Monday, 17 November 2014

Wagnerian high seas in Lyon

Impressive, isn't it: this must be most people's ideal of a stage picture to go with the Overture to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, if image there has to be, for it can't add anything in the mind's eye to the musical depiction of turbulent seas. Imagine the reddish-brown rusting hull going from the top of the proscenium arch most of the way down, and the projections on what turn out to be sand banks of rough waves moving vividly, with flashes of lightning in the sky. Those are exactly the kind of visuals we've come to expect from the Catalan co-operative La Fura dels Baus. They suit the opening of the Overture, can afford to calm down for the music of Senta's Ballad, but get a bit monotonous once we arrive at the music of the Sailors' Chorus. The actual scene of rival crews depicted below, one of five images by Jean-Louis Fernandez.

The Opéra de Lyon engaged Alex Ollé of the company on the huge strengths of the Tristan und Isolde and The Turn of the Screw (from Valentina Carrasco) I saw and loved there. So I was eager to catch the latest offering, and the fairest way to do it was to request an interview with Ollé which could appear on The Arts Desk (where we can't really justify one-off reviews of productions outside the UK). It was fun to hang around the office space on the top floor of Jean Nouvel's redesign, but not for that long. A Spanish TV interview wildly overran and I had to fight even for the bare half-hour. And then there was the fact that - though we might have conducted the conversation in French - the Spanish had to be translated by Ollé's very charming assistant.

So I ended up with very little, most of it in Ollé's French programme note. And when I saw the performance a couple of hours later, I realised that the basic premise was a bit of a washout, so I gave the Lyon press office the choice of my two options - to run the interview in a rather negative framework on The Arts Desk, or devolve to here for a more equivocal view of the performance. My chief beef about it was the unclear realisation of Olle's intended mise en scene. Where, he asked, would a belief in magic and a society where fathers sell their daughters still hold good (or bad) today? He decided on the port of Chittagong, polluted 'hell on earth', a graveyard of rusty ships disembowelled by scrap merchants and their workers. That this kind of thing can be done was exemplified in Penny Woolcock's poverty-today staging of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera.

Unfortunately I don't think anyone watching Ollé's production without this vital piece of information would be able to locate Daland's home. The 'spinners' are fiddling around with bits of scrap metal, the costumes are indeterminate. Ollé's chief point is the rather confusing one that Daland's ship and the Dutchman's are one and the same - the 'ghosts' come out of the bowels, and once it reaches harbour the dismantling begins, presumably disturbing the spirits.

The real problem is a common one of concept and design dwarfing the action, which hardly seems to have been worked on at all. So there's the usual stand and deliver. If Magdalena Anna Hofmann as Senta and Simon Neal as her fantasy are good actors, this production doesn't allow them to show it; and the voices are neither of them attractive - Neal's rather occluded, with strained top, Hofmann's useful up there but slightly unfinished. The world-class singers are the Daland, Falk Struckmann - could he not still be singing the Dutchman? - and the revelation of the evening for me, Vienna-trained lyric-heroic tenor Tomislav Muzek as the much-maligned Erik, who's already sung his role at Bayreuth (pictured below in a final tussle with Hofmann's Senta - note the old-fashioned spotlight, which didn't chime well with the designs). Here the acting is with the voice, the sound more lyric than heroic but with all the heft needed in the upper register, flawless in short. I look forward to seeing more of him.

Nor did Kazushi Ono's characteristic clarity and the beautiful timbre of the Lyon Orchestra fall short, with some especially neat handling of the more Italianate moments. Ono chose the revised, redemptive version of the Overture but the original, abrupt finale: fair enough. If only the last moments had been more theatrically effective.

It was the last warm evening of the year in Lyon on my arrival, with just enough time between interview and performance to walk a bit around the Croix-Rousse district, having explored its traboules back in the spring,. Torrential rain overnight eased off a bit on Sunday and I walked from Terreaux all the way down to La Confluence, the massively redeveloped old port area on the lip between the Rhône and the Saône, chiefly attracted by an image I'd seen of the outlandish Orange Cube.

This is the brainchild of Paris-based architects Dominique Jakob and Brendan Macfarlane. There are two large round holes at different levels on a facade of metal mesh, itself covered in circles of various sizes.

