Showing posts with label Stuart Skelton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stuart Skelton. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reflections on the Bieito 'Fidelio'

A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio at ENO.


This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range: Andrew Clements in The Guardian and Tully Potter in the Mail. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)

Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from Batman. He is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).

The other day I stood in front of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament: the document in which he wrote to his brothers of the agonising recognition that he, a musician, was losing his hearing; and declares that he had come close to suicide, but did not want to leave the world before he had accomplished all he felt he had come here to do. (Full text here.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.

As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (More here...)

This is not in the original Fidelio. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a Fidelio that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.

The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.

So why the vitriol? A case of chacun a son gout, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from Jose Luis Borges, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?

Here are a few Borges poems, translated. And here are some more, in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.

A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.

Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...

Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced in principle at hearing an opera in English that is not originally in English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of La Boheme and The Magic Flute, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.

We don't have that issue with Peter Grimes (come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.

A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito Fidelio: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?

It remains only to wonder how on earth Stuart Skelton is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.

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.