Thursday, 17 November 2016

Kentridge, Berg and Lulu


A production still of Act I from the Metropolitan Opera Premiere

Alban Berg
LULU
English National Opera, until November 19
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, May 2017

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 18

“Leap before you look”, runs one of William Kentridge’s mottos. It’s an invitation to look at the world from the inside, or to “peel back the layers”, to use another of the South African artist’s maxims. More importantly, perhaps, it’s an encouragement to reverse the subjugation of seeing to understanding; to loosen up the inescapable epistemological connotations the sense of sight has acquired over three or so centuries. To “see” has come automatically to mean to appraise, to size up, to control, as if Caesar’s “vidi” and “vici” have been rolled into one. But in Kentridge’s world, seeing is a less imperious business. It requires a leap of faith: only by deferring the effort to understand can we really see what is there. The world becomes brighter, louder, more dangerous.

Kentridge’s motto might well also have been Lulu’s, though perhaps “pounce before you peek” has a better ring for a woman who can sense fatal attraction in a man before he has even entered the room. And one senses that Kentridge must have known Lulu was right for him long before New York’s Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to direct their new production last year (following The Nose in 2010). English National Opera co-produced the show, and here it is conducted by Mark Wigglesworth and stars Brenda Rae in the title role, together with a superbly cast menagerie of James Morris’s Schön, Sarah Connolly’s Countess Geschwitz, Willard White’s Schigolch and Nicky Spence as Alwa.

The close fit between Kentridge and Berg relates most obviously to a shared interest in sensory overload. To listen to the score involves continually wrestling with the desires to control it and to give into it. Its symmetries and minutely coordinated textures and tonalities invite strenuous intellectual efforts that are constantly rebuffed by the music’s raw excesses, its disorientating swirls and frequent flashes of brute energy. Kentridge’s staging, with the trademark use of broad-brushed ink sketches drawn across scattered leaves of old type (see Peter Maber’s review of William Kentridge’s Thick Time, TLS, November 4) and projected across the skew-angled walls of the set, acts similarly on the eyes. The pages continually flap and shift position, or are overlaid by others. Similarly, the characters sometimes wear outsize hands and crudely sketched paper masks in a way that disrupts depth of vision. Just like the men ensnared by Lulu’s animal magnetism, we can never place what we see. Yet although the threat of disintegration is constant, the chaos is tightly controlled, the spaces organized and underpinned by the beguiling and threatening symmetry of female genitalia. V-shapes are everywhere, and they don’t stand for victory.

Berg creates a musical vacuum around Lulu by assigning specific tone rows and textures to every character – except Lulu, whose musical role, like her dramatic one, consists in acting on the others and subverting their socially conditioned desires, turning them on herself to the exclusion of all else. Appropriately, Kentridge’s Lulu is everywhere, not simply in Rae’s razor-sharp portrayal: her figure dominates the drawings on the walls, and when it doesn’t, they still seem to follow her train of thought. At the side of the stage, a constant presence throughout, is another Lulu, sitting at a grand piano in a tail coat. This is the dancer Joanna Dudley, whose interventions and strenuous sustained postures, held first from the piano stool, then the keyboard, and finally from inside the instrument, seem to represent Lulu disappearing into the music’s maw while the world disappears between her legs.

The playing and singing here are first rate. The orchestra has been superbly prepared by Wigglesworth and two assistants so that the music seems to overwhelm the stage, without drowning out the singers. Rae’s blend of vocal agility and voluptuousness mixes well with her ability to pull back on both, leaving the voice of a slightly diffident young woman, and adds a touching air to the portrayal. Morris captures perfectly Dr Schön’s failing grip on his habitual sphere of authority, while Lulu’s most devoted lovers – Alwa and Geschwitz – are very touchingly portrayed by Spence and Connolly.

A deep moral vein runs through Kentridge’s art, but its focus is intentionally diffused by an artist keen to hold off the foreclosure of judgement. Keeping Lulu’s tragic dimension in focus was therefore likely to be his biggest challenge here. For although it may be true that Berg’s opera draws its ferocious strength from depicting the feral shapelessness of Lulu’s psyche as a force for liberation and renewal of life, the drama’s tragic denouement is no mere afterthought, as some have suggested; nor is it conventionally moralistic. Rather, it is the logical result of the character’s agency in its social context. She penetrates that society at its margins and the actions and seductions through which her “earth spirit” acquires worldly character and shape are self-destructive. Indeed, it seems to be the smell of her own destruction which excites her most about her lovers. This production is unusual, though, in retaining this balance quite so well, both in Rae’s careful portrayal and in the growing and rather implacable presence of the dancer. Behind the flickering arrays of notes, images and sympathies, a blind will of steel pushes Lulu to her fate. She is murdered centre stage, behind a screen. To see it, we must leap before we look.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

In your face

Review of Shostakovich's The Nose, Royal Opera House, London.
Published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 28


A scene from The Nose © Bill Cooper

Shostakovich’s first opera, an adaptation of one of Gogol’s absurdist St Petersburg tales, received its premiere in Leningrad in January 1930. In its exuberant humour and stridently coloured score – populated by techniques drawn from cinema and experimental theatre, and by the soundworlds he had hoovered up during his recent visits to Germany and France – it seemed like a perfect fit for the explosive cosmopolitanism of Leningrad under Lenin’s New Economic Policy. But during the course of the three years between The Nose’s conception and its performance, Stalin’s cultural conservatism, fiercely prosecuted by the populist press, began to erode the experimental aesthetics of the 1920s. The Nose delighted its first audiences, but was savaged in the press as decadent nonsense; the run was curtailed and the piece disappeared for decades.

It will be interesting to see how Covent Garden’s first ever production of the opera, which opened last weekend, will fare. The curtain fell to thunderous applause, sure enough, but reviews don’t always echo the fervour. Where’s the deeper meaning, where’s the heart, they often ask. The questions are understandable, too – the Shostakovich industry is built on the search for deeper meanings. But what if there aren’t any? What if Shostakovich just happened to write the music he was asked to write?

Certainly, his special affinity with Gogol’s absurdism (his unfinished third opera, “The Gambler” was also a Gogol adaptation) provides support for this view. For Gogol’s absurdism, unlike its modernist equivalents, was never intended as thoroughgoing political and philosophical satire. The fantastical elements are there to bring the absurdity of everything else into relief; with one key detail askew, all the others gain in vividness and presence so the surface bursts with colour and tension. To look for a hidden meaning is to miss the point. Everything is visible, absurdly so.

Everyone in the enormous cast of the Royal Opera’s new staging, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, wears a fake nose. Everyone that is except Kovalyov, the anti-hero whom Gogol sends off on a wild-goose chase of a search for his mysteriously missing proboscis, last seen attending a funeral in the uniform of a State Councillor. What works in Gogol works on the operatic stage in the same way: the incongruous juxtapositions offset the colours and naturalize the chaos, allowing us simply to give ourselves up to the procession of bearded ladies, bicycle-propelled café tables, gay policemen cavorting in their underpants, and line of tap-dancing giant noses. Police brutality, anti-Semitism, illicit homosexuality all come and go in the same way: deeper meanings are all grist to the mill of Kosky’s merry-go-round. In Klaus Grünberg’s ingenious set designs, this is exaggerated further by the use of a giant camera aperture as a screen.

The staging works well because it follows the wild pace, brash textures and associations of the score, which beyond Shostakovich’s home-grown crooked lyricism and his recently absorbed influences of Stravinsky and Berg, is full of the garish brilliance of the music hall and circus. Metzmacher’s control is crucial here, because the succession of jagged edges, lopsided rhythms and shimmering dissonances, punctuated by lightning changes of texture, give the impression of a procession of moments opening up avenues that don’t lead anywhere. Logic and structure are nowhere to be found, and a conductor who wasted any time looking for them could quickly ruin things. But Metzmacher controls the enormous cast and extended chorus and orchestra with apparent ease; the orchestral colours emerge with precision, the voices pierce and penetrate as they should and there are no mishaps of the kind one increasingly finds in first-night performances in this age of under-rehearsal.

