A fair hearing

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

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Coliseum, until July 6

Richard Strauss
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.

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