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Can the notion of ‘complete art work’ save English National Opera, and opera itself?

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Can the notion of ‘complete art work’ save English National Opera, and opera itself?

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Heidi Melton as Isolde in the new production of Wagner’s classic Catherine Ashmore

Next week English National Opera opens a new production of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner’s gigantic, groundbreaking hymn to love and Schopenhauerian philosophy. With designs by the artist Anish Kapoor, ENO’s former music director Edward Gardner conducting, direction by Daniel Kramer – the company’s artistic director-elect – and a starry cast featuring the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, it promises much. ENO, strapped for cash and mired in controversy, badly needs a smash hit, other than Sunset Boulevard; hopes ride high that this could be it.

Kramer has described the production as “a very poetical, mythical, simple world that Anish Kapoor and I have created to let the music and the singers just become gods”. This feels unusually close to Wagner’s own ideal. In 1849, the composer wrote a series of essays entitled The Artwork of the Future, expounding the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”: a complete art work, fusing together music, drama, design, dance and more, in which a fellowship of artists would work together towards one shared goal.

Today, though, this is radical in its own way. And here’s why. 

There’s a Facebook group called “Against Modern Opera Productions”. No, really, there is. It loves “beauty” and often pours vitriol upon “Regietheater”, the director-led concepts that have dominated European lyric stages for the past several decades. Some critics, academics, and opera professionals watch its hatred with a fascination of horror. It feels reactionary; as if operas’ blood-and-guts tales of sex and violence can only succeed if prettified for some imagined 1950s golden age. Yet this group currently boasts well over 35,500 “likes”. That’s enough people to fill the beleaguered London Coliseum for nearly a fortnight.

Is the operatic audience really in revolt against Regietheater? Recently the Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer told me in an interview here that he was seeking ways to develop “organic, integrated opera performances”. In his view, the disconnect between staging and music that can result from focus on supposed originality in the former and on historical accuracy in the latter has run its course. It’s become a cliché and it’s time for a change.

When Regietheater is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better. I admire and enjoy the finest of it. Yet reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans. Success stories seem to be thinner on the ground than duds and in certain territories audiences have started to vote with their feet. As for the singers, I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja what the most outrageous thing is that a director has asked him to do on stage. His answer: “Singing the Duke of Mantua [in Verdi’s Rigoletto] wearing a monkey suit.” The production was set on the Planet of the Apes.

A couple of years ago I attended Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, the festival founded by the composer himself. It was staged as an opera-within-an-opera: a supposedly futuristic society putting on a show. The set was dominated by a huge processing machine glooping away throughout; it must have cost a pretty penny to design and produce, yet added to the opera precisely nothing. Last year the same festival’s new Tristan and Isolde imposed a vicious, dictatorial character on King Marke that simply isn’t in the music or the drama. And the lovers had to sing their heavenly duet with their backs to the audience.

That festival appears still to be able to afford controversy, indeed to court it. But in the UK cash for opera companies is ever more difficult to come by and increasingly requires justification. If a new staging of a popular piece goes clunking to an early death, there’s a sense of tragic waste. Yes, artists and companies need space to fail. But that space is getting smaller every year.

Still, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has not been enjoying much success of late with supposedly safe, traditional productions. The current season is projected to reach only 66 per cent of potential box office revenue, its lowest ever. Some punters, and even some critics, would like ENO to stay safe and traditional too: middle-of-road productions of popular repertoire for middle-class audiences. But that’s not how London, or New York, works these days. These audiences can mingle eager newbies with knowledgeable, cosmopolitan types; and none like to feel they’re being fobbed off with something predictable and second-rate any more than with something pretentious or incoherent. If opera houses want audiences, they have to find out how that audience functions now and what its needs are. These are not the same as the 1950s. They’re not even the same as the 2000s.

And so a radical readoption of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk principles might hold some answers, along with Fischer’s “integrated” approach. It’s possible to be wonderfully imaginative, sophisticated and stylish while working in harmony, rather than in a seeming struggle between inherently opposed ideals.

If Kramer can indeed bring ENO a strong, simple, transcendental Tristan, perhaps he can signal a way forward for the troubled company. Can Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk save ENO? It’s time to find out.

‘Tristan and Isolde’, English National Opera, London Coliseum. Box office: 020 7845 9300

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