Indeed, Kosky and Metzmacher’s achievements can be measured by the fact that the only thing wrong here is that it feels a touch too long – and much of that is the result of the bizarre decision to perform the opera without an interval (were they worried people would leave?). Everything else, though, flows fearlessly, with the company firing on all cylinders. Martin Winkler excels as Kovalyov and John Tomlinson, tapping a recently discovered vein for comic brilliance, is in his element in the roles of Ivan Iakovlevitch (the barber who finds the nose in his morning loaf), Newspaper Clerk and Doctor. The dancing, especially that of the young Ilan Galkoff (who plays the runaway nose), trades successfully on the rising hilarity, and David Pountney’s English translation does a fine job of keeping the listener’s eyes off the surtitles and on the unfolding chaos of the present.

If there is a deeper meaning to mull over, perhaps it’s this: The Nose, begun when the composer was just twenty years old, is no youthful experiment. On the contrary it parades, with dizzying pace, but also in moments of striking poise and fleeting intimacy, the composer’s entire mature stylistic gamut. It doesn’t lack depth. Rather, it places Shostakovich’s music where it clearly wants to be: right slap-bang on the surface.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Freedom Obtained Through Love


Nina Stemme as Isolde in the Met's new production.

Programme essay on Tristan und Isolde

The hardest synopsis to write, opera critics and scholars will often confess, is of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Just when you’re getting into it, you realize you’ve left out some detail which turns out to be crucial to the story later on, and have to go back and explain it. Perhaps it’s no wonder that that’s precisely how Wagner ended up writing the poem of the Ring, starting at the end and working backwards.

But writing the Ring’s synopsis is a breeze compared to writing a synopsis of the first opera that Wagner composed while taking a break from the cycle, which suffers from the opposite problem: you’re just getting started detailing the action of Tristan und Isolde when you realize you’ve already finished. For so little happens in the opera that a synopsis seems inevitably to miss the point. More importantly, what does happen stubbornly resists explanation. Even if one succeeds in giving a satisfying shape to the lovers’ three attempts to engineer their deaths in order to satisfy the demands of their love, one is still at a loss to show how these desires are motivated in synoptic form, still less to point to the work’s peculiar combination of tragic romance, erotic celebration and enactment of a quasi-religious mystery. At every point, you’re faced with the question: but why?

For all that, the two works do have something very important in common, which is both easy to summarize and to explain. Both are about man’s desire to obtain his freedom. In the Ring man obtains freedom from the gods, whereas Tristan and Isolde seek to obtain freedom from themselves. And in both cases, the agency through which this freedom is effected is love.

Wagner’s lifelong preoccupation with the idea of love, and his conviction that loving desire has an urgent political dimension, derived in part from his immersion as a young man in the radical philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose writings had become a kind of secular bible for the German radical left-wing, among whom Wagner counted himself – until the late 1850s – a committed and active member. The arguments and structure of Wagner’s essay The Artwork of the Future, in which he developed a powerful account of the relationship between art and society, and of how opera and music need to appear if they are to help to bring about and participate in a better society, were inspired by Feuerbach’s book Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. More importantly, Wagner’s Ring cycle was, at least originally, conceived in many respects as a dramatization of the central argument of the most influential and widely read of Feuerbach’s books, The Essence of Christianity.

Gods, Feuerbach argues, did not create mankind. Mankind created the gods, through acts of subconscious invention designed to provide explanations for our fears and desires, and to alleviate the experience of failing to control the paths of our own lives. As man’s knowledge of his world increased, his fears and desires focussed less on everyday objects and more on the phenomena behind them. Christianity, according to Feuerbach, is the most advanced of the religions because its concentration on a single, all-knowing, all- powerful, transcendent god of love answers to the least mediated of human desires: fear of death and desire for love. But even Christianity had had its day, argued Feuerbach, because it is only through binding ourselves to the experience of genuine love that we free ourselves from desires that we have outgrown and no longer need, and that we find our humanity most fully realized. The revolutionary political extension of the argument, upon which Marx and Engels were later to pour so much scorn, is that in coming to a more transparent relation with our needs and desires, we would no long be beholden to masters and laws the need for whom or which we had no real use.

This, in a nutshell, is the outline of the story of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in which man gains his freedom from a loveless world through the experience of compassion and the renunciation of artificially and unnaturally wielded power. Also central to the dramatic landscape of Tristan und Isolde is the way the lovers reject the artificially maintained powers that control their worldly existence. But the comparison only goes so far before it stumbles. King Marke is no Wotan: when his trust is betrayed by his nephew and most loyal servant, he seeks at first only to try to understand the reason for the betrayal. Conversely Tristan and Isolde are no Siegfried and Brünnhilde. They do not seek to reject the worldly order in order to replace it with something better. They seek to reject it because the world has itself become false to them. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde do not seek a better life, for themselves, for others or for anyone. Having found each other, they seek only to extinguish the light of day, in death.

Why? To that question, the answer is to be found not in Feuerbach but in the philosopher Wagner discovered while drafting the music to Die Walküre: Arthur Schopenhauer. Such was the force with which Schopenhauer’s thought struck Wagner during the autumn 1854 that he read his central text, The World as Will and Representation, no fewer than four times in the period of a year. After that, the philosopher’s work remained at his side for the rest of his life, discussed with such frequency and intensity that his wife Cosima began to record in her diary not those occasions on which Schopenhauer was read, discussed and proselytized by her husband, but the rare occasions when he wasn’t discussed.

The core of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a revision and extension of the Kantian notion that the world as we know it is not intelligible without reference to the projections of human consciousness, and to the way that we apply concepts – acquired both from logical intuitions and experience – to unify our sense-perceptions. What we see and hear in the world, therefore, is not what there is to see and hear independently of our being in the world, but is a combined product of our ideas meeting the raw data provided by our senses. In Schopenhauer, the order of and relations between these representations is animated not, as it is in Kant, by reason, but by a noumenal, transcendent force he calls the Will. The Will, the ultimate ground of all there is, both animate and inanimate, is a blind and indifferent striving, and the representations we draw from it are implicitly false in the sense that they divert attention away from the underlying nature of things. The only truth, according to Schopenhauer, can come from rejecting the world of representations and reconciling ourselves to the realization that everything that is, ourselves included, is bound up in the undivided movement of the Will. The only partial let-up, Schopenhauer argues, comes from the experience of compassion and the intuition it offers that we are not hermetic individuals isolated by our different experiences but bound together as transient aspects of the same senseless striving. The insight offers little comfort, in Schopenhauer’s pessimistic world view, but it at least offers truth.

Wagner’s attraction to Schopenhauer fastened primarily on this idea of compassion offering some redemption from the indeterminate striving of the Will, because it was an idea that he had already been ruminating upon himself in connection with the Ring. But another deep connection came from Schopenhauer’s conception of music as being the art form in which the Will was least mediated by false representations. The absence of semantic reference in instrumental music, which for the previous century had led to its being singled out as the least powerful of the arts became, in Schopenhauer’s conception, the reason for its being the greatest of the arts. The way we hear music as a dynamic chain of desiring, from one chord or phrase to another, perfectly describes our subliminal awareness of the movement of the Will.

The drama of Tristan und Isolde is inconceivable without reference to Schopenhauer’s thought, but its scope for explaining the opera is still limited. After all, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is one of political and spiritual pessimism, not a celebration of ecstatic mysticism. He is interested in the phenomenon of compassion as a means of alleviating our blind submission to the Will’s relentless manifestation in the world of representations, but he certainly doesn’t ascribe, as Wagner seems to do, redemptive force to the intensified romantic love depicted by Wagner in Tristan. Indeed, the more one considers the opera as a dramatization of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the more one begins to understand how wide is the gap between the two.

There is, however, another much simpler answer to the question of ‘why’ in Tristan und Isolde, which has to do with Wagner’s understanding of Schopenhauer but doesn’t require it to be explained. The answer comes from considering the work not as an opera in the classical sense of a drama set to music, but as a reversal of this: the opera is a piece of music set to drama. The two principal characters, in that sense, are simply the stage manifestations of the two motifs outlined at the very beginning of the opera’s prelude. The fate of the two motifs, or characters, is also bound up with the chord through which they are conjoined. It is a dissonance which seems to require some kind of outcome – it palpably desires resolution – but what outcome is not at all clear. This is because of the ambiguous construction of the chord, which is a hybrid between a diminished 7th, the most dynamic of the standard dissonant chords, and an augmented triad, the most static. The desire embodied within the chord cannot therefore be understood, or handled, with the usual means. It is, in other words, the perfect musical instantiation of the kind of indeterminate desire which, according to both Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, lies at the heart of human consciousness. Remarkably – and this is one of the things that makes Tristan und Isolde such an extraordinary piece of music, as well as such a viscerally coherent drama – the great moment of climax in the Prelude is in no sense a resolution of the opening moment. It answers the opening question only to restate it with such force and urgency that everything which follows, both musically and dramatically, seems to flow inevitably from the Prelude.

