Clarity without a concept

Recently I've detected something curious happening in the dramatic and lyric theatre, a tendency to clarity, to narrative simplicity and straightforwardness. In a way it's the opposite of the Konzept school that has so long dominated performances in Europe, with directors of East German origin pushing their weight around the stages of the West. What we're seeing is a drive to tell the story using only - or mostly - the words provided by the playwright or librettist, to make the tale clear and lucid. lulu[1].jpg

An example of this was the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami's ENO production of Cosí fan tutte, as more or less realised by Elaine Tyler-Hall, who had worked with him on the original staging in Aix, when visa problems meant he was unable to get to London for the rehearsals. As I said when discussing it in an earlier post, it is possible that this was responsible for the lack of a viewpoint when it came to the resolution of the plot. But it also meant an almost literal adherence to the libretto and stage directions, which resulted in a crystal-clear telling of the story of their mentor persuading two boys to make a wager that their girlfriends will be faithful to them, then disappearing to "go to war," while actually reappearing in disguise as "Albanians" and each wooing the other's girlfriend. The girls finally give in (= Cosí fan tutte, "all women are the same") the boys' bet is lost; all is revealed, and the shamed girls are reunited with their original lovers. Or not.
This striving for lucidity was also, I thought, a characteristic of the National Theatre's marvellous "All's Well that Ends Well," of Jude Law's "Hamlet," of the revival of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," of Sam Mendes's superb Bridge Project production of "The Winter's Tale" and "The Cherry Orchard" at the Old Vic, and of three operas I've recently seen.
Rossini's Cenerentola used to be a long way behind my favourite of his operas. But Garsington Opera's production by Daniel Slater changed my mind. The overall conceit was that the piece was an episode of "Britain's Got Talent" (or whatever the soul-destroying talent show is called in its American incarnation), and that the ugly sisters and Angelina (= Cenerentola) were auditioning, not so much for the prince's hand in marriage, as for a contract to become a celeb. Only lightly grafted onto the plot, very little was changed, as the conceit was achieved chiefly by changing the props and sets - Don Magnifico's run-down castle was a caravan, the chorus were paparazzi and so on. (I was a touch disappointed, though, as the caravan made me think we were about to see the first trailer-trash Cenerentola. Producers please note.)
Of course everyone who sees the opera already knows the Cinderella story that is its core, so it's not difficult to be lucid without being literal. Conductor David Parry got fantastic performances from his entirely young (except for Don Magnifico, of course) good-looking cast. In particular, singing the title role was a Turkish mezzo, Ezgi Kutlu, gorgeously modest-looking, a first-rate actress, and with a rare voice - a true mezzo, with a firm, warm, full-chest lower register and a darkly coloured upper register that is entirely beautiful to hear and dead accurate, even in the most intricate coloratura passages. She is a wonder, and I'll be surprised if we don't hear a lot more of her.
Also at Garsington this season is a terrific, concept-free "Fidelio." I at first thought it was over-ambitious to attempt this at such a small venue; but I was wrong, as the exquisite  pp attacks in the Act I quartet showed.  Designer Gary McCann has turned the small loggia of the Elizabethan Manor House into a delightfully grim prison. John Cox directs another good cast in a perfectly straightforward reading that allows conductor Douglas Boyd to get his band and the singers to make the most of the ravishing music. I'd never before thought of Beethoven's only opera as a chamber piece; but it worked. The soloists were mostly young and, except for Peter Wedd (as Florestan) near the beginnings of their careers. However, we had a superstar Don Pizarro, Sergei Leiferkus. Perhaps now as an Oxfordshire resident he was showing solidarity - in any case he stole the show, in the nicest possible way, of course. My guest was an opera virgin, and she told me that she felt this production was a perfect introduction to opera, not just because you couldn't fail to be seduced by the music, but because it was all so perfectly and completely intelligible.
 Lulu at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, shows by contrast that the new anti-concept trend can accommodate minimalism, though the two are not identical. Berg's opera is a problem for any director. The three-act version is particularly difficult to stage, as in most of the productions I've seen, the dingy interiors of the London brothel in Act III contrast so violently with the posh interiors of Act II that credibility is not just strained, but snapped. Christof Loy directed what I think is one of the milestone productions at Covent Garden, a lush, complicated, bells-and-whistles Ariadne auf Naxos. But here he seems to have decided that as Lulu is so difficult to stage, he won't even try. What he gives us is a semi-staged concert performance. Herbert Murauer has done away with sets, so that nothing appears on the stage but some barriers at the back, looking like Minimalist sculptures, early Richard Serra, perhaps, and no costumes (though Eva-Mareike Uhlig is credited as "Costume Co-Designer"), in that the cast appear to be wearing their own black or grey Armani outfits. The singers emote like crazy, but in a vacuum.
The bad news is that this approach means that, except for Lulu herself, you can scarcely tell the characters apart, and you never know where you are, or that the location has changed. The good news is that the cast is excellent, especially Agneta Eichenholz in the title role, and Michael Volle, whom we rapidly work out is Dr Schön (and therefore also Jack the Ripper). And that, having nothing much to look at, we hear the score as never before -  Antonio Pappano's impassioned but analytic conducting brings out the luxuriant, late Romantic aspect of Berg's music: total magic.

June 15, 2009 3:40 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on June 15, 2009 3:40 PM.

Is it still the same old story? was the previous entry in this blog.

Summertime, and the Opera's easy is the next entry in this blog.

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