Somehow I fancy the uniqueness of the Orange Cube is a little undermined by a green counterpart from the same team which, despite the placement of its giant holes, isn't sufficiently different to let the original newcomer shine.

Since this is a kind of Canary Wharf with architectural imagination, nothing much was happening on a wet Sunday. It all felt a bit deserted and creepy, with nowhere looking very welcoming to stop off for a coffee, but I guess there was one connection with Chittagong - the barges with junk on them, like this one,

and while the Orange and Green Cubes were simply curious rather than fabulous, I loved what had been done, rather more spontaneously, to the old chamber of commerce, soon converted after opening in 1927 to a sugar store

with its anti-capitalist protest art

and its towers (can't find out more even in French).

I walked down as far as the iron bridge and another vast new building

and then turned back in search of somewhere good to eat in the middle of the afternoon. And at last I enjoyed bouchon fare in the tiny and welcoming La Traboulerie - 58, rue Merciere, highly recommended especially at weekends when it doesn't keep the very restricted bouchon hours of the weekdays.

With the clouds briefly clearing, there was time to stroll along a more traditional stretch of the Saône

before heading back to the hotel and, eventually, the airport.

Finally, a Wagnerian footnote: had a fun time moderating 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' in Birmingham the Saturday before last. As I wrote earlier, I've seen Susan Bullock a few times since meeting her at master coach Phillip 'The Sage of Neath' Thomas's 50th birthday party, and I like her a lot. Catherine Foster was new to me, and it's frustrating not to have caught Bayreuth's Brünnhilde of choice in the first and second runs of Frank Castorf's controversial Ring. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have caught her in the UK since after a few early appearances here Catherine went off to live in Weimar, without two beans to her name, as house soprano and has never looked back. Her British record is centred around early performances as Mozart's Queen of the Night - a role which, curiously, Susan sang in her early days, too. By the way, I asked her about the 'Sue' and she told me that everyone in the business calls her that, though she never encouraged it and her mum doesn't like it.

Neither diva had met the other before (nor were they likely to have done so unless one had happened to be singing Sieglinde and the other Brünnhilde). They complemented each other serendipitously in stylish black and gold, both seemed very grounded - essential if you're to survive as a Wagnerian - and gave us some revelatory nitty-gritty about the practicalities of getting through the role: what you do between performances, where you plan the toilet breaks, and how you have to hold on to the way you sing it, regardless of whether the orchestra is too loud or the conductor wilful (if you don't, you won't get to the end).

Catherine made the distinction between regie opera directors, who come with everything mapped out, and regie theatre folk, who ask you to do it twenty ways and then tell you they like them all*. Little wonder if Susan shunned that set-up (she's been lucky to work with directors she trusts: Keith Warner, Graham Vick, Richard Jones, who as she rightly says should win every award going this year for his triple whammy of Rodelinda, Rosenkavalier and of course The Girl of the Golden West in which she was so supremely touching). Did Catherine ever say she couldn't do what was asked? Yes, in the case of Castorf wanting her to whizz down a flight of stairs while singing in a blonde wig and slinky dress, pushing a pram that turned out to be full of potatoes. An actor was persuaded to do the scene in obvious drag.

The knowledgeable fellow-brunchers were delighted when both sang 'hoiotoho's in perfect synchonicity, at the same pitch, to illustrate a point, and we got a bit of the art of phrasing, too. It was a happy hour or so, and all I wanted was then to see both in action. That will just have to wait.

*19/11: Catherine and Susan enlarge upon the whole Regietheater issue in eloquent comments below.


Susan Scheid said...

The photographs you've posted of the production are so striking, it's hard to understand how this fell so flat, until, that is, I read your comment, "The real problem is a common one of concept and design dwarfing the action, which hardly seems to have been worked on at all." All the pieces have to be in place, don't they, for everything to work? (Of course I'm still a greenhorn, particularly when it comes to opera, so please forgive for the basic nature of this comment!)

As for Lyon, am I ever with you about the green diluting the effectiveness of the orange, and I think also in line with your perspective, I prefer the old chamber of commerce to the both of them. I must confess, in the end, to loving the painterly light of your Saône photograph best of all.