The desire for death, then, and the longing to escape the illusory world of the day, is the desire of this chord, and its two constituent motifs, projected onto the stage. The illusory world of representations, created by the Will as part of our unconscious strategies to ignore it, is revealed as false because they constitute only attempts to distract attention from the true source of our being. The twilight realm into which the two lovers sink so blissfully in the great central duet of Act II is a realm where the false articulations of musical cadences and artificial conclusions lose their purchase and which, as the two lovers begin to realize themselves, can only find its fulfilment in the annulment of desire. Death is therefore blissful because it is the only possible resolution to the ecstatic agony of a life which has come into contact with the truth about existence. Importantly, Wagner’s music doesn’t represent this state of indeterminate desire and its resolution. It just is how that state of desire sounds, and its resolution, at last, with the moment of Isolde’s apotheosis, has to be death – because otherwise the music would never come to an end.

This is why so many opera goers remark that, although the action of Tristan und Isolde retains a decidedly opaque quality when discussed or considered outside of the theatre, it all makes perfect sense inside it. When sitting and listening to the opera in the theatre there is nothing remotely surprising about the choices made by the two lovers, or about the circumstances in which they meet their different deaths, because anyone who listens to the music, and gives it the attention it demands from the outset, instinctively and immediately understands that everything that happens must happen purely as an extension of the harmonic and motivic logic of the music. What we make of it afterwards, when our conception of the world, like that of the two lovers in the second act, has changed so unalterably that the utterances of the people around us no longer have any purchase on our sense of reality, is another matter entirely. Unlike Die Meistersinger and to a certain extent the Ring, Tristan und Isolde doesn’t leave us with any ideas of what we can do in the world once we’ve understood it. We can only go back and listen again, understanding ourselves better and more fully as a result.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Personality Cult


Sonya Yoncheva as Norma © Neil Libbert/Lebrecht

Vincenzo Bellini
NORMA
Royal Opera House, until October 8

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, September 23

Alongside Dido, Isolde and Lulu, Norma is a quintessential soprano role, encompassing almost every facet of operatic womanhood. Her magical power, expressed and exercised solely through the voice, is compromised by an intense vulnerability; she is possessed by fear, betrayal, loyalty, maternal ambivalence, and caught in a conflict between erotic passion and chaste purity which finds its culmination only in death. Most remarkably of all, her character – whose unravelling drives the entire action of the opera – is first expressed in its entirety in a single cavatina; its beguiling simplicity belies the desperation of its prayer for peace – and peace of mind.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that between the two outstanding twentieth-century interpreters of the role, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, it is Callas’s performances that have become definitive. For Callas, with her distinctively open timbre, was for many the supreme personification of precisely this conflict between irresistible vocal power and extreme vulnerability. Still today, the sound of her instantly recognizable voice evokes absurd degrees of partisan devotion; and also a kind of love, almost patronizing in its quality, but focused entirely on the individual. Norma, for many, became Callas.

There is more than a note of Callas in the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva’s performance of Norma – her debut in the role – in a new Royal Opera production by Antonio Pappano and Àlex Ollé, which has just opened the new season at Covent Garden. I don’t think this represents anything like a conscious imitative choice, or even homage – more a case of being drawn, irresistibly, to a stylistic centre of gravity which has come to sit at the heart of the role. That said, to close one’s eyes at various times was to dream a little private dream which, for once, did nothing to cut against the fabric of the performance and much to deepen it.

Yoncheva’s is the stand-out performance in this mixed but still quite staggeringly powerful show. She doesn’t, of course, bring everything of Callas to the role, and there is much in her performance, and even more in her controlled and characterful acting, which owes nothing to her great predecessor. But while her singing of “Casta Diva” will certainly acquire more depth and subtlety over the course of the run and beyond, in the second act’s chain of vocal wonders she is already not far short of supreme. Certainly, the absence of Anna Netrebko, who pulled out of the production last spring (Yoncheva had to be released from singing Mimi at the Met to replace her), barely registers. Yoncheva may well emerge as the Norma of our time.

The supporting roles work best here when they acknowledge their satellite status, gravitational agents which exist to draw out the various facets of Norma’s character. As Oroveso and Adalgisa, Brindley Sherratt and Sonia Ganassi do well here in not seeking to over- define their roles. Joseph Calleja’s Pollione does have flashes of brilliance and power, but is too clumsily drawn and the chemistry between him and Yoncheva only starts to fizz in the opera’s closing minutes. The chorus, under their new director William Spaulding, performs wonderfully in material where the balance is often very hard to gauge, and the orchestra is in fine form, despite some rather mixed conducting from Pappano who, as ever, proves wonderfully alive to the melodic flow of Italian opera but less astute as a pure accompanist. The oom-pah quality of much of the orchestral writing emerges as unnecessarily leaden.

The musical problems are exacerbated in this respect by Ollé’s ritualistic production, which puts enormous emphasis on the processional aspect of Oroveso and Norma’s cult, so the stagecraft leans on the score in ways it really can’t support. Ollé, fresh from his triumphant Covent Garden production of Enescu’s Oedipe earlier this summer, has transplanted the action to a modern-day religious sect which, with the exception of the privileged ceremonial role accorded to the female characters, is modelled precisely on Roman Catholicism. There’s nothing wrong with the idea as such, and sticking with any strictness to the original setting – in which Norma is a druidess in Gaul during the Roman occupation, desperate to hide and also to resuscitate her secret love affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul – rarely proves satisfactory. Moreover, it is entirely to the point that Norma stands at the heart of a closed, fetishistic culture terrified of multifarious others – and the production luxuriates in Alfons Flores’s set and Lluc Castells’s costume designs in a way that harks back to a much more luxurious age in the Royal Opera’s history. The panoply of Catholic roles, vestments and accoutrements, as well its corollary in the fascist military uniforms of the laity, strike the eye tremendously, and have an enhanced dramatic force for anyone who, like Ollé and his colleagues, remembers Franco’s Spain. The problems, however, relate to the Church’s representation as being very much an establishment institution of great wealth and power, rather than a threatened cultural minority overrun by a brutal militaristic empire. Indeed, during the whole first act, the murmuring of Roman Catholics about their Roman enemies, all hemmed in by walls of latticed crucifixes, is altogether too confusing.

In the second act, however, everything works. There is a wonderful coup de théâtre with the emergence of Norma’s designer apartment, hidden directly underneath the altar, where her children ride bicycles and play with their fortress before falling asleep on a stiff, white, rectangular sofa in front of Watership Down. Indeed, the film plays for such a long time that one fears Norma’s great crisis of maternal conscience might emerge to the tune of “Bright Eyes” rather than “Teneri, Teneri figli”. The final two scenes, too, have a coherence and dramatic urgency almost entirely lacking in the first act, leading to a conclusion in which the full tragic force of Bellini’s opera is felt in all its tremendous power.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Chilling moments of rupture


Photograph: Monika Rittershaus / Salzburg Festival

Review of Thomas Adès, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Haus für Mozart, Salzburg. Published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 19

In Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel (1962), Edmundo de Nobile and his wife host a supper party. After entering the house, twice, by the same entrance, neither the guests nor their hosts nor their one remaining servant find themselves able to leave the room. The door stays open but, inexplicably, no one can go through it.

“What I see”, wrote Buñuel two decades later, “is a group of people who are unable to do what they want to do, that is to leave a room. The inexplicable impossibility of satisfying a simple desire.” Buñuel’s description goes against the grain of most interpretations of the film as a social critique of bourgeois psychology in which the thin veneer of “civilization” quickly peels away when the habitual conditions of social life are interrupted. But while social-psychological critique of this kind was an established part of the director’s palette, and the surrealist tradition more generally, Buñuel’s comment hints at a much more basic object; namely, the idea that the rupture experienced in the drama mimics the origin of reflexive consciousness, where the ability to think, in its basic shape, consists in the suspension of action, or the disconnecting of the impulse to act from its natural execution. The conscious appraisal of our environment, and our place in it, occurs precisely as a result of the failure of our instinctual mechanisms to direct the appropriate course of action. When we speak colloquially of “pausing for thought”, we are referring to the experience of a disjuncture in the flow of action. In this sense, Buñuel is showing that the great mystery of the question “What do we do now?” lies not in the actual outcome but in how it comes to be asked in the first place.

In Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns’s new operatic adaptation of the film, which opened this year’s Salzburg Festival and will come to the Royal Opera House next spring, the moments of rupture are articulated with precision and an unwavering awareness of the possibilities of the genre. Bells ring, even before the audience is seated, submerging the habitual pre-performance rituals – the 5 and 1-minute bells, the tuning of the orchestra, the entrance of the conductor – in a growing gloop of cleverly managed overtones. Bells are a calling to a place, but also a calling to suspend work. On the stage, three bewildered sheep stand rooted to the spot. Their presence is due to the hostess’s penchant for practical jokes, but here they just stand, articulating a general condition of stray-ness, as it were. Other devices populate the score throughout, such as the use of chaconne structures, or the way the music lurches into a waltz when certain characters approach the threshold, drawing them back into the scene less by malicious force than by seduction.

This recurring waltz motif suggests that Adès and Cairns – who also conduct and direct the production – are more than aware of the film’s self-indulgent streak; that is, of the way in which the hidden force detaining each character takes the form of each indulging a rare opportunity to become themselves more fully and plainly. Thus the young lovers Beatriz and Eduardo bring their role-play to its end in an (off-stage) Wagnerian love-death; the Doctor goes into diagnostic overdrive; his patient Leonora kisses him on the mouth (“that’s something I have always wanted to do”); Don Francisco acts on his incestuous infatuation with his sister, Silvia, while the latter comes to terms with her maternal love; the butler buttles with increasing desperation; the old man molests sleeping ladies and Nobile fulfils his obligation as host by volunteering himself as a sacrificial victim.

At the same time, the musical world of each distils: the premature Puccinian ejaculations of the lovers, sung by Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan; the pointillist, frenetic coloratura of Audrey Luna’s Leticia (Cairns and Adès cast Leticia, nicknamed “La Valkiria” in the film, as an opera singer and the party’s guest of honour); the simpering archaisms of Don Francisco (Iestyn Davies); the aristocratic plaints of Edmundo (Charles Workman) take on the specific harmonic hue of Wagner’s Amfortas, while John Tomlinson’s Doctor often sounds like his faithful servant Gurnemanz, as his patient Leonora, marvellously played by Anne Sofie von Otter, channels Berg’s Lulu. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, expanded with piano, guitar, a lovingly employed (by Cynthia Millar) Ondes Martenot and further electronics, navigates this criss-crossing path, where the distinct idioms sometimes mesh, sometimes keep themselves tightly segregated, with terrific virtuosity. It evidently helps considerably that Adès is himself conducting. Cairn’s stage direction also benefits from the clear-sighted understanding that comes of knowing a work from conception to execution. Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costumes mix Art Deco glamour with shrewd economy, while the revolving set, dominated by the salon entrance (ultimately revealed as a proscenium), reinforces the roving perspective internal to the score and the sense that the piece is a pure ensemble effort.

The two most important moments of rupture occur some way into the first act. As guest of honour, Leticia is half-expected to sing after dinner. Already suffocating in anticipation of the closing in of possibility, she hurls an ashtray through a window before entering the salon. Immediately after she demurs (without saying anything), the guests realize that the evening has run its course and discuss leaving. At the same time, they realize the evening will never run its course unless she does sing: “I will not leave this house until she sings”, declares Raúl; “We will all not leave this house until she sings”, echo the company, as if in premonition not just of how the drama will unfold but of their role in performing an opera, a form that can’t end, as the saying goes, “until the fat lady sings”.

It is thus when the opportunity to repeat this scene arises, several days later, that Leticia understands she can close the circle by accepting the invitation to sing. The “aria” she sings is entirely divorced from the musical world of the piece. Indeed, it is divorced from the historical context of opera entirely, setting a medieval Jewish poem about longing for Jerusalem in Spain to an eerily emptied-out style which, in contrast to the increasingly frenzied chromaticism of the third act’s music, bursts through in a moment of stillness and quasi­medieval flatness.

Before she sings, Leticia gets everyone to return to doing precisely what they were doing before she originally refused to sing, which was listening to Blanca (Christine Rice) play a hypnotic, flowing showpiece on the piano. Afterwards, she is asked to play “Something by Adès”, but she refuses, pleading fatigue. The moment could be mistaken for a rather arrogant nod towards Mozart’s ironic self-quotation in Don Giovanni, but here the force is rather different. Where, after all, in the score’s stylistic kaleidoscope, is what we could call music by Adès? For all its primal vigour, the opera never ceases its distribution of stylistic calling cards, reference and even quotation (of which a demonic disintegration of Bach’s chorale “Sheep may safely graze”, which accompanies the return of Lucia’s sheep, is perhaps the wittiest). Of course Adès has always played this game, but his best music is animated less by the clever nods and winks that populate its surface than by the genuine and deeply felt affections that orientate his roving stylistic compass. As with all music, the invitation to enter its world of sensibilities must be accepted before its qualities can be perceived. In Adès’s case, the invitations often get caught in a gust of wind: you can spend more effort chasing them down than accepting them.

For Adès himself to point to this – Blanca’s refusal means that in the world of the opera, Adès’s music is never played – is therefore not arrogant or irreverent but powerfully significant of the fact that post-modern cosmopolitanism’s lack of anything like a “natural” musical style – and its need for habits of thinking and listening to be refreshed and re-established with every work – answers very directly and poignantly to the suspended condition in which Buñuel’s characters find themselves. Once you’ve paused for thought, you can’t just decide to stop thinking. In this sense, The Exterminating Angel has been the opera Adès needed to write in order to be himself. Like its predecessors, The Tempest and Powder Her Face, the music remains astonishing in its confidence and dramatic versatility; but here, when Adès’s elusive aesthetic itself becomes integrated into the drama’s vertiginous psychological landscape, the music acquires another edge entirely. The effect is intoxicating and at times quite brutal; for all its scorching passion, the opera leaves one chilled to the bone.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Wagner's Death-Devoted Lunatics


Heidi Melton as Isolde, Karen Cargill as Brangäne and Stuart Skelton as Tristan © Catherine Ashmore

Richard Wagner
TRISTAN AND ISOLDE
English National Opera, until July 9

Of all Wagner’s mature operas, Tristan und Isolde is the one whose meaning is the hardest to mistake. Its symbolic opposition of the empty world of false representations and the true reality revealed in unmediated erotic desire is as clear as day and night, relentlessly hammered out in long chains of rhyming couplets. And as befits a work which for many stands as an exemplar of the operatic form, Tristan’s dramatic logic and content seem to derive entirely from the music, whose opening statements do not so much represent the idea of an unbearable, infinite yearning as supply its definitive expression. The “action” flows seamlessly and seemingly self-evidently. Ask listeners to explain it and many will flounder; but most agree it made perfect sense at the time.

It is perhaps not so far-fetched, then, to suggest that Tristan stands as the centrepiece of a mad cult whose “death-devoted” fanatics succumb, without quite knowing why, to an inexorable longing for their own demise. Perhaps that is why English National Opera waited until 1981 before performing the opera. For a company conceived for the purposes not just of bringing opera to the “people” but of contributing to the “spiritual health” of the nation, the difficulties of mounting an opera so specific in its denial of any connection between spirit and health were always likely to exceed purely logistical concerns. If death is the answer, Lilian Baylis might well have said, we must be asking the wrong question.

How, exactly, opera has been held to contribute to the nation’s spiritual health has changed regularly over the decades. But in recent years the notion that the art form offers something specific that is essential to society’s healthy functioning has largely fallen out of focus, occasionally resuscitated in evangelical tones by the form’s most outspoken defenders, but usually just veiled behind a thin, well-meaning discourse about “the arts” in general. And while the history of English National Opera is one in which debates have been continuous, with regular – roughly once a decade – shifts of power between the company’s artistic leadership and its general management company, the current crisis seems parlous indeed. The last music director, Mark Wigglesworth, barely had time to move into his office before resigning earlier this year in protest at the management’s proposed distribution of budget cuts. John Berry, the previous artistic director and the most divisive figure in a long line of divisive predecessors, resigned last summer when it became clear that the new chief executive and board were committed to radically reducing not merely the scale of the company’s output but also its artistic ambition. The new policy, largely dictated by Arts Council England, is to shrink back to a small core of safe productions of classic repertoire. However you conceive of the company’s past, doing less with less isn’t much of a battle cry for its future.

