I was struck by how two of the operas I've seen most recently both set out to disturb or frighten me. One of these - especially if you're a fellow UK dweller - you may well have heard about already: a confrontational, violent scene in the Royal Opera's latest production of 'Guillaume Tell' (that is, Rossini's 'William Tell' - yes, the chap who shoots the arrow, yes, that overture).
For anyone who missed the brouhaha, this latest version (directed by Damiano Michieletto) stages the Tell-tale of the downtrodden Swiss rising up against their Austrian oppressors to a modern Balkans-like conflict. Rossini's final work, a grand parting gesture, the opera is a lengthy, serious business. I imagine anyone turning up to any production because they like the 'rum-diddly-um' of the overture - and don't get me wrong, that's as good a reason as any to give it a whirl - might be taken aback at the darkness of the subject matter.
The scene that caused such controversy dramatised a group of Austrian officers menacing, taunting - and ultimately stripping and preparing to gang-rape a captive Swiss woman until Tell intervenes to save her. It's an unashamedly uncomfortable sequence: throughout the evening the production seems consistently aware of the tension generated between Rossini's irrepressibly stirring music and the downbeat action - and this particular scene unfolds over the five or so agonising minutes of the 'ballet' sequence.
But to give some context: I have my doubts that the scene was, as some detractors called it, 'gratuitous'. ("Heads should roll" opined one commentator on Twitter, showing a clear distaste for unnecessary violence.) Early on in the action - and this is in the libretto - Tell helps a fellow countryman, on the run after killing an Austrian officer for raping his daughter. The murder of Melchtal, brought onstage at the end of the first Act, signals clearly enough that this is going to be a descent into hell. Soldiers are seen teaching little kids how to use automatic weapons. So, when the officers (as the libretto has it) 'force the women to dance' with them, it's not hard to see what lies beneath that euphemism.
But what lifted the shock value into the stratosphere was the audience reaction: on opening night, the scene was boo-ed immediately - in other words, mid-performance, while the music and singing were ongoing. Boo-ing at the opera is apparently still a vexed issue (although I'm fairly clear where I stand), but what possibly prompted a Royal Opera House audience to erupt like this? Even since I've been going regularly, punters have been quite happy to watch Wozzeck cut poor Marie's throat onstage then drown himself in a blood-filled tank; see healthy lashings of gore splatter the house of Atreus in 'Elektra', and let a decadent orgy play itself out in the current production of 'Rigoletto'.
Whatever your reaction to the scene might've been (the night I went, there were a few cowardly boos, quickly silenced by some applause), I don't think there can be any question of suddenly deciding opera cannot shock or challenge; nor should we censor the work. Instead, I would argue for classification along the same lines as film. It seems to me that audiences are content to see most things, as long as they see them coming. (They'll watch something shocking, as long as it doesn't come as a shock..!)
Here, the ROH made a mistake - they warned along the lines of 'adult theme'/'nudity', when as cinema-goers will know, if rape is involved, you need to at least flag 'sexual violence', which is how the ROH (rightly exemplifying the 'apologise, then move on' approach) now have it. It's not just a case of keeping such things away from the little ones; in these (hopefully) psychologically enlightened times, there are good reasons to warn everyone. Accordingly, the cinema relay of 'Tell' carried an appropriate certificate and seemed to generate more or less zero hostility.
As powerful and important as that scene was, it was a shame that the overwhelming focus on it drew the attention away from other superb aspects of the production. The score is exciting, moving and by the end transcendent, and as the orchestra soared, so did the chorus, on majestic form. Gerald Finley, always so convincing when marrying his warm baritone to appealing, endearing characters, sang beautifully in a kind of 'reluctant superhero' mode - succumbing to despair, then finding the extra energy and strength of will needed to stir up his compatriots. (Not to mention his casual bullseye when father gives son an onstage archery lesson.)
A further interesting conceit was the blurring of timelines. As if there was a break in the continuum, the Tells - and Guillaume in particular - are shadowed by a silent Tell figure from the actual period, who enables their modern-day feats to succeed. The fact that this works make it easier for the director to make a point about weaponry and the technology of warfare - having his cake and eating it, he shows us the Swiss children losing interest in their toy swords once the 'friendly' soldiers show them guns, then Tell performing the famous apple trick with a relatively old-fashioned crossbow.
Rewind a month or so, and down the road at the Coliseum, English National Opera were staging Tchaikovsy's 'The Queen of Spades' (or 'Pique Dame'). A gripping chiller based on a Pushkin short story, it's not the most obscure opera in the world... but I think it's under the radar just enough to make me shy away from giving the full story. (This has happened a few times now. I've turned up to an opera - not necessarily brand new, but unfamiliar to me - without going anywhere near a synopsis beforehand. Not knowing exactly what will happen - as if going to see a film, say - is actually quite unusual, since most serial opera-goers, even after only a few years, are much of the time seeing new or revived productions of 'repertoire'. Boheme or Traviata can rip your heart in two, but it's a different experience from encountering genuine suspense.)