As for the brunch, I found this particularly intriguing: "Catherine made the distinction between regie opera directors, who come with everything mapped out, and regie theatre folk, who ask you to do it twenty ways and then tell you they like them all." I'd love to know more.

David said...

OK, Sue, so I came to understand a little bit more about the rigidity of the German system (though let's not knock the still-thriving number of opera houses there). 'Regie opera' is regarded as the director's often subversive take on a piece we think we know. When it works, it's dazzling (Claus Guth's Die Frau ohne Schatten springs to mind, and Willy Decker can pull it off. I'd say our own geniuses Jones and Vick work along loosely-defined Regie lines).

But it's so rigid. I think it was Peter Brook in The Empty Space who derided directors who came along with everything cut and dried before they'd even met the singers. That's of no interest to me, and clearly not to Susan Bullock: we agree that the director must adapt to the personalities he or she is dealing with. The inflexibility of the German system seems to mean, though, that it has to be that fixed.

Catherine was saying that the invasion of straight theatre directors who don't listen to the music is a relatively new thing. I'd also add the category of 'designer opera', to which La Fura dels Baus sometimes adhere overmuch (their provenance is in physical theatre and spectacle; opera came later, though when it did - with Le Grand Macabre - it was astounding.

Personally I'd rather all emphasis was on the Personenregie, the meaningful physical and psychological direction of the singers. I don't need a big set, just evocative lighting. But it's exciting - and rare - when everything combines.

Catriona said...

Even worse than straight theatre directors is the invasion of video installation directors with no previous exposure to opera - Opera De Lyons' Fidelio, which I saw at the EIF, being the nightmare example (flying toasters, anyone? and Segways?)

David said...

That was my point with 'designer opera', Catriona - though as my goddaughter Rosie, who's studying theatre design at Central, tells me, the designers are rather at loggerheads with the video installers who they often feel don't understand the work in question.

No doubt I've raised this before, but - as we ended up discussing at the end of our 'brunch' - John Tomlinson is leading the way in awareness of this problem. He thinks this is a whole new era where the problem rests less with the director than the artist. He cited a Gawain in Salzburg where the designer-director just waved the singers to the side and said he didn't want to do anything with them. Sir John ended up doing all the blocking for the whole cast from the Royal Opera production.

Video design in theatre and opera seems to have peaked, but as La Fura dels Baus still shows, it can work if judiciously introduced. Especially, I think, when composers like Wagner call for big outdoor/natural effects.

David Damant said...

Your comment on opera and design is on the point. Wagner is set in a "world" of its own and can easily and appropriately contain exotic new elements. Putting the Walkyrie on motor bikes was absolutely correct. To put the Queen of the Night on a motor bike would simply be silly

David said...

Oh, I don't know - my friend Isabel had that copyright idea because the syncopated introduction to 'O zittre nicht' sounds exactly like the revving up of a motorbike. Both valkyries and queen, though, valkyries especially, inhabit the air rather than the ground, you'd miss the flying dimension of the famous ride.

Anyway, isn't most of The Magic Flute also a 'world' of its own? Myths generally are up for any number of interpretations. It was a shame Ian Rickson's Electra (as in the play) was such a nothing kinda setting - but then theatre productions usually play safer than those in the world of opera.

Susan Scheid said...

I just finished responding to your comment Over There, and now come back to this GREAT discussion. Oh, does this ever strike home: "Personally I'd rather all emphasis was on the Personenregie, the meaningful physical and psychological direction of the singers. I don't need a big set, just evocative lighting. But it's exciting - and rare - when everything combines." That makes so much sense, and why should it ever not be so (that's rhetorical--even I, with more limited experience, can see how often things go wrong). If you saw DoK, I'm sure we'd have differences on how well the production works, but I suspect we'd have many points in common, too, pro and con. I hope you'll get the chance, because I'd love to have that exchange with you.

David said...

I wasn't well when the production ran at English National Opera so I missed it (am I right, it wasn't the Sellars there, was it?) I've only seen a concert performance live, plus the choruses performed separately (they work superbly).