If Berry’s successor, the young American director Daniel Kramer, appointed in April after an eight-month hiatus, has been contractually obliged to toe the party’s straitened line, his first stage production in the post – cast and planned, of course, long before Berry’s resignation – harks back to the company’s glorious past in combining high musical ambitions with gleeful irreverence. Indeed, if addressing the question of the nation’s spiritual health is taken into account, the company’s new production seems bent less on acquainting its audience with a revered classic than aiming to cure besotted Wagnerians of their sickly obsessions.

The third act opens with Tristan and Kurwenal slumped in a pile of rubbish. Their clothes are torn, their faces, crowned by the few erupting wisps of hair remaining to them, heavily marked by years of unwashed anticipation and accumulated insanity. The castle wall has an open wound in its centre, revealing the lunar grotto of the second act in which the lovers consummated their union in an orgy of opened veins and entwined melody. Nominally, Tristan and Kurwenal are waiting for their princess, Isolde, but in ways all too clearly signposted by the conscious absurdism of the stage direction, they’re really waiting for Godot.

The production’s much anticipated stage sets were designed by Anish Kapoor. The best of them is the ship’s bow of the first act, a three-part fan of massive wooden walls, which combines visual coherence and simplicity with minimal representational function, unifying the stage while dividing the space in a way that frames the character dynamics of the score. A large white sphere dominates the second act’s first scene, while the structure is reversed for the second scene, showing an interior moon landscape of irregular geological formations which, observed through half-closed eyes, resemble entwined bodies ossifying into the rock. In the final scene, Tristan climbs through the wall and finds his resting place in a suitable nook. After Isolde joins him, the pair sink into the blurry outlines of the grotto, one pair of lovers among many who have forsaken the jarring diversity of the earth for the monochrome chasteness of the moon.

Kramer’s lovers, then, are lunatics. In a clever tug at the literal threads of the drama, their specific malaise expresses itself through self-harming. Isolde first draws her knife in the first act, inviting Tristan to strip off his layers of Samurai armour and join her. Their preening attendants flap around in acute embarrassment, dressed as eighteenth-century courtiers with powdered faces and piled wigs. The improbability of the costumes is striking in the way its blunt comedy works on you with its own logic. For to deprive Brangäne and Kurwenal of dramatic gravity constitutes an attack on the received idea of the work as thoroughgoing in its deadly seriousness. But laughter, as any psychologist will tell you, is a healthier way of relieving accumulated tension than cutting your arms with a knife.

To be sure, Kramer is not tarring Wagner’s opera with the same ironic brush that flattens out so many self-consciously modern opera productions. Kramer’s intent, while comic in its expression, is quite serious in its contemporaneity, linking the self-destructive urges of Wagner’s heroic lovers with those of many whose inability to function properly in society also finds expression in a mixture of erotic-thanatic addiction.

Musically, the production finds the beleaguered company firing on most of its remaining cylinders. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan is finely captured, the Australian tenor’s deep reserves of powerful lyricism sustaining the second act and fading only slightly in the third. In the American soprano Heidi Melton, the cast has not found its perfect Isolde. For while her tone is finely rounded and her excellent sense of line well suited to Wagner’s aching melos, her voice doesn’t quite last the distance, already wearing thin by the end of the second act. The “liebestod” is more erratic than ecstatic. Both leads are also hampered in the second act by being made to leap around the moon’s rocky interior.

While Karen Cargill provides a creditable Brangäne, she lacks the sheer beauty of tone one associates with the role. But Craig Colclough’s Kurwenal and, above all, Matthew Rose’s superb King Marke give performances that would honour any production. The orchestra is also at the top of its game, responding with predictable warmth to the return of its former music director Edward Gardner’s baton. As befits Kramer’s comic leanings, Gardner drives the pace faster than most, but never so much that it detracts from the accumulated richness of sound, tracing Wagner’s shimmering arcs with unerring faithfulness. And although I’ll admit it required indulging my own self-destructive urges at the stalls bar to see the staging in a positive light, I emerged from the evening’s critical assault on my favourite opera suitably chastened, amused and invigorated. If opera in the vernacular is partly about dismantling and imaginatively reconstructing our reverence for canonical works, then this Tristan – despite various shortcomings – succeeds handsomely.

The performance I saw was dedicated to the great Liverpudlian tenor Alberto Remedios, who died on June 11. He remains beloved for a wide range of leading roles for the company, among them his legendary performances as Siegfried for the Reginald Goodall Ring. There was no stage announcement and no mention, beyond a note on the ENO website, of the dedication on the evening. Instead, the stage curtain from the company’s 1985 Tristan – for which Remedios gave his greatest performance in the role – was hung before and during the Prelude. As a grand if slightly anonymous tribute to one of the company’s most memorable figures, the gesture also offered mute testimony to the present management’s hazy understanding of its legacy. The uncertainty of its future is little wonder.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Romantic Fictions

Gaetano Donizetti
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Royal Opera House, until May 19

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, April 29
Act III/iii of the Royal Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

The renown of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has long rested on a single moment, the mad scene in which Lucia emerges, covered in the blood of the man she has just murdered, and wanders among her wedding guests, singing tenderly of her impending marriage to her former lover. The music here is strikingly different to the rest of the opera: dramatically static and with a musical pace that incorporates moments of total suspension, it is dominated by a highly exposed and ornamented soprano line which, if it wasn’t already hard enough to sing by itself, also demands that the soloist effectively take full control of the orchestra and glory in her vocal talents at precisely the moment the character loses control of herself.

The scene’s exceptional quality is underscored by the (originally intended) use of a solo glass harmonica, an instrument whose other-worldly timbre was for Donizetti and his audience strongly associated with fragile femininity, mesmerism and madness (there is evidence that the instrument fell from favour in the nineteenth century because of fears that its players would go insane). Successful performances of the scene carry immense music-dramatic force, and numerous sopranos have made their careers from shining at this highly exposed moment. But the greater the success, the more pressing the question: what was it that drove Lucia mad?

In Walter Scott’s novel the causes are manifold – Lucy’s mother’s pathological social ambitions; her own obsession with romantic fiction; the apparitions of her murdered ancestress (the “bride of Lammermoor” of the title). The denouement possesses all the inexorability of a tragic fate. Opera commands its own kind of inexorability, of course, which more than makes up for the lack of recourse to narrative detail. But Lucia’s off-stage passage from tragic bride in the second act to deranged murderer in the third always retains something of its disjunctive force, smoothed over only by the fact that most in the audience are already keenly aware of what is about to happen.

A new Royal Opera staging, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Daniel Oren, grapples with this issue in an unusual – and unusually interesting – way. Its success derives largely from a forcefully feminist interpretation of the piece in which the male characters are denied dramatic gravity. This extends even to Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and her brother’s sworn enemy. Lucia dresses as a man for their First Act tryst, and on hearing Edgardo’s confession that he must leave for France, she tears off his clothes, strips down to her billowing underwear and mounts him. The repeated pizzicato chords underpinning the soaring duet “Verrano a te sull’aure” (whose melody returns in fractured form during the mad scene) provide the rhythm.

When it comes to Arturo’s murder, the action (usually off-stage) is intentionally farcical: Lucia tempts Arturo into bed while Alisa hides with a cake knife. But the stab wound isn’t fatal; nor are subsequent attempts to bludgeon and shoot him: the stunned Arturo just keeps getting up again. The women eventually smother him with a pillow. It’s pure silent comedy slapstick, with an uncanny twist given that what we hear in the auditorium and see on the rest of the stage at this time is the “tower scene”, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel – for much of the nineteenth century this represented the opera’s dramatic highpoint.

The tragedy comes moments later when Lucia loses her baby by Edgardo, a miscarriage brought on not by the “violence” of the murder, but by Lucia’s having strapped herself into a corset and crinoline for her wedding to Arturo. She returns to the stage for the mad scene, therefore, covered not in Arturo’s blood, but in her own, a victim not merely of the paraphernalia of patriarchal oppression but of her own failed attempt to take control of her own destiny.

