“Mahler would never have stood for it!”

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.

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Published in: on October 3, 2013 at 19:53  Comments (4)  

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  1. I’m afraid I avoid anything with the words “Calixto Beito” on it. I really love modern, new opera – heavens, I LOVED A Dog’s Heart at ENO, truly astounding, deeply moving and hilarious with great theatrical panache (and of course brilliantly sung etc) but there’s something weird going on when very traditional operas are given the hyper-modern “conceptual” treatment. It mostly seems to be about the ego of the director (not the music director). Yes, be playful, experimental, bold and entertaining (the recent ENO Medea), but don’t chop it up!

    I remember the first time I saw Fidelio, when I was aged about 23, in a pretty traditional production by Kent Opera. It was actually the technical rehearsal (not even the dress) but when the ragged prisoners shuffled out and I heard the Prisoners’ Chorus for the first time, in an English translation which I could immediately understand, my mouth fell open and I wept. Into my head popped a new, fully-formed thought: WE ARE ALL IN PRISON… (a stunning notion at that age and with my comfortable life).

    The new version at ENO is illustrating this idea by putting people in suits inside glass boxes. You don’t need it – or, if you’re going to do it, you have to be heart and soul inside the work.

    PS I also knew most of the chorus members as stout drinking companions so there was absolutely no romance in the situation – Beethoven simply ruled.

    I am also reminded of an inside source mentioning that a certain movie director (not the one you’re thinking of) working at An English Opera House had to be told that he couldn’t move the chorus off-stage at the point he was asking, as they had to sing in a few bars. Cue bafflement as he realised it was the composer who was in charge…

  2. Arf! It’s always movie directors innit? Movie designers too – huge staircases and mirrors that block the sightlines and wreck the acoustics…

  3. I flatly refuse to believe that Lord Effingham uttered the word “bollocks”.

  4. I think Lord Eff was using it metaphorically rather than in an ejaculatory way. Either that, or living with Lady Eff is rubbing orf on him…

    Also he probably spells it the old-fashioned way: “ballocks”.


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