Thursday, 6 October 2016

Lyric Theatre, 2016: Threepenny Opera, Don Giovanni

Last week I saw the National Theatre's Threepenny Opera. Then, a couple of nights ago, I caught the second night of ENO's new Don Giovanni. The two shows are good and, moreover, offer an up-to-date cross section of what's going on in sung theatre in London right now.

There's a flattening out of the artform at work. The singing of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera was largely very good, albeit amplified. The stage work of the cast of Mozart's Don Giovanni was meticulous and succeeded in changing the weave of the fabric of stories that flesh out the eponymous Rake's fall. The band for the Weill played on stage. The off-stage band for the Mozart played on stage (in boxes).

Above all in both pieces there was a sobriety and urgency that seemed designed to maintain the direction, focus and temperature of the drama. Though a little far apart in subject matter, both are moral fables. Don Giovanni focuses on the sexual flamboyance and moral comeuppance of the aristocratic title character. The Threepenny Opera reverses the point of view: those of the cast who are not stereotypically immoral are quickly shown to be cut from the same illicit cloth ; everyone barely keeps their nose above the sewer water until a happy denouement in which all are pardoned by decree of a King under threat of exposure for his own ill judgement.

We're at the start of a peculiar and, frankly, shady period in social and political history. This is what I got from these highly polished, thoughtful but above all urgent productions. The humour of both was weighed down with the serious faces and the notable extremes of movement.

Rory Kinnear's Macheath was a masterclass in projecting menace by standing very still in direct and constant juxtaposition of the company's crisp movement throughout the whole of the Olivier's stripped-back stage. Christopher Purves' is not as static as Kinnear's Macheath but he still moves at a measured pace (and sings consistently in a carefully considered, almost interior, smooth mezza voce) whilst all around the rest of the cast move restlessly, an ensemble of insecurity. The only other comparable, oleaginous character, the Commendatore, dies in the first phase of action.

I have long found the tight stage work of the 'straight' theatre and Music Theatre (captials, sic) to be an admirable characteristic. The intent of the Threepenny Opera's staging works hand in glove with this. Though I found that the pace of the Coliseum production hurried the music more than I'm used to (I took part in a rather more traditional production of Don Giovanni in this respect earlier in the year), the drama was utterly thrilling. The pit was working in close tandem with the staging. I was completely dazed by the sheer torque of the drama by the end of the first half.

Clearly the demands of credible, convincing theatre has reached the rehearsal stage of major opera companies. The final issue will be clearing up the demands of crisp, English-language text delivery with the acoustic singing that is the hallmark of opera. At a technical level these are both fascinating and rather exceptional shows. Dramatically, today, they are discomfiting too.

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