Lucia’s death is not, then, only the “social tragedy” of an unstable young girl, but a tragedy in the full, heroic sense of the term. Mitchell’s cause is aided by Vicki Mortimer’s bifocal stage designs, in which the stage is often split into two halves, the action in each half happening independently of the other (hence Arturo’s murder during the Tower scene, or Lucia’s getting dressed during the opening hunting scene). It sounds distracting, but is really just an extension of techniques so common on opera stages as to be unremarkable. The sets themselves – Lucia’s green-tiled bathroom with its ominous tub placed front-centre; the eerie gothic splendour of the Lammermoor grounds – are superbly achieved, while the sometimes crowded details draw the relevant cultural narratives precisely and powerfully into the storytelling. When Enrico compels Lucia to marry Arturo, he asserts his power not merely by penetrating the private space of her boudoir, and even bathroom, but by removing her paintings, books, maps. While Scott’s Lucy is a romantic, whose vulnerability derives from the fact that she is divorced from political reality, Lucia is here herself represented as the danger, her literary interests conceived not in terms of escaping reality but in gaining power over it.

In this sense, Mitchell and Mortimer’s inspiration might well have come from the casting of the German soprano, Diana Damrau, in the title role. Damrau has performed the role all over the world, but her voice, while it has the gymnastic flexibility of a coloratura specialist, carries the weight and tonal depth of a dramatic soprano, much better suited to a depiction of the character as capable young woman than as helpless girl. And as Damrau demonstrates, her characterization renders the mad scene unforgettably potent.

Damrau’s performance is stunning throughout, and ably matched by Ludovic Tézier’s grandly toned Enrico and Charles Castronovo’s richly lyrical Edgardo. To Mitchell’s credit, both men play the roles straight. The chorus and orchestra also manage impressively to sustain the musical atmosphere, despite Oren’s lacklustre conducting. No surprises there; nor in the boos that greeted the production team on the first night.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Cyborgs and Psychopaths

Rolf Wallin
ELYSIUM
Oslo Opera House, until April 2

Modest Mussorgsky
BORIS GODUNOV
Royal Opera House, until April 5

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 25


Ketil Hugaas and Nils Harald Sødal in ‘Elysium’. Photo: Erik Berg

Elysium, a new opera by the Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin and the British librettist Mark Ravenhill, begins with one of family life’s most ordinary scenes. A mother is comforting her son, who has woken from a nightmare about monsters. The strings slide in eerie glissandi, with shimmering percussion. Mute rhythmic punches issue from the brass but don’t go anywhere. The boy wants to keep his light on and asks how many human beings there are in the world. As questions go, it is ordinary enough. Yet his mother’s answer is not. There are forty humans, she reminds him. The thousands of humans in the books are all from long ago. Just forty are left.

It gets stranger. The forty humans live on an island where they are kept alive by the “transhumans” who occupy the rest of the planet. Transhumans – the “monsters” of the little boy’s imagination – are peace-loving cyborgs, who live as long as they want, can buy new skin and organs when the old stuff wears out, and whose every desire is effortlessly met through the equipment of each with networked electronic implants. These allow the species of the future to forgo the vagaries of verbal communication, indeed of all representational media, in favour of direct emotional exchange. The flow of feeling can be heard in an elaborate weave of high-pitched melismatic lines, produced mostly by electronic instruments but with acoustic instruments sometimes integrated into the flow.

When the first transhuman we encounter meets the boy’s mother, they are drawn to each other by a desire to change places. The mother (sung by Lina Johnson) wants the material freedoms of the super-species; to escape her island prison and live out her dreams. The transhuman (sung by Eli Kristin Hanssveen) wants the freedom associated with dignity and moral autonomy; she wants to dream her dreams, not live them. For fifteen years she has relearnt the capacity for human speech, but the mother only wants to hear her transhuman “noise”, which issues forth in a stream of pointillist coloratura, both mesmerizing and featureless. They become lovers.

Appropriately, at a time when every new opera must seemingly present its own critical reflections on the genre, opera is here both the medium and the subject of the work. The founding myths of the genre, in Renaissance musings on the reunion of speech and song to allow for the unhampered expression of our emotions, are present here in the barely embodied warbling of the cyborgs. At the same time, the island dwellers are also fed and watered for operatic reasons, to mount an annual performance of Fidelio as part of a ritual which allows the transhumans to witness their origins as mortal beings at once enslaved and liberated by their desire. It also eschews simplistic moral didacticism. There’s nothing particularly noble about the humans: the wife with her longing for new technology, the husband (superbly sung by Ketil Hugaas), with his need for brutal sex and dependence on endlessly repeated clichés about touching the sun, the neighbour with the tumour (Hege Høiseter), the son with his nightmares (sung with extraordinary poise and feeling by the treble Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin). Nor are the transhumans to be mistrusted. Even if their “liberator” Coraig (sung by Nils Harald Sødal) resembles a combination of Mark Zuckerberg and L. Ron Hubbard, he still offers the remaining humans the chance to join his cyborg race in being “uploaded” into the “singularity” – a perfect brotherhood of man represented by ecstatic ruminations on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Only the father refuses, in the end, ranting triumphantly about being the “last human”.

Wallin’s music is quite stunning, cleanly directed by Baldur Brönniman and wonderfully played by the house orchestra. Earthy, eerie, elegant, the score sharpens and shapes the imagination effortlessly. The pacing is impressive (this is his first opera) and the final climax nothing short of breathtaking. The score is nicely matched by Leslie Travers’s set, which represents the island as a three-storey steel-framed cylinder, which revolves, rises and falls; the roof is the stage on which they must play their parts.

And yet the enterprise left me cold. On paper the work represents everything for which opera nowadays should strive: provocative of deep thoughts without didacticism, it succeeds brilliantly in integrating its subject into the material of the opera. The meshing of electronic and acoustic sources is beautifully managed, as are the chewed-up snatches of the Quartet and Prisoner’s Chorus from Fidelio.

I still can’t decide whether the fault lies in the score itself, or with David Pountney’s direction. Certainly some of the fault lies with Pountney because, beyond the staging concept, there is scant evidence of a director’s hand. The blocking is messy, the gestures are wooden and, notwithstanding the spray of multicoloured fibre-optic cables coming out of the tranhumans’ costumes, no sparks fly; it’s all electronics, no electricity. Or so it felt to me. And perhaps it is my need for characters with enough emotional credibility to keep one step ahead of a libretto’s onward march which is at fault. Maybe I have not yet evolved enough to appreciate the cold, flat surfaces of the opera of the future?

No one could accuse Modest Mussorgsky’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov, of failing to provoke deep thoughts. As the Royal Opera’s artistic and musical directors, Kasper Holten and Antonio Pappano, write at the head of the programme (perhaps relieved to have got Chabrier’s L’Étoile out of the way), Boris is “an opera about power, about what humans are willing to do to get it, and how difficult it can be to handle when you finally obtain it”. It’s also another fine example of a music drama whose aesthetic force is bent on showing, not telling. This is particularly true of the opera’s first, 1869, version, which sticks much closer to Pushkin’s colourful telling and episodic ordering of the story, and ends with Boris’s death, resisting the temptation to twist the knife. Yet the original version of the opera is musically less rich than the revision and much less frequently staged. This is the Royal Opera’s first go.

Richard Jones’s staging should take its fair share of the credit for this storybook telling of the piece, which has just the right balance of whimsy and gravity to sustain 130 minutes of uninterrupted stage action. The prologue is preceded by a stylized tableau of the tsarevich Dmitry playing with his spinning top. Dmitry is masked, as are the assailants who sweep silently upon him, slitting his throat. The murder is so effortless it seems almost comic. But as the scene is replayed some six times throughout the evening, its power to haunt grows steadily, allowing one to grasp the kind of nightmare tearing at Boris’s conscience, eating away the delusions of this doting father and ostensibly caring leader with the inexorability of karma.

