Sunday, 27 September 2009

Christof Loy's Tristan for the Royal Opera

Does this look familiar (hat tip Opera News)? This is a scene from Christof Loy's Lulu for the Royal Opera from earlier this year played out in a minimal staging - next to no furniture and monochrome, contemporary vernacular costume.

To others (who, as I did, attended the public dress rehearsal) this will look very similar to the Royal Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde, also directed by Loy, which opens on Tuesday. I left rather more confounded than I had been by Lulu.

Where Lulu was set in a number of urban spaces, for which an undressed stage is as good a proxy as any, Tristan und Isolde is set on the sea (Act 1) and overlooking the sea (Act 3). "How black the sea is!" remarks the shepherd in Act 3 making explicit the connection between the noumenal night that has been referred to throughout the previous act - "immeasurable, unorganised, void" as Aschenbach has it in Death in Venice, Britten's Wagnerian love-and-the-sea opera.

Needless to say then that there is no sea/boat/sails etc. in Loy's production. This is fair enough in his aesthetic - there is no action in the water, which stands as a metaphor in the dialogue. The reason it becomes an issue though is that Loy does show a fair bit of corollary action further upstage in a 19th century-a-like ballroom behind the rake. This involves a men-only formal dinner, the close-parallel universe in which King Marke's court and its trappings are the moral and social rubric.

It's one thing to omit a vista or imply rather than show a scene. To have others occupy a space in order to focus the metaphorical emphasis of that scene (or its omission) is a further step - but to replace it with something else is really stretching the disbelief-suspension envelope for an audience. I think Loy has thought, reasonably, that Wagner's allusions to reality are generally metaphors anyway. Tristan is, after all, a philosophical discourse poetised for lyrical delivery. It's meant to be abstract at face value. The problem I have (this being the case) is that Loy is substituting this 'metaphorical' staging for some other one - and consequently the audience must work twice as hard, jumping from what the singers are talking about to what it means twice instead of just once. It's not more direct, it's actually more complicated.

Loy is a modernising reductionist, who "doesn't like superficial distractions" (more Lulu-quote), i.e. he wants to get at the drama at the core of the piece. Well, that's all fine and good, but in order to dramatise a work one has to dress it to a certain extent. Loy chooses a stark modern idiom which is fairly close to the unsullied palette to be found near the 'core' of any piece. Yet some dressing is necessary, some 'distraction' (read mediation) and Loy's decision in this production is at odds to what is in the text.

I liked one or two other directorial decision - slo-mo sequences in the background are an interesting response to the time-stretching solipsisms of the eponymous principals downstage. I also liked the violence of the red on black-on-white as the final massacre comes about in its frenetic final pocket of the third act. People have been referring to this as the 'Tarantino Tristan', in reference to Reservoir Dogs (and also as Reservoir Dogs is a film in which a significant pre-story is recounted but not shown).

Ultimately Tristan is a difficult opera to stage and it's down to the cast and orchestra to make its case. Pappano certainly knows how it 'goes' and one hopes that its intent comes alive during the run.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Le Grand Macabre at ENO

What is Le Grand Macabre? Well, it does pretty much what it says as semi-occultist, taboo-transgressing circus of grand theatrical gesture. English National Opera have imported quite a spectacle from the continent as a vehicle for this rarely performed end-of-world satire by Ligeti and it makes an impression.



The piece is a succession of absurd episodes, spilling from and orbiting the body of a woman frozen in time as she fears some sort of catastrophic corporeal malfunction. This, straightaway, is the first masterstroke of La Fura dels Baus' production concept, a meta-image of where the action is taking place: the woman, shown living - and possibly dying - in squalor is shown first on screen then replicated on a huge installation that serves as the set throughout the opera. They've called it Claudia. It's brilliant.

The absurdity and terror of this situation spawns characters. Two lovers, all exposed sinew like the plastinated bodies of Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits appear and attempt to copulate (it has the same repellant fascination and humour as the famous Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse Of Horror V in which the family's bodies are inverted for the final chorus). The Grand Macabre himself pops out of Claudia's mouth and arms himself for the evening's work - to bring the world (i.e. this fleshy microcosm of the world, but the metaphor is already breaking down to excorporate everything) to an end. More worldly recognisable characters are also involved - the drink-sodden Piet the Pot and his friend Astrodamors, suffering psychologically what Claudia wrestles with physically under his domineering nymphomaniac wife Mescalina.

Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne are nicely cast as the contradictory lovers, ardent, lyrical and, physically, utterly repellant. Both Piet and Astrodamors, as the human figures on stage have the most wretched, unforgiving vocal tasks. Alas, Astrodamors is a step to far for the usually magnificent Frode Olsen. Pavlo Hunka's ashen Mussolini of a Nekrotzar is domineering enough but rather prosaic in a role which probably needs more vocal thunder.

One has the feeling that La Fura dels Baus director Alex Ollé knows pretty much what he's doing. He never wrestles with the piece, which is invariably punchy and manic and certainly never explains itself. Rather the written jokes are nicely delivered and there's plenty of interpolated humour besides. Indeed the grotesque end-of-days vision is rendered, if not palatable, then manageable by the relentless farce both in the libretto and on the stage. It must be said that Ligeti's rigour in serving de Ghelderode's original fin-de-sieclé, Breughel-Boschian concept is the main advocate of the score. One can discern the formal units in the music (if not always the programme-trumpeted stylistic parody) and Ollé has also chased the dramatic purpose in the twists and turns of the staging rather than responding to the music.

The second half of the production ups the ante once again. The versatile set of Claudia, fascinatingly manipulated with projection and separable body parts in the first half, is completely thrown open. The head, thrust out in terror rotates through 360 degrees as in The Exorcist and the potty-mouthed Black and White ministers that squeeze from the huge anus, pull the backside apart to reveal the intestine as a none-too-covert war zone. This third act is the most assured comic passage in the piece with, Dan Norman and Simon Butterkiss' Ministers owning their well-honed shtick with Andrew Watts' gold-suite Prince Go-Go. Inamongst all this is cast the vocally rock-like performance of Suzanna Andersson, a stutter-gun of crazy coloratura and the cabaletta to the cavatina delivered as the Japanese pop-pink porn-kitten of Chewbacca's dreams back in the first half (yes, it's that mad). The riot reaches a climax in a disco sequence that gets the best reception of the evening in incorporating an apposite homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It is most certainly the night of the living dead.

Unfortunately and rather lilke the toxic shock and hangover that the whole opera might be arguaed to represent, the fourth act is an over-distended denoument. Nekrotzar, inebriated, fails to bring apocalypse and the cast realise they are not doomed. In fact this may be the saddest span of the opera, recognising that the party of abandon is as absurd as the possibility of annihilation. Life either continues, monotonously, or it ends. Though it's formally fairly satisfying I couldn't quite process the Don Giovanni-like epilogue ensemble number which seemed a bit neat.

Clearly this production is a sensory and intellectual torrent, an experience that not deconstruction and discussion can really contain the measure of. Baldur Brönnimann's stewardship of the commendable house orchestra seemed unimpeachable. There were no weak links from chorus to dancer-actors to technicians. The opera certainly throws fresh light on my experience in watching a half-comparable piece, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, back in August. Birtwistle's work is a more totemic, more po-faced sequence of episodes but I enjoyed Ligeti's work more for more than just its humour. The music does have pockets of self-interested lyricism like ribbons stretched between the barbs of satire. It wasn't enough to make me feel comfortable using the word 'beauty' in respect of this piece but it did leaven the experience, investing it with humanity and much-needed respite from its invariable brutality.