Can't wait for Friday when what's advertised as the 'world premiere staging' of The Gospel According to the Other Mary opens at ENO. Frankly I think what Sellars did in the semi-staged Barbican version you saw in New York was just right, much less excessive than his usual. I only hope it's nothing like the multimedia disaster of El Nino's premiere - but Adams is so fierce on that failure that I can't imagine Sellars ever doing anything like it again. Hope not.

Hey-ho, Rameau ballets tonight, which in the spirit of my new found love for that master I've chosen over an enticingly cast revival of so-so L'elisir d'amore (with Lucy Crowe and Bryn Terfel).

David Damant said...

On reflection, you are right about the Queen of the Night - should could be on a motor bike. But there are many directors who would put ANYONE on a motor bike, and I am glad to see the opposition to gimmicky productions building up

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, I'd forgotten about ENO. That is the production that came to the Met, I believe (Tom Morris is credited for the ENO production--and I see that Michaela Martens was M. Klinghoffer in that production, too.) The full staging of Gospel should be interesting, though I'm with you, the restrained Sellars version (with the possible exception of the green cloth) was superb. Enjoy the Rameau!

David said...

I have to stress that I'm not on the side of the 'close your eyes and don't look at the stage' brigade (though for once that would really have helped hold on to belief in the better singers of Martin Kusej's Regiecliched Idomeneo). Never rule anything out until you've seen it. Again I probably repeat myself but the prospect of Turandot in a Chinese restaurant seemed risible when the reality of Rupert Goold's production was brilliant and chimed with the consumption/sadism in the opera.

Rameau was full of invention, Sue, and Christie ruled the show, though in at least the first of the opera-ballets, the staging and dancing didn't add much for me. Weirdly, an Arts Desk's dance critic is covering it. I hope the ingenuity of the scoring gets more of a look-in than it did in the programme note.

Susan Scheid said...

Yes, understood on the "don't look at the stage" brigade. While I once wrote here "it's the music, stupid," that was really in response to an overbalance of the production over the other essential elements. My experience, of course, is limited, but the question for me so far is whether all the elements seem in balance, though I would say that what I appreciate most are productions that support, rather than dominate, the music and its performance, both onstage and in the pit.

I will have to make a foray into Rameau at some point. There is just so much. I am perpetually overwhelmed.

David said...

Isn't there just, Sue. At the risk of sounding pious, we keep on learning. I'd now rather investigate stuff outside my comfort zone, like Rameau, than hear yet another performance of a Shostakovich symphony (very special occasions like the EUYO's magnificent Fourth with V Petrenko at the Proms excepted).

The two opera-ballets were predictably fertile ground in terms of instrumental miracles.I still blush to think how it wasn't until last year that I realised Rameau was the greatest composer of ballet music before Delibes. There wasn't a lot of dance last night, though the staging of the second opera-ballet, La naissance de Osiris, was very chastely and prettily done. Still would have preferred Christie and Les Arts Florissants to have been further forward and to have heard the whole thing in concert

Catherine Foster said...

Thank you for this. I am always fascinated how others outside view German Regietheater as if there is some great secret or myth about it. Admittedly there are some not so gifted directors out there but I have had the fortune to work with many top directors. In reality every opera has a concept from the director or there would be no point in having one; we may as well go out there and just do concerts. I don’t think there is such thing as a German Regietheater per se, it’s just the world putting its stamp on it.... I have noticed no difference working with top directors who are Canadian, German, English, or Austrian for example - if they are good they work with the singer and listen to them and if not, they don’t actually get very far...

Peter Konwitschny has very set ideas on what he likes and when one has to move (I jumped into his Elektra in Copenhagen, I never met him personally, but I understood what he was after and why), and Pierre Audi is a perfectionist, but if they trust the singer they work with you. I don’t think I have ever been dictated to in my whole career here. There are at least two female directors whom I've worked with and who have been fantastic but not known in the UK, Gabriele Rech and Andrea Moses. Both have won prizes in Germany.

As I said to Susan, I think some of this reputation about the German Regie stems from the fact that Germany is mostly about repertoire, If one is privileged to build the character with the director for a new production then we have the opportunity to work together. However, when a production is revived every year - I've just done a Ruth Berghaus production of Elektra that premiered back in the 1980s (over 30 years ago!) - all the moves are written down in a score so that the production will be the same each time. That’s where the dIfficulty occurs for singers as one singer may be able to do a certain move but another who is taking over maybe even five years later can not. Then it all hangs on the assistant director’s abilities to remain within the parameters of the original concept and moves but let the singer be able to move and sing well. I have never found a problem discussing these things and working together.

