It's been a wired week thus far. Monday was the launch party for Songs of Triumphant Love - lots of friends, wine and books at Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. It went with some pizzazz and had me wired up, emotionally speaking, trying to remember to thank a great many people whom I need to thank. At the weekend, there was the opening of Dvorak's Rusalka at Glyndebourne; and last night a trip to ENO to see Kaija Saariaho's opera L'amour de loin (Love from Afar). The two operas could scarcely be more different, but both featured wired women, floating from the sky with trailing tails/scarves/dresses/tresses (delete as applicable).
Rusalka is a smash hit. Essentially Andersen's The Little Mermaid with added sex, it is a late (1900) and startlingly Wagnerian work in Dvorak's output; it opens with three Rhinemaiden-type sprites singing a sort of Czech equivalent of 'Hojotoho', and ends with a variety of liebestod for the unfortunate but otherwise jolly unsympathetic prince. Melly Still's production is both fantastic and fantastical: Rusalka and her sisters are full-blown mermaids, with trailing, twisting tails; the water in the lake is portrayed by six leaping, boiling dancers who hold up the characters and manipulate them as they 'swim'. Daddy Vodnik is a grotesque yet good-natured and rather naked presence, chillingly incongruous when he wanders into the wedding party; the witch - fabulous Larissa Diadkova - couldn't be nastier if she tried.
Ana Maria Martinez is a powerful and beautiful heroine for whom the Song to the Moon is the tip of the iceberg - excellently matched with Brandon Jovanovic as the prince. And the LPO sounds a million dollars under Jiri Belohlavek, who's on his ideal home territory and turns the score into a carpet of magically jewelled velvet. It's a real fairytale, dark and heartbreaking, its imagery breathtakingly imagined. I challenge you not to cry over it.
The Saariaho, in a production by Daniele Finzi Pasca who comes to ENO fresh from the Cirque du Soleil, is also full of gorgeous colours and images, plus people turning cartwheels. The leading roles of Countess Clemence and the troubadour-prince Jaufre Rudel are sung with immense commitment by Joan Rodgers and Roderick Williams; the text, by Lebanese author Armin Maalouf, is touching and rather humane. Rare that one's favourite bit of an opera should be the libretto, though.
And it was, because the music, while "opulent" (for which read "harps, cor anglais and some interesting percussion"), unfolded at approximately the same pace and the same dynamic throughout. As for action, well, there isn't much. The argument has been used that there isn't much in Tristan und Isolde either - but that is a score of genius, with an emotional flow that functions on its own terms and sweeps all before it. Saariaho has written some beautiful music, but she isn't Wagner yet. Take away potential contrasts, add a staging admittedly exquisite yet so stylised that it irons out all the underlying human drama and characterisation, which could be there if you wanted it to be...and you have quite an interminable evening. Indeed, the purpose served by the cartwheelers and acrobats on their wires appears to be to make you think something is happening when it isn't.
Jaufre wonders aloud where he can find the perfect woman he dreams of. Overhead and nearer the back, a flowing, draping girl flies from one side of the stage to the other. I resisted, very hard, the childish impulse to yell out: "Behind you!"
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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