Showing posts with label Jonathan Kent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Kent. Show all posts

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Manon Top


The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, directed by Jonathan Kent, has already divided audiences into those who applaud the contemporary relevance of its updating and those who'd rather just see the beautiful Kristine Opolais clad in a nice pretty dress. Others still were so swept away by the music and its ravishing performance that they didn't much care what was going on on the stage in any case.

The Manon Top is not Jonas Kaufmann - well, he is, but there's someone else too. It's the conductor, Tony Pappano. That ROH orchestra blazed almost as if Toscanini himself had stepped out in front of them. The highlight of the evening was the Intermezzo before the second half, given to us with an urgency, sweep and intensity of tone that could raise your hair and crack your heart open. This rarely-performed opera is dramatically problematic - it could use an extra scene or two to make the narrative less patchy - but the music is some of Puccini's finest (personally I'd even put it ahead of Butterfly) and an interpretation of this quality is absolutely what it needs, restoring it to the front ranks where it belongs. Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann matched Pappano's glories turn for turn: Kaufmann contained and paced his ever-irresistible singing, saving the best for the last act, and Opolais infused every vivid note with her character's charismatic personality. The three together were a dream-team, inspiring one another to a level of artistic wonder that we're lucky to be alive to hear.

Now, back to the production. Manon Lescaut is not a nice pretty story. The book, by the Abbé Prévost, is light years away from big romantic tunes; it's a terse, nasty page-turner, an 18th-century thriller that careers at high speed through a hideous, greedy and depraved world which the clever Manon tries to use for her own ends, but which eventually destroys not only her innocence but her life.

Contemporary? Relevant? Just a little. Intriguing to note that there are no fewer than three different adaptations of the book on offer at the ROH this year: operas by Puccini and Massenet and, in the autumn, the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (including several performances with Natalia Osipova in the lead); four if you include the return of Turnage's Anna Nicole, which opens the season - the same kind of story, only real. This can't be a coincidence.

Jonathan Kent's production was booed on opening night - though it was cheered, too. It maybe needs time to warm up and settle a little more, but the concept is powerful and the tragedy overwhelming: Opolais and Kaufmann are stranded as if mid-air at the end of a collapsed and abandoned motorway in the middle of the American nowhere.

At the outset Manon arrives by car in a housing estate of pre-fab flats with a casino to hand; her wide-boy brother (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Maltman) never flinches at the idea of selling his mini-skirted sister to the imposing Geronte. She becomes instantly an object, a blank slate for the depraved manipulation of all around her with the sole exception of Des Grieux.

Kaufmann's Des Grieux is a touchstone for other values, other worlds - choosing a book when others choose the gambling tables, holding on to the concept of love when it leaves others unscathed; however much the students sing about it at the start, they are clearly out for less exalted emotional encounters. Manon, meeting his impassioned declarations, responds like a rabbit in the headlights; such things are beyond her spheres of reference and when she runs off with him, she is running away from Geronte rather than towards her new life.

Puccini's opera, unlike Massenet's and the ballet, lacks a scene in which Manon and Des Grieux are poor but happy. Instead we cut straight to Geronte's mansion: Manon has abandoned love for luxury. Cue cameras: Kent turns Geronte implicitly into a porn king, filming Manon in a ghastly blonde wig and pink Barbie dress, the dancing master transformed into the director, instructing her while the visiting singer (Nadezhda Karyazina) engages in some apparently titillating girl-on-girl manoeuvres with her. There isn't much that any director can do to make her response more sympathetic, though, when Des Grieux arrives to rescue her and she hesitates too long because she doesn't want to leave her jewels behind.

The hypocrisy of this society, though, is underlined by the way Geronte and his friends debase, exploit and corrupt Manon, but then have her arrested and deported for prostitution. The scene by the ship in Act III turns into reality TV: Des Grieux's plea to go with her takes place under the lights and cameras. (Aside: reality TV is turning into an operatic trope and is on the verge of becoming a cliché: after seeing it in ENO's Götterdämmerung and, of course, Anna Nicole, I suspect that perhaps it's time to leave it for a while. One could say the same about staircases, spiral and otherwise.)

Act III, by the ship, is dominated by a huge poster: a beautiful face, a giant pink lily, the word NAÏVETE emblazoned across the image as if for a perfume advert. Later, the poster is slashed, across the model's cheek. This is a world that has gone beyond the romanticisation of naïveté, one that can only corrupt and disfigure beauty, one that experiences beauty only to squander it for greed. And when we see the blasted-out motorway in the final scene, it seems symbolic in the extreme. The crash barrier is broken. It is not only Manon that is dying, ruined and corrupted and learning her lessons too late; it is, quite possibly, western society as a whole.

Try seeing the production with open eyes. If you don't like it, close them and listen to the performance. But this Manon Lescaut succeeds because its director understands the story is too close for comfort.



Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.