Suffice to say, then, that the story concerns an enigmatic officer, Herman, who hangs out with a clique of gambling mates but never plays himself. He blames his distraction on being in love with Liza, the grand-daughter of a Countess. She is out of reach, already engaged to a Prince. Through the friends' conversation, we learn about the Countess's past - as a young woman, she used her ample charms to secure a secret gambling formula and conquer the card tables, earning her the 'Queen of Spades' nickname. The story then acquires its supernatural sheen as we hear about a curse of sorts - the Countess only ever shared the formula with her husband and lover, before a ghost warned her against a third man who would come after her for the secret. Herman's fragile state of mind starts to crumble as his determination to get the formula through Liza unbalances his feelings for her - indeed, were they ever there in the first place? - and his growing obsession only leads to further disaster. There is a killer twist at the end - not exactly 'unguessable', but more like a sudden realisation that you know a certain event will happen, accompanied by the pleasurable agony of waiting for it to arrive.
I had a fantastic time. I felt the chorus, as ever at ENO, were unstoppably powerful, and the partnership between orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner yet again produced this warm, all-enveloping sound that, for all the brilliance and beauty of the score, could equally turn menacing and oppressive as the action intensified. (It's a shame to see Gardner leave his post as ENO music director, but he's still coming back to conduct - next for a 2016 'Tristan and Isolde'.) It was thrilling to hear the venerable Felicity Palmer sing the Countess with such stately power. And I want to reserve special praise for one of my favourite tenors, Peter Hoare, who took the role of Herman. Back when I first heard him as Creon in 'Thebans', it seemed to me that PH possessed a particularly 'dark' tenor voice - not that of a noble hero but scheming villain. Instead of a 'wide', alluring tone, he aims his notes like lasers (a kind of narrow style, a bit like I've heard Ian Bostridge deploy in recital). In supporting roles at the ROH, he's often been a slightly dodgy, or obsequious character (giving great value in 'Mahagonny' and 'Falstaff' in particular) but at ENO he's been able to stretch out into these masterful anti-hero portrayals. I never tire of seeing and hearing him.
The production seemed to divide opinion, with some people finding it seedy and/or senseless. Certainly, some of the Persistently Offended made their thoughts known on Twitter. It's also worth pointing out that a female character is menaced by a military gang and one character cuts their own throat onstage - but there was certainly no outcry in the house, or calls for operatic scalps in the press. Why not?
Well - I felt the production worked for a number of reasons. Opera is of course innately 'unrealistic' but the plot of 'Queen of Spades' itself is surreal - and accordingly, the staging gave us a slightly sickly yellow-dominated backdrop, punctuated by a clock face, or gaps and windows.... and at one point, a key character is projected, becoming literally larger than life. In other words, it seemed deliberately cinematic. One violent scene was framed in a window as if we were viewing it on a screen, bringing to mind that film trope of distancing viewers from what they see while implicating them at the same time. We see a classic dream sequence. The lift doors and protractor-shaped floor indicator that call to mind 'The Shining' (and its famous yellow poster). Even the woozy colour scheme, somehow suggesting Herman's mental fever and decay, felt like a nod to Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' with its garish hues underlining James Stewart's sick compulsion.
(Peter Hoare and Felicity Palmer. Photograph from ENO website, copyright Donald Cooper.)
And people aren't nearly so hung up about sex and violence in the cinema. It almost feels like the more 'Queen of Spades' felt like a movie, the further it could go.
Also worth considering is the apparent distinction that ENO is seen as the home of experimentation and extremity, while the ROH is keeper of tradition. I don't quite feel this way myself - it sort of relies on you only counting ROH main stage productions when plenty of challenging work is staged in its studio theatre, the Linbury. And among its major modern productions, the ROH can boast the transcendent 'Written on Skin', extraordinarily frank 'Anna Nicole' and the tech-driven update of 'Mahagonny'. (And ENO has its 'Mikados', too.) But the 'character' of each institution seems to stick, and it's possible that a higher proportion of the ENO audience are more sanguine about on-stage trauma than their ROH counterparts.
One feeling I'd like to shake - but just can't - is that we are going though a period when it is somehow cool to knock the ROH. ENO has been through a really traumatic time and is still in the throes of huge changes - in that light, they are doing absolutely amazing work, and even as a major house, they've acquired a kind of 'plucky underdog' status, worthy of as much support that we can all give them.
In comparison, there seems to be an unsavoury undercurrent of taking the ROH - and in particular, opera director Kasper Holten - down a peg or two for not suffering the same setbacks. Only today, I read a piece specifically singling out Holten's and music director Antonio Pappano's salaries for attention. It's not my place to say whether the figures are too high or not, but the writer homed in on Holten for not yet justifying his pay with his productions so far ... making, to my mind, the fatal mistake of assuming that money - which is tangible, fixed, pre-arranged - can somehow be linked to artistic endeavour - which is elusive, unquantifiable and subjective. Personally, I really like Holten's work - I've found his productions arresting and innovative - but his 'worth' to the business will surely be measured eventually in terms of raising the ROH's profile and getting bums on seats: numbers based on numbers. Instead, this journalist allowed his own opinion of Holten's talent to weaken his piece. In the end - he's just knocking the guy. Boo-ing, but in print format.
If we're not careful, we'll lose sight of what I imagine is slightly buried in my post by now: that both of London's most prominent opera houses are equally capable of producing challenging, confrontational work on a bedrock of superb performances. It's time we replaced the boos with cheers.