Thursday 2 April 2015

ROH: Reduced Opera House!

Most of the time when I go to the opera, it isn't just me: there's a group of us (including Mrs Specs) and I tend to organise the bookings in line with how many of us can or want to see the various productions. As a result, to accommodate the sundry needs (and availability) of my people, I sometimes find my Royal Opera House visits, in particular, fall at slightly odd intervals or 'bunch' together.

This is how, at any rate, I came to see three operas in quick succession at the ROH, considerably faster than I could hope to write about them. So, this is more like a diary entry - a quick summing-up, if you will - of how I found this particular vocal trio.

The most well-known of the three was the current production of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly', with Kristine Opolais in the title role. I'd seen this before, years ago, in the Royal Albert Hall in-the-round production - and I don't think my mind was quite opera-ready because I didn't remember much about the music, more the staging. (Indoor water garden!) The opera is so famous that I think most people know the story - a dashing US sailor on his travels, Pinkerton, marries the young Japanese geisha, Butterfly. From the outset, the union is merely a pleasurable distraction for him, while she is devoted - to the point of renouncing her Buddhist faith for Christianity. But as Act 2 opens, we find that he soon left again on his ship and Butterfly has been waiting for his return for some three years. When he does come back, hoping to avoid Butterfly altogether (understandable, given that he now has an American wife, called Kate) - the consul Sharpless forces him to face up to his responsibilities, which now include his and Butterfly's small son. For the sake of the child, the Americans decide that Butterfly should allow Pinkerton and Kate to bring up the boy. However, he still cannot face her; instead Butterfly - convinced until almost the bitter end that Pinkerton will come back to her - commits suicide. The libretto has Pinkerton find her, dying - this production has Butterfly send the boy out to meet his dad (who calls for Butterfly off-stage), while she kills herself alone, inside the house - emphasising her utter isolation as everything, piece by piece, is taken away from her.

Two aspects really struck me: first, what a sparse drama it is. Nothing happens. I don't mean this as a negative thing: it's like the opera really is an animated Japanese woodcut tableau - we never leave Butterfly's house, and all the plot is more or less done by the end of Act 1: we know Pinkerton's a cad, we know he's not coming back, and we know about the ceremonial dagger with which Butterfly's father was forced to commit hara-kiri. In short - we know where this is going. Which brings me to the second point: the opera is so dependent on its character study element - the delusion and disintegration of Butterfly - that the soprano's performance is crucial, and that's where Kristine Opolais lifted the evening into the stratosphere. I think the word I tweeted excitedly on the evening was 'searing'. Although it's clearly a heart-rending tragedy, MB's place in the pantheon could fool you into thinking that it's a bit of a 'safe', familiar night out. Well, not with an interpretation like this in it.

(Photo: Bill Cooper, from the ROH website.)

Opolais sang not just beautifully but cleverly - initially with a slightly clipped, meek tone to match the Japanese elements in the score - and (being a very good physical actress) stooped slightly and shuffled in deference to her American lover. However - even though the blade is eventually turned in on herself - the character undergoes transformation into something akin to an avenging angel, starting with a steely resolve first against her religious zealot uncle, then against a series of suitors, until finally - even as she sings defeat - she ends her life with a kind of defiant, gothic dignity. It's easy to see why Butterfly is regarded as one of KO's signature roles: the less actual 'story' there was to worry about, the more we could focus on the performance, and it was brilliant.

The opera itself is of course Tragedy with a capital 'T', and as such, the outcome is so clearly signposted and irony so thickly applied that it made me pine slightly for the deft and, I feel, more sophisticated storytelling of, say, 'The Girl of the Golden West' - where, if you didn't know the piece, there really is an in-built suspense element and a feeling that events could go in any direction.

Which allows me to clumsily - yet endearingly, I hope - link to what I think must be the most unpredictable night I've spent in an opera house so far: 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny' by Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht. A satire on, well, er, just how terrible everything and everyone is, the plot charts the potted history of Mahagonny, a city established by a trio of criminals on the run (Begbick and her sidekicks Fatty and Moses). At first, it succeeds as a 'paradise' for citizens from elsewhere to come and let their hair down, but it soon faces a double whammy of disaster: economic ruin and an approaching hurricane. Jimmy - one of a group of tourists - is already having something resembling a breakdown (as well as wrestling with his feelings for one of Mahagonny's prostitutes, Jenny) and proclaims that if destruction really is approaching, there should be no rules and people should run wild - "everything is permitted".

This philosophy really takes off, especially when the hurricane miraculously swerves around the city. The surreal second act goes through a catalogue of indulgences that end badly: eating (Jim's friend Jacob binges himself to death), loving (Jenny falls back in with the other prostitutes to satisfy a crowd of men), fighting (a further tourist pal of Jim's, Joe, is killed outright in a boxing match with Moses) and finally drinking. Jim - who lost all his money in a loyal bet on Joe in the fight - 'buys' drinks for everyone but cannot pay. He is sentenced to death. In the final act, Jimmy goes to his execution, after seemingly finding religion - which the crowd then reject. The chaos city-wide has finally led to Mahagonny's destruction, and the opera ends with the cast declaring there is no hope for anyone.

(Photo: Clive Barda, from the ROH website.)

Although the opera has some famous songs ("Show me the way to the next whiskey-bar...") it's not a feast of melody, and I felt a bit like I'd been to a play or some performance art. Certainly, it was woozily chilling, suitably decadent-sounding and harsh when necessary. What made it work for me on the night was the conviction of the performances, especially the central trio of villains - a splendid Anne Marie Gibbons (standing in for an ailing Anne Sofie von Otter), another superb, casually callous characterisation from Peter Hoare as Fatty (I'm still haunted by his Creon from last year's 'Thebans' at ENO), and Willard White's usual imposing power as Moses. Christine Rice also made Jenny touching as well as sassy, but avoided the 'whore with a heart of gold' cliche by keeping the character understated and enigmatic. Unusually for the ROH, this was translated into English - which I believe would be most of the cast's native tongue - so the half-singing, half-speaking (in places) still packed a hefty, confident punch.

