This is one of the Great Sayings of Michael Rose. He says it as we emerge from the opera house, or after reading a review of a particularly weird or apparently ill-judged operatic production.
He has said it in London (ENO Midsummer Marriage, many years ago, and ROH, Birtwistle’s Orpheus).
He has said it in Budapest (Hungarian State Opera, Elektra – set in a spa hotel, half the cast naked and flicking each other with wet towels, the other half dressed as Mafiosi. In the foreground – an empty swimming pool, with a tree planted in a heap of compost bags).
He has said it in Vienna (Vienna State Opera, Queen of Spades, with the Countess’s party turned into a live sex show complete with gimp masks and whips).
He has no doubt said it elsewhere, many times, but I have lost track.
What he means, of course, is that when Mahler was Intendant of the Vienna Opera, he would never have allowed directors to overwhelm an operatic work with an insufficiently meaningful and often downright deleterious overlay of directorial ideas.
We’re not averse to the weird and wonderful – the ROH Midsummer Marriage, for example, was fabulous, and a half-naked Don Juan with out-of-tune piano accompaniment, cross-dressed casting and a giant lobster at the Edinburgh Fringe many years ago was just a scream. However, we do have to wonder how the ENO in particular has managed to get itself completely trashed twice in a fortnight for its two recent productions of Fidelio and Die Fledermaus. Perhaps they’re trying to be like the Bayreuth Festival, whose Ring cycle this year was blasted by critics across the world.
So often, when you read an opera crit these days, it ends with the words ‘…the production was redeemed by great singing and wonderful playing from the orchestra, expertly led by A Baton’. I’ve heard that even negative reviews can have a positive impact on the audience, but I’m not convinced that’s any sort of comfort.
I’m not calling for the entire operatic world to knuckle down to perfect period costumes and shiny breastplates – that would be too dull – just to stop the blasted gimmicks. It can work – Martinu’s Julieta at ENO, with an Act 2 set in the shape of a giant accordion, was brilliant. But it can also be an utter disaster, with an over-conceptualised and madly unsuitable ‘vision’ obscuring the work of art it is meant to illuminate.
Michael thinks that it’s down to the musical directors – he thinks the rot started with Bernard Haitinck being too nice at the ROH back in the 80s. If it was Mahler, he reasons, he wouldn’t stand for it – he would put his baton down and say, “this production is rank bollocks and I’m not conducting it until you do something about it!”. I’m not holding my breath.