In the heady days of the 1960s I recall a university science lecturer saying that if the government knew the nature of his research they would not pay him for it. His esoteric work had no practical use, but today we live in a more hard-headed age. Or do we?
In academia things may have improved, but in some areas of the arts they seem to get worse. The big opera houses too often allow visiting directors to indulge themselves in outré ideas rather than serve the music. In opera a director can easily destroy the original concept of composer and librettist by imposing some vapid idea that turns a potentially sublime evening into one of vexation, and the main culprits are government-supported opera houses, in Britain and elsewhere.
Of course, 19th-century opera can sometimes benefit from a more modern context, an excellent example being Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto at English National Opera, updated from a decadent Renaissance court to the 20th-century world of the Mafia, and for the last two years the Bayreuth Festival has been coming up with more sensible productions in an attempt to retain control within the Wagner family.
This past summer they gave us an intriguing Parsifal, Wagner’s opera about the renewal of a monastic order (the Knights of the Grail) whose leader once fell under the spell of a sorcerer, and can never recover. His followers await a redeemer (Parsifal) who will breathe new life into their community and enable them once again to fight for justice in far-off lands.
For this tale of redemption and renewal, the director boldly focused his production on a Christian monastery in today’s Middle East. In this context, when Parsifal enters the sorcerer’s lair, with its collection of stolen crucifixes, the flower maidens strip off their black abayas revealing flimsy Ottoman-style belly-dancing costumes. Wagner’s quasi-religious “festival play for the consecration of the stage” thereby acquires a strong contemporary link while keeping Bayreuth in the vanguard of controversial productions, and the first-night audience loved it.
The only downside was a high-profile security presence — which might have occurred anyway in view of two recent attacks by Islamic extremists in Bavaria — along with cancellation of the usual red carpet and first-night party for visiting celebrities and politicians, with Angela Merkel unusually staying away this year.
Strong concepts can work well for opera so long as they are linked to a deep knowledge of the music, otherwise disaster beckons. This past season ENO produced new winners with those dark operas Jenůfa and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, along with a brilliant production of Akhnaten, set of course in Ancient Egypt, but their dreadful replacement for Jonathan Miller’s fine La Bohème, with two drug-fuelled lovers sleeping it off during one another’s famous Act I arias, left the audience underwhelmed if not seriously annoyed, as did the fussily camp take on Tristan and Isolde by a former theatre director, Daniel Kramer, who had just been made the company’s artistic director.
Wagner seems to attract theatrical overreach, but the private summer opera festivals with little public funding cannot afford too much directorial narcissism and usually manage to avoid Wagnerian disasters.
Indeed, a concert performance can be preferable to a director raising two metaphorical fingers to the muses. Grange Park Opera did precisely this with Tristan, bringing in an Isolde (Rachel Nicholls) who could have well filled ENO’s auditorium, if that company had managed to hire her. Longborough put on a superbly musical Tannhäuser, eschewing the tiresomely frenetic modern dance choreography in the Venusberg scene, which usually exhibits not an ounce of allure.
Yet these summer opera companies can also produce elaborate stagings very well, as evidenced by Glyndebourne’s revivals of Meistersinger and A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer, to say nothing of Buxton’s intriguing Leonore (Beethoven’s first version of Fidelio before he decided to change it by emphasising human rights over human predicaments). Add Grange Park’s wonderful Oliver! and Don Carlo, plus Opera Holland Park’s marvellous Queen of Spades and a simply-staged but illuminating revival of Mascagni’s Iris, and we see a summer blossoming of artistic talent, including the staging of little-known operas.
A conspicuous example in the summer was the Bregenz Festival’s theatrically riveting Hamlet, last seen in Europe in 1871. Composed by Franco Faccio before he became music director of La Scala, it boasts a fine libretto by Arrigo Boito, who converted Shakespeare for Verdi in his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff.
It was originally staged in Genoa in 1865, and Faccio revived it six years later for La Scala, but the first night was a fiasco when the tenor lost his voice — Hamlet without Hamlet just didn’t work — and he withdrew the opera from further performance. Surely one of the many English opera festivals can now bring it to the land of Shakespeare.
Indeed, festivals are expanding in number. In 2017 Grange Park Opera moves to a 650-seat opera house in Surrey now under construction. The current theatre in Hampshire will host a new venture called the Grange Festival, and Nevill Holt Opera in Leicestershire will expand its season to cater to the local community.
Meanwhile, London’s big opera houses seem to be experiencing a lack of confidence. ENO is still trying to recover after dismissing its previous artistic director John Berry and losing some of its senior management, and its excellent music director, Mark Wigglesworth. The Royal Opera, on the other hand, has a superb music director, Sir Antonio Pappano, and fields the world’s top singers. It recently announced a new director of opera, Oliver Mears, artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera since it was founded in 2010. Meanwhile, their visiting directors are all too happy to show clichéd AK47s in inappropriate places, and the bloody results of a miscarriage in Lucia di Lammermoor that doesn’t feature in the libretto. Would the Royal Opera have the nerve to defy political correctness and stage something like Bayreuth’s Parsifal? I doubt it, but I’d love to be proved wrong.