excess. The vocal performances, on the other hand, are mostly good, especially Camilla Nylund's touching Rusalka, Bryan Hymel's bright, passionate Prince and Alan Held's powerful and darktoned Vodnik. In the pit, things are even better, the orchestra clearly enjoying their liberty to face away from the stage. Indeed, such is the inspirational dynamism, edge-of-theseat excitement and sheer beauty of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's musical direction that the lacklustre ironies of the set stand little chance of exerting any negative force on the drama.