Dido and the Swan


Katie Mitchell's latest film and theatre piece is called After Dido. As the title was meant to signal its being inspired by Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, it should probably have been baptised "Long After Dido."  (Part of) what the audience heard at the Young Vic (where this collaboration with the English National Opera was staged) was a live performance of the Purcell Opera, with Susan Bickley doubling convincingly as Dido and the Sorceress. What we saw on the large cinema screen, however, were three tales of loss, lightly linked to Virgil's tale.


Helen, in the bedsit, has dinner, washes up, and swallows a lethal dose of pills (we even learn the name of them). Anna, in the kitchen and in the garden, mourns her dead husband, examines his watch and glasses, and buries them in the garden. Henry and Nell, in the study, break up. Of course in Virgil and Purcell, these happen in a different order -  Dido mourns her husband, Aeneas leaves her to found Rome, then Dido kills herself.
The locations are important, because the stage behind and under the cinema screen is actually the studio where the "film" is being made - and the inverted commas are there to signify that what we are watching is not actually a film, but a live performance, more like a live TV transmission, but with the montage, close-ups and special effects all being created in front of our eyes, and in real time. This is what Katie Mitchell has done in her versions of The Waves and The Idiot at the national Theatre, and what seems to be her current preoccupation. Most of the singers and actors here double as tecchies, setting lights, doing camera and sound work. 
When, for example, a scene is needed of something happening on a patch of grass, we get a cut from the woman wearing a patterned sweater, to a much-magnified close-up of someone wearing only the sleeves of the sweater (why bother with this detail, I wondered? Why have a special costume made for the tecchie? Why not simply wear a duplicate sweater?) messing about in a metre-square box of grass. And we see the cameraman, the lighting person, and the actor-tecchie with her hands in the grass-box. But what you see on the screen is an uninterrupted flashback to a scene involving grass.
All the opera critics that I read have complained that this distracted them from the music. As my eyes were glued to the big screen most of the time, so that I had to remind myself every once in a while to look to see what was actually happening on the stage, I wasn't much bothered by this. But, on reflection, I cannot see what was added to my experience by being able to see the mechanics of what I was watching. What, really, was the point of Susan Bickley taking her turn holding the lights? I concede that there is an additional pleasure in knowing that what you're watching  as well as hearing is actually being created in real time; but surely that point could be made by showing us the tecchies, then putting the screen in front of the stage, and whipping it away at or near the end, à la The Wizard of Oz?
My other opera of the week was the Royal Opera's many-eth revival of the 1977 Elijah Moshinsky's Lohengrin, in some ways (as the London critics also complained) about as conventional as opera productions get nowadays. But Moshinsky's lavish staging was done with real economy of means - a perfect penny-pinching affair for our straitened times. A lot of the special effects (like the swan) were achieved with projections - which must have looked whizzo in 1977, but just look weird thirty-two years later.
Moshinsky, rejecting the concept-directors' versions of the entire opera as a dream, the product of Elsa's too-fervid imagination,  the many psychologizing productions of it - and of course all the proto-Nazi German-call-to-arms stagings, decided to revert to the simplest explanation of all. Wagner seems to have dismissed this notion himself (but who's to say an artist can't be wrong about the meaning of what he's created?), but Moshinsky sees the story as a conflict between the old Norse gods of Ortrud, and Elsa's new Christian ones (don't forget the Trinity - she's got three on her side). The stage is filled with designer John Napier's crosses, totem poles, banners, flags and skull-studded platforms. It's a completely plausible reading: don't forget that Lohengrin is the opera in which Wagner first mentions Wotan and Freia (a really good opera quiz question - Met take note) - and Lohengrin's explanation for his behaviour is full of expressions such as "the Grail heard..." or "the Grail sent me..."
Musically, this revival is most notable and enjoyable for the conducting of Semyon Bychkov, whose respect for the score is as evident as his affection for it. From the opening hear-a-pin-drop bars of the Prelude to Act I, which seem to start chaotically, just resolving into order as they become more audible, to the thrilling blare of the trombones much further into it, Bychkov seems to have thought about every detail. OK, as the hero Johan Botha is hard to look at - he's getting on for spherical, with (as the soprano was alleged to have said, "no sideways"), and Napier's white robe/costume for Lohengrin makes it worse (if they couldn't dress him in a dark colour, they ought at least have contrived the lighting so as to show us his face and keep his vast body in shadow). But he does sound wonderful, a rich and ripe tenor voice, with only a little straining at the top, and seeming to have the breath-control needed to spin Wagner's long phrases. 
Of course his acting is limited by his girth, But Petra Lang's Ortrud makes up for everybody else, and, as always, she's divine to hear. Edith Haller's Elsa is... well, something elsa. It's an old-fashioned voice, of the sort you hear on older recordings, light-seeming, not particularly dramatic, not much spinto, but effortlessly floats over the orchestra. The bad news is that her intonation, on press night at least, was painful to hear. Without this flaw, it might have been a great performance. Falk Struckmann was indisposed, so we had the Friedrich who was to sing the later performances, Gerd Grochowski, making his RO debut a little early but with éclat.  Wagner really gives the chorus a workout in Lohengrin, and by god we got some terrific performances from their augmented number. One complaint only. In Act III the director and/or movement director has taken pains to block and group the chorus pleasingly, and move them about on stage to provide the eye with some variety. Couldn't they have done the same for the first two acts? Unbroken ranks of chorus members have a soporific effect on audiences, with knobs on for Wagner.
But the ROH is to be congratulated - this Lohengrin gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

April 29, 2009 3:41 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on April 29, 2009 3:41 PM.

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