Facing the Music

Clive Barda

Clive Barda

Sometimes you see and hear a production of an opera that makes you rethink the story of the piece; less frequently, you hear the music differently. This last happened to me twice last week, on successive nights. The first was Garsington Opera at Wormsley’s ’s superb The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Daniel Slater and designed gorgeously by Robert Innes Hopkins.
What stuck me forcefully was how much I love Leoš Janáček’s score, here conducted passionately by Garry Walker. Slater treats the musical interludes as proper ballets, with the vixen and the forester doubled by dancers. This was obvious, and didn’t involve thinking too hard or making inferences about what was happening, so had the effect of allowing me to listen with more concentration than usual to the ravishing modal score, with its seventh and ninth chords. I think I have instinctively responded to Janáček since, as an impressionable undergraduate, I first heard his Glagolitic Mass used as the subversive score for a Kenneth Anger film; but this hearing of the Vixen moved me to a state between rapture and tears.
The staging was immaculately suited to Mr Walker’s reading of the score. The casting was perfection. Claire Booth’s Vixen Bystrouška was almost beyond praise, for the beauty and dramatic quality of her voice, her lithe, sexy acting and her ability to hold the stage. Like her, the rest of the large cast , easily conveyed Mr. Slater’s red-in-tooth-and-psyche conception of the work. The melding of the human story with the animals’ means he’s not insistent about the allegory, but the production pulses with unsatisfied sexual tension, and captures the pangs and pain of loneliness. The animals are hilarious, oversexed (the Cock, the Dog and the Fox each displaying his comically over-sized phallus – inherently funny as all three are trouser roles) but never cute. The designer costumes the animals in appropriate human clothes, with some aberrant features marking their animalism. The hens, for example, are in dowdy, loose fitting brown suits and patterned red blouses, beige raincoats and head-scarves, all knitting something red and woolly as they lay their eggs, and are marked as birds by their beaky noses and wattle-like, inflated red rubber glove attached to the top of their heads.
Of course what makes them hen-like is not their costume, but the way they move – and this is both so realistic and so absurd that the choreographer, Maxine Braham, deserves top billing in this memorable production, for coaching them, and for the spot-on movement of everyone who stakes the stage.
In Janáček’s libretto a sexy woman, Terynka, is referred to several times as the lust- object of the forester and the schoolmaster, but never actually appears. In this production she’s made flesh, and opens the piece, drinking a glass of red wine in the inn and sending smouldering vibes in the direction of the forester, who, we can’t help but guess, had an affair with her at some time before or during his now tired marriage. When she paints her nails red and puts on her fox-collar coat, we understand – and sympathise with – the poor guy’s strange attraction to the vixen.
Garsington Opera rarely revives its productions – this year’s Fidelio is an exception. It will be a pity if this Vixen is not bought by another company, or at least revived at Wormsley, and it’s a crying shame that it is not being recorded as a DVD. By the way, anyone who thinks this piece should be sung in English translation needs his head examined and his ears syringed: the surtitle translations do a wonderful job of capturing the pathos as well as the jokes – but of course making the witticisms clear needs many more syllables than a sung translation can allow.
My second musical revelation was Glyndebourne’s first-ever production of the 18-year-old Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, which he wrote in 1775. This was far from a case of falling in love again (I’ve heard and seen the opera before – at Garsington, indeed.) Instead, I’m afraid, hearing it again only revealed why it is so seldom staged. If you didn’t know the earlier date of this piece, you’d think it was derivative, drawing especially – but in an inferior way – upon Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. Of course the opposite is the truth, and the music of La finta giardiniera prefigures the mature work. What we’ve heard are ideas, phrases and occasionally whole sections of the wonderful, much-loved arias Mozart developed later.
From its previous outing at Garsington, I knew that the plot was incoherent and the music lovely, but sketchy. I went to see the Glyndebourne production because of the young director, Frederic Wake-Walker, because I had admired his spare direction of a small, experimental 2012 piece for Glyndebourne, The Yellow Sofa, by Julian Philips. Though the cast for La finta giardiniera is of Glyndebourne’s usual international splendour, and though designer Antony McDonald’s crumbling Baroque sets are ingenious, the production is a dud. The young director has tried to cram every idea he’s ever had about the piece into this staging – and it’s overwhelmed. Sometimes the characters are puppets, sometimes fugitives from the commedia dell’arte, sometimes just aristocrats pretending to be gardener’s assistants (la finta giardiniera, the “pretend garden girl” of the title) and the like. Despite the dumb show performed during the overture, in which the hysterically twitchy, near-naked Count finally climbs out of the window, it takes a long time to realise that we’ve just witnessed him stabbing the Marchioness and, in any case, brings us no close to understanding the central unexplained and goofy mystery of the plot: Why did he stab her?
From 1976 La finta giardiniera was a staple of the marionette show for children at Salzburg. Sometime in the 90s I remember leaving at the interval, in complete confusion. The children in the audience didn’t seem to mind that nothing made much sense. There’s a lesson in this for anyone silly enough to want to do a new production of the piece.

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