Opera and Fat Lady Fashions

cbc20140512_der_rosenkavalier_glyndebourne_13_0photograph by Bill Cooper

Opera has caught the eye (rather than the ear) of the British people recently – and of the New York Times and Time Magazine – because several male colleagues of mine have been damned for their negative comments on the appearance of the mezzo singing the title role in Glyndebourne’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Some of them have found Tara Erraught’s body-type not to their liking – though I don’t know of any critic who has not praised her singing. There were charges of “sexism,” and it is true that nobody complained much about Pavarotti’s shape. (But I was present at one performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when, in the middle of a love duet, he left the soprano singing to an empty stage while he walked off and visibly drank a glass of water in the wings.)

Shades of the fat lady, whose singing ends the opera – but the sexism charge is all a  bit of tabloid hysteria. This is obviously a controversy of some importance, though, as it highlights the fact that opera is lyric theatre. Good acting, though perhaps not of paramount significance in opera, is at least the second or third criterion of excellence, following singing, musicality and good diction – and the appearance of the performer is therefore as subject to critical examination and comment as the other matters.

It was refreshing to have the debate aired in the national press, radio and TV, though this particular case is a simple one. The Irish-born mezzo was described as “dumpy” and “chubby,” and, as both these mildly disparaging adjectives hint to the careful reader, the problem is nothing that couldn’t be fixed by careful costume design. So the villain here is costume designer Nicky Gillibrand – or possibly the director Richard Jones briefed his designer to play up the difference between the silhouettes of Ms Erraught’s Octavian/Mariandel and that of his slim, willowy Marschallin, Kate Royal?

After the almost perfect orgasmic whoops of the horns in the overture, conductor Robin Ticiatti’s ensemble became a little worrying at the second performance, which I heard. But the band was soon playing gorgeously, and from the same place in the music; and you could concentrate on Paul Steinberg’s set and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting effects for the opening scene, in which the nude Marschallin is showered with gold. (Nobody else seems to have remarked on the evocation of Titian’s Danaë, though I found the parallel striking.)

Indeed, Octavian’s tail-coat and Mariandel’s dirndl (or whatever it was) were not flattering to the plumper figure, and perhaps Mr Jones, whose evident take on the opera is that the whole thing is a deception, and that the Marschallin will soon find another toy boy – probably her pretty black page, Mohammed – prescribed the discrepancy between the two in order to emphasise the flummery. (I have a lot of time for Mr Jones. When I am made Dictator of Opera, I shall revive his Ring Cycle at Covent Garden – it remains the best, clearest production I’ve seen, despite its lack of popularity with my colleagues.)

Apart from the lapse of empathy in the design of Ms Erraught’s costumes, this production is a visual treat – though Mr Jones’s predilection for gaudy wallpaper tests one’s mettle, if not taste. My only real problem was when the giant fleur-de-lis motif of the wallpaper was repeated in the comically outsized sofa, but with the lily lying crazily on its side.

Despite what might have been Mr Jones’s intention to – if not trivialise, then downplay the Marschallin’s emotional attachment to Octavian and her sacrifice in renouncing him and freeing him to love Sophie, Kate Royal’s performance at the end of Act 1 is the first that has ever made me weep. Her timbre exactly captures the wistfulness and her acting conveys the ruefulness of her feelings for the boy-lover she’s about to set free.

The casting of this production is near faultless. Teodora Gheorghiu is transformed from gawky convent schoolgirl to faithful lover, and her voice blends gorgeously in the final trio. Even the usually odious Baron Ochs is made younger and more plausible by Lars Woldt, and he can deliver his low notes with unusual security.

The production is a fine memorial to the memory of the recently deceased George Christie, to whom it is dedicated, and a very good reason to make the tedious journey to Glyndebourne. We were spared eating a picnic in the predictably English cold and wet weather of a night in late May by dining in one of the Glyndebourne restaurants, Middle Wallop, where the new chef’s crab salad and salmon tartare starters vied for our attention. If only there was a high-speed train connection from Lewes to London Victoria.

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  1. MWnyc says

    Not true that nobody complained much about Pavarotti’s shape. He got plenty of tut-tutting and even some mockery for it, especially for the last 15 years or so of his career.

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