Miriam Buether’s two-level set, tiled with bells and other motifs from the opera, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s often stunning lighting design and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes – with their shades of Orthodox psychedelic – are all superbly conceived and executed. Pappano’s handling of chorus and orchestra is brilliantly paced and Bryn Terfel, in his first Boris, captures instinctively the role’s tragic psychology, his desperate desire to bury the past and yield to a bright future for country and kin. His voice is glorious and never overbearing, except in the scene where the full force of his suppressed psychopathology is revealed, through bared teeth, to the scheming Prince Shuisky. The supporting roles, too, are superbly taken, particularly John Graham-Hall’s inscrutable Shuisky, Ain Anger’s granite-textured Pimen (the monk who testifies to the tsarevich’s murder), and John Tomlinson’s cameo as the barfly monk Varlaam. It is a truly superb show, and while the production is brilliant, it is the heat flying off the soloists that really carries the drama into the auditorium.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Sacrificial acts

Gaetano Donizetti
POLIUTO
Glyndebourne Festival, until July 15

Georges Bizet
CARMEN
Until July 3

Arthur Sullivan
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Until July 4
English National Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 6


Michael Fabiano as Poliuto. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

In an age in which the greatest threat to Christianity comes, not from competing religions, but from apathetic acceptance of its basic values, it is interesting to reflect on how astonishing the beliefs of early Christians must have seemed to their sceptical contemporaries. How bizarre it must have seemed to the citizens of the Roman empire, no less than to the Vikings several centuries later, that these people chose to worship a god who allowed himself to be reviled, tortured and executed by his enemies. How profoundly different must have appeared the believers’ desire to supplant the martial and heroic modes so crucial to the extant order of society, with a world view based on an idea of self-sacrifice and universal forgiveness.

The quality of this shock comes across sharply in the first act of Donizetti’s Poliuto, when Paolina, the Roman wife of the Armenian nobleman Poliuto, happens on the Christians practising their secret rites. Paolina is on the trail of her husband when she comes across the sound of singing, trembling as she recognizes his voice as he prays during the baptismal rites. As she looks around for evidence of the “bloody altars” on which she suspects the apostates pursue their foul and illicit worship, the distant but sweet harmonies of the Christians’ hymn take hold of her as she acquaints herself with the strangeness of a faith whose prayers seek forgiveness “even for their enemies”.

The ensuing aria, “Di quai soave lachrimae”, is one of those quintessential operatic moments in which a change in one of the characters asserts itself through the music on the audience. As Paolina finds herself mysteriously overcome by the “unknown delightful force” taking hold of her, Donizetti arrests the music’s hitherto frantic pace and broadens out the orchestral palette. The soprano line carves out a rising series of downward trickles which gain in force as the harmonic language absorbs some of the fluid stability of the foregoing hymn; the music paints Paolina’s passage from bewildered weeping to a sense of a “dismal veil” being lifted from her eyes. “Par che il devoto canto / ritrovi un’eco in ciel!”, she concludes (“it is as if the devout hymn finds an echo in heaven”).

Although the passage marks the conversion of Paolina’s heart, the rest of her does not follow her husband in his new profession until the end of the opera when martyrdom and the lions of Rome’s Colosseum beckon. Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano, no less than Corneille before them, are at pains to show that the martyrdom of both Poliuto (Polyeucte) and Paolina (Pauline) is voluntary; that the terms of the new religion are absolute, making false confession impossible. But Donizetti and Cammarano are equally sure that Paolina’s martyrdom is as romantic as it is religious: she goes to her death for her husband as much as for her God.

To conceal the grand conflicts of history and myth in the motivating psychology of romantic entanglement is, of course, the great smuggling trick of nineteenth-century opera. Poliuto does bring it off, however, remarkably well, Cammarano and Donizetti sharpening and softening considerably the characterization of the Roman pro-consul Severo, Paolina’s former betrothed, to bring the love triangle into greater relief. More significant, perhaps, is the way the opera ties the romantic experience of suspicion and self-doubt to the phenomenology of religious conversion, Donizetti’s light musical touch managing almost effortlessly to trace the passage of each character’s fleeting fears and hopes. From Poliuto’s lapses of faith, first in his new God, second in his wife, to Paolina’s confused conversion and Severo’s attempts to win back his former beloved, the emotions here gain their authenticity from their constantly fugitive status.

If it is remarkable that Glyndebourne chose to open their current festival with a staging of one of Donizetti’s lesser known mature works, the degree to which both conductor and director managed to capture the work’s dramatic subtlety is more remarkable still. In her second Glyndebourne production, the French director Mariame Clément has shunned grand gesture for a staging that focuses on the evanescent contrasts which animate the opera. The set, designed by Julia Hansen and sensitively lit by Bernd Pukrabek, consists largely of tall stone blocks which, when at rest, project a kind of cloying drabness but which when moved around to form walls, rooms and previously unseen openings, lead to an exhilarating sense of dynamic space in which the possibility of flight and concealment, hope and salvation are constantly coming in and out of view. Each scene is thus continually in a state of becoming, rather than fully manifest, which leaves it to the music to provide both the requisite monumentality and emotional depth; and also to the clever video projections, by fettFilm, which consist of momentary vignettes – civilians running for cover in a wartorn city, a bedroom window, billowing waves, a brilliantly green landscape – which come and go with the same speed as images in the music and libretto. Visually, the staging seems to take its cue from a parallel between Roman occupied Armenia and Sarajevo under siege, and the modern costumes are understated in their functionality, from Paulina’s frumpy respectable frock to the anonymous (though Soviet-derived) uniforms of the Roman soldiery.

Enrique Mazzola’s conducting is similarly subtle, keeping the pace high so that Donizetti’s sometimes rather trying “oom-pah” accompaniments never risk becoming leaden, with the London Philharmonic managing to combine a smooth, swelling modern sound with astonishing fleet-footedness. The singing, too, is as good as one could expect anywhere, with Michael Fabiano’s strident, powerful tenor capturing Poliuto’s rather pompous anguish. This contrasts well with Matthew Rose’s resplendent bass as the scheming high priest Callistene. The significantly more moderated approaches of both Ana Maria Martinez’s Paolina and Igor Golvatenko’s Severo answer well to the greater depth of their characters’ romantic conflicts: while Severo’s smooth and lithe baritone probably delivers the evening’s most exceptional singing, Martinez’s striking ability to vary the intensity and depth of her soprano yields the most memorable performance.

Poliuto was originally written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1838, but a proscription on dramatic representations of Christian martyrdom meant that its stage life actually began in Paris, where a translated and adapted version of the opera fared moderately well as Les Martyrs. Donizetti and Cammerano had attempted to distract attention from the martyrdom plot by making Poliuto fiercely jealous of Paolina and Severo, thus bolstering the animating role of the love triangle. It’s one of the few aspects of the opera which jars – the suspicious raving Act II’s Poliuto seems entirely disconnected from the serene neophyte of Act I – but it provides an instructive reminder of how difficult the consuming passion of jealousy can be to project on the operatic stage.

Certainly, the skill with which Georges Bizet channels the most destructive of emotions through the character of Don José remains a breathtaking example of how it can be done. That said, the opera has become so familiar that we often forget that José, rather than Carmen, is the opera’s real “character” in the nineteenth-century sense of the term.

There is little familiarity in English National Opera’s current staging of the opera, a revival of Calixto Bieto and Ryan Wigglesworth’s well received 2012 production, directed here by Joan Anton Rechi and conducted by Richard Armstrong. Here it’s not the modern dress and over-abundance of booze bottles and 1980s Mercedes saloons (a wry reference to Carmen’s friend) that defamiliarize the action, but the constant presence of imminent violence which, until it erupts fully in the closing scene, harries and menaces the occupants of the stage with a kind of orchestral virtuosity. The closing scene itself, with Carmen imprisoned by her “je ne regrette rien” code of honour, is astonishingly brutal. José, sick, deranged and raving, veers between his hopeless pursuit of the Carmen who tortures him in his dreams and his wish to annihilate the real woman, whose indifference reminds him of his increasingly deluded state. Finally, he drags his victim down by the hair and throws her across the stage. For once the knife attack has more than an ironic relation to Escamillo’s off-stage bullfight: Carmen’s murder here has all the purposiveness and pointlessness of a sacrificial act.

The revival is confidently directed by Rechi, and Armstrong’s handling of the score is rather more fluent than his predecessor’s. Justina Gringyte, debuting in a role which she was clearly born to sing and play, makes a strong impression in the title role both as actor and singer, while the tenor Eric Cutler, making his company debut, excels as José. An interesting extra tension comes from the way the grit of the staging grates against the luxurious sensuousness of the opera’s musical fabric. The polite duetting of Mercedes and Frasquita, for example, sounds wonderfully odd coming from Carmen’s drunken and mercilessly unscrupulous companions.