In a way, though, the real star of the show is the actual production. The ROH had thrown itself completely into Mahagonny mode, with acid witticisms displaying on the curtain before start time, and a cunning staging that started small (a revolving cabin that switched from truck to bar to office) but exploded into a city built from container crates, summing up in just its appearance not only the transience of Mahagonny but also its foundation on commodities and greed. Captions were constantly projected to show narration and a kind of automated, mechanical inevitability to proceedings (I'm sure this must have played a key part in the decision to perform the opera in English), with the coup-de-theatre the stage-sized radar equipment tracking the path of the hurricane. There was so much going on visually at times, that I felt it was a bit like an assault on the senses - which was exactly Mahagonny's aim. Although I wouldn't necessarily buy this opera on CD, then, I would be interested in a DVD of this production if it came out, to enjoy the visuals, and the committed portrayals giving them an anchor.

And with mention of an anchor, I stumble on another seamless link to opera number 3: Wagner's 'Die fliegender Hollander' ('The Flying Dutchman'). It was an interesting time to catch this one, new to me on the night, because I went a mere three days after seeing the tremendous ENO production of 'The Mastersingers of Nuremberg' - literally three hard acts to follow. I wasn't sure if I'd be 'Wagnered-up' or 'Wagnered-out'.

I needn't have worried. It's a fascinating, riveting work, based on the myth of the ghost ship that can never land and spells doom for those who see it. Wagner's version uses the variation that the 'Dutchman' is the captain of the vessel, who - after invoking the devil - is cursed to remain at sea forever. At seven-year intervals, he is allowed to land; if he can find a faithful wife while ashore, the curse will lift.

The Dutchman crashes against captain Daland's ship, which is sheltering from sea storms in a port not far from home. On hearing about Daland's unmarried daughter, Senta, the Dutchman offers a wealth of riches for her hand, and Daland readily agrees. Back home, we meet Senta, who is already somewhat obsessed with the Dutchman's legend and dreams of being the one to save him. When the hunter Erik - who is in love with Senta - brings news that Dad's on his way back with a strange visitor, she realises what's afoot immediately. The two meet, and she resolves to be the faithful woman the Dutchman needs.

Senta prepares to leave with the Dutchman, but is delayed by a reproachful Erik, who reminds her that he got there first. The Dutchman, taking this rather badly, announces his identity for the first time in the opera and, assuming the curse still remains, sets sail. Then, as the more familiar ending has it, Senta throws herself into the sea. Redeeming the Dutchman in joint death, the couple ascend to heaven.

But this is not Wagner's original ending - he added the 'Redemption' passage later. The ROH production was based on the composer's first intentions: the entire opera given in a single act with no interval (he identified subdivisions to allow it to be performed in three acts after the fact), and coming to a sharp halt at the point Senta is deserted by the Dutchman.

As a result, the opera swerves any kind of pat spirituality and becomes a very modern, searching psychodrama. Everything leading up to the climax has suggested that all this may, just possibly, be going on inside Senta's head, and the low-key ending is true to that. Senta fantasises about saving the Dutchman, and accordingly, the 'reality' of the story reflects her 'buy-in' to the legend: it's interesting, for example, that the ships clash seven miles from Daland's home (the interval of the Dutchman's exile is seven years) - or for that matter, there's the extraordinary coincidence that the Dutchman would run into Daland at all. Daland simply behaves as his daughter's ideal scenario would have him do: agree instantly to the marriage then fade into the background once the introduction is made. Erik's niggling presence - at one point, he's made to play Senta's desires back to her through his nightmare - punctures the fantasy bubble, causing the Dutchman to retreat for another seven years. Who knows how many times Senta has played out the action of the opera in her mind? Does she get a bit closer to her goal each time?

The ROH production is a dark, muted affair, but teases out some of these aspects further. I found the staging really inventive, with just one metal hulk representing the ships, and various areas exposed or illuminated to suggest the story's small number of other locations. The lighting seemed particularly inventive - one memorable effect had the light from the (off-stage) Dutchman's ship beam directly along its gangplank and freeze Senta in the glare. Ideas came thick and fast. The dead crew of the ghost ship are literally trapped under its hull. Senta and her girlfriends work in a sewing sweatshop (the original description has them simply spinning in company)... which makes her escapism all the more believable. Brilliantly, she possesses - and arguably fetishises - a model ship: in the libretto, the object of her attentions is a portrait of the Dutchman, essentially her pin-up. Using a ship works not just as a nod to the origin myth (where the Dutchman is the ship), but also symbolises how the whole world of the Dutchman is part of her imagination, totally within her control. The final image of the performance has Senta sinking to the ground in despair, clutching the boat to her body.

(Photo: Clive Barda, from the ROH website.)

And what a performance. I'd been excited about seeing Adrianne Pieczonka again for months, after she was such a memorable and affecting Chrysothemis in the most recent ROH 'Elektra'. In Senta, we have another vulnerable character who papers over the cracks with flashes of resolve and stubbornness, and AP combined a ravishingly gorgeous tone with the necessary steel to make the character both driven beyond reason and heartrendingly sympathetic - never more so than her central solo singing the ballad of the Dutchman to her friends. Bryn Terfel - still a vocal powerhouse despite being laid low by a cold up to a few days earlier - was fearsomely charismatic in the title role, choosing the sinister rather than romantic route. Absolutely the product of Senta's dark vision - wrapping his extraordinary voice around the part like a cloak.

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