Such tensions – which can be invigorating to the knowing opera audience but rather alienating for neophytes – are strongly in contrast to Clément and Mazzola’s Poliuto, which despite the contemporary scope of the staging plays the opera very much within its natural dramaturgical confines. Such is also true of ENO’s other current offering, a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance directed by the latest of the company’s screen-star imports, Mike Leigh.

Leigh professes to hate opera, but his love of Gilbert and Sullivan is wholehearted and shines through benevolently in this affectionate staging. The director’s theatrical skill is manifest in the way in which he draws on the big spaces of the Coliseum’s stage – and on the exceptional talents of its orchestra, company and soloists – while projecting a show entirely in keeping with the modest dramatic scope of the operetta. The only ironies on the stage are the ones intended by the author and composer, and there are no grand effects of any kind. Besides the superb quality of the singing (especially Andrew Shore’s Major-General Stanley, Joshua Bloom’s Pirate King and Claudia Boyle’s resplendent Mabel) and playing – all wonderfully and instinctively led by David Parry – the only quality that really marks out the production is the elegant economy of Alison Chitty’s set designs, which use a giant circle cut out of the blue-sea backdrop to open and close the dramatic focus as well as provide a visual link with the kind of picture-book illustrative style with which the work’s fond anarchism marries best. Playing to a packed house, if the production was intended to convert new audiences to the production values of the modern opera house, ENO’s Pirates will take some beating.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Shifts and Shocks: Between Worlds

Tansy Davies and Nick Drake
BETWEEN WORLDS
Barbican Theatre, until April 25
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, April 17


Rosana Ribeiro (dancer) with Owen Ridley-Dominic (Younger Man) and Susan Bickley (Mother) Photograph: © Donald Cooper/Photostage

“I read somewhere”, writes Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old principal narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), reporting from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, “that people on the street are supposed to look like ants, but that’s not true. They look like little people.”

As with Wittgenstein’s famous Duck/Rabbit example, Oskar’s perspectival shift can be consciously manipulated. You can decide to see a rabbit, or a duck, but not both at once. But Oskar can’t shift between people and ants. For want of a more precise diagnosis, Oskar is what people used to call a strange little boy. He also lost his father in the attack on the World Trade Center two years previously. The emotional neutrality that allows people to change into ants isn’t really available to him.

This is not the case for the “Younger Man”, one of the handful of unnamed characters who make up the solo roles in Tansy Davies and Nick Drake’s new opera on 9/11, Between Worlds. As he arrives at a “very important meeting” on one of the South Tower’s upper storeys, the man’s confidence is shattered when he approaches the window. Assailed by vertigo, unable to maintain the professional sureness he is so eager to project, he involuntarily starts leaking nervous platitudes (his vocal line shifts from its concentration and becomes jumpy and uncentred). “People are dots and dashes,” he blathers, “just information. Just this glass between me and nothing.”

Whether we knew any of the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks or not, a sense of incalculable loss still accrues to the memory of the Towers’ collapse. There have of course been many subsequent catastrophes where the loss of life was even greater, but 9/11 has a hold that defies statistics. The event has a liminal function in cultural memory, rather like birth or death in personal memory; memory bends into it, creating a vacuum which exerts a force on everything around it. That an opera has now been written about the inner life of 9/11 may appear inappropriate to some, but in another sense it was inevitable and entirely appropriate. The difficulty of doing it well, however, relates to the fact that cultural memory of the real event still possesses a hyperreality more potent than any possible artistic representation of it, and absorbing it into a fictional world, remarkably well achieved nonetheless by Safran Foer, seems absurdly remote even now.

These difficulties were evidently manifest in the compositional process of Between Worlds. Both librettist and composer remained unsure of what, exactly, they should take as their subject for over a year, and it was only after meeting the stage director Deborah Warner that they decided to deal directly rather than tangentially with the moment of the attacks itself. But, incredibly enough, there is little trace of these difficulties in the finished work, a ninety- minute one-act opera, which seems extraordinarily equal to its task. The two “worlds” of the opera’s title refer, ostensibly, to life and death. The characters trapped on the upper floor are imprisoned between the two realms, each of them coming to accept this in their different ways during the opera’s progress. But the title also relates to a kind of flourishing of sympathy – as it were a study of the gap between ants and people – personified in the link between a shaman-like figure who sits suspended above the upper platform, controlling lines of communication, and a janitor, whose task for the day transforms from one of setting up a breakfast meeting to one of guiding uncertainly those around him to accepting what must be.

Individuation takes place after the shaman appears to reconnect the telephone line; the North Tower falls, prompting the janitor to encourage – and force, in the case of the disingenuous husband – each to reach out to their loved ones and say “what must be said”, as the janitor puts it. There is a good deal of skill in Drake’s libretto, which makes much of the transformation of quotidian platitudes (“there’s never enough time”) to profundities, and uses contrasts between prose and poetry, American English, Spanish and chanted Latin, to map out the fast-changing poetic territory. Deftly framed vignettes supply just enough detail (an estate agent forgets her mobile phone in her hurried, frustrated departure from her recalcitrant toddler son; a businessman lies to his wife about going to the doctor, heading for the fateful “important meeting” instead) to allow embryonic characters to form, but care is taken to allow the event itself to act as a crucible for the real characterizations.

The libretto’s sparseness leaves plenty of room for Davies’s music to shape and transform the dramatic action. The vocal settings trace the shifts in diction without awkwardness, while the orchestra submerges everything in shimmering, jittering continuities which build up a musical version of the kind of inverted vertigo experienced when one is near a tall building, looking up. The aeroplane strikes themselves, eerily prepared by a sudden change in the Shaman’s muttering to a piercing, high-pitched whine (strikingly achieved by the countertenor Andrew Watts) and refracted by the chorus chanting from the Requiem liturgy, send the orchestra into wild paroxysms of hyper-activity which grind the present into an excruciating, lurching continuity. Davies also proves herself wonderfully adept in marking out shifts in the perception of time, using exaggerated rhythmic profiles to spur on the drama before dissolving them into oases of reflexivity. In the lobby scene, during which a security guard tries to reassure a crowd of confused individuals who, unaware of the realities of the situation, are still trying to rescue their palm pilots and briefcases before the markets open, Davies uses temple bells to shadow the panicky speech rhythms but also to undermine, piercing the chorus’s jabbering with its pure sound. But the rhythms subside when the (two) firefighters arrive, screechy tremolo chords in the strings stretching out their gaze as they take in the scale of the moment.

Michael Levine’s spare set of slight, suspended platforms cleverly balances the need for theatrical transparencywith the requirement for spectacle. A wall of papers provides a backdrop for Tal Yarden’s video projections, a wind machine periodically ripples the panoramic views of the city. The collapse of the North Tower is depicted in the entire paper wall’s coming down, like a giant venetian blind slipping its fixings; as the drama nears its conclusion, theatrical illusion becomes less and less necessary. Deborah Warner’s direction makes the most of the limited stage resources, although her talents are most evident in the way the chorus and soloists never seem ill at ease with the purposefully thin characterizations.

The opera’s most beautiful moment, appropriately, both musically and visually, occurs at the end, in a dance between the sister and the suspended corpse of the Younger Man. The pair twirl, to music of gentle movement and unspeakable intimacy, animated by the opposing forces of the sister holding down her brother’s body as the wire pulls it irresistibly towards the darkness above.

Gerry Cornelius’s musical direction is well controlled and the chorus, directed by Stephen Higgins, negotiates admirably the shifts between ritual chant and emphatic narration, splintering occasionally into differentiated lines. It was clear that the ambitions of the composer and librettist – both working in the genre for the first time – are at times frustrated by the spare economies of the set, and some amplification for the orchestra would help the music better establish its presence in the Barbican Theatre’s dry space. There’s also a sense that Davies doesn’t do enough to develop the role of the Younger Man’s mother (Susan Bickley), who is given the opera’s one extended aria and who remains centre-stage for the remainder of the action: much of the audience’s putative connection with the space between the “worlds” of the title comes through imagining it from the mother’s perspective, but her music doesn’t manage to hold quite enough weight.But the fact that the opera made its presence felt at all, creating something so beautiful and troubling against a backdrop of something so awful and upsetting, speaks volumes about the artistic talents of all involved, no less than it does about the power of opera itself to find spaces where it is still, against all odds, worth taking the trouble to sing what can barely be said.

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.