If you think about it, it’s just choreography, like a ballet: you can’t suddenly have ballet dancers going off in all directions because they prefer to go left or right, can you?

So to sum up, I don’t think everything in German Regietheater is good but I also don't think it is all as bad as everyone says either.

Take care and it was a pleasure meeting you.

David said...

Thank you so much for this, Catherine. It's a complex issue. As far as I'm concerned, there are only two types of Regietheater, as there are (who said it?) only two types of music - good and bad. It's a complex issue and I'm grateful to you for shining a light from the inside.

The problem from my perspective is that if one condemns what one thinks of as the bad sort, then one is liable to be labelled a reactionary. Whereas what's often advertised as 'shocking' is actually very old-hat. The Kusej Idomeneo churned out the kind of stuff we saw 30 years ago. Plenty of others have moved on, and now there's a whole bright new generation alongside the old hands. I'd add to your women directors Katharina Thoma, who I thought - so many didn't - did a splendid job on the Glyndebourne Ariadne. She works on Ballo at the Royal Opera soon.

Susan Bullock said...

Here's my take, just for the record. I am not totally against Regietheater, far from it, and I have taken part in many experimental and interesting productions...but I do draw the line when I hear singers say that they just go through the motions as requested by the director without understanding or questioning the concept.

It is our job to work with directors and to have a partnership with them, but it is not our job, in my opinion, to be puppets and not to question. How can a performer completely invest in a role if they have no real clue what the director is asking of them or if the director's intention is so unclear or quirky that it cannot be related to the score or the text? If that happens this job becomes faceless and meaningless to the performers, and I personally cannot accept that as I find it dishonest and disrespectful to the work and to the composer. To be asked to take part in something that is purely sensationalist is defeating the very reason why one goes into the singing profession.

David said...

Couldn't agree more, Susan; once again, it's so helpful to have these thoughts from the people who matter most; thank you. We only get to hear about it when there are heated contretemps and a singer refuses to go ahead - to my mind that doesn't happen often enough. I fancy opera houses do treat singers a little like cattle, or as useful in the short term and disposable in the long run. Though maybe that's a different issue.

Catriona said...

Combining two threads in this conversation, I started out listening to Les Indes Galantes on Radio 3 a few years back. It was a 'live' performance by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. What's not to like? But, without the visuals - the dance, for example - I gave up.
There's a cross-over point between a staged and a concert / recording performance which is difficult to define, but involves (to my mind) different kinds of listening and paying attention.
I find that some live or studio performances of opera and drama work on radio, but others do not, and it's not always possible to guess in advance which is which. And I think that similar considerations operate for types of staging.

David said...

I feel quite the opposite about Rameau, Catriona - I'm so keen to try and see as well as hear what's going on in that often extraordinary orchestration that I just, in last night's case, wanted the dancers to get out of the way. It also didn't help, as our dance critic points out, that the set-up curtains sometimes blocked Christie and the players completely. But the staging was quite pretty, I suppose. I just think Rameau's music is more than that.

Now the Bordeaux Les Indes Galantes with the fabulous naked jiggling prelapsarian dancers was something else altogether: Regietheater at its best from Laura Scozzi, and very, very daring in the 'Persian' act (some women burkhaed, others in skimpy bikinis, and some stonking placards against rape and under-age 'marriage', which comes to the same thing).

David Damant said...

An excellent and clear set of principles from Susan Bullock ( wonderful to be in touch again, Susan, albeit at arm's length). I would add that there are one or two practical rules. For example. putting many ( though obviously not all) operas into modern dress annihilates social distance since it brings all the modern thoughts of equality into an inappropriate past. The social distance between Almaviva and Figaro is large, and between princes such as Henry V or the Pasha Selim or Aeneas and their subjects it is enormous. As the father of Frederic the Great said -"the immortal souls of my people belong to God. All else is mine " This cannot be conveyed in a tweed jacket

David said...

There may be thoughts of equality, Sir David, but in few places has it actually been put into practice. For instance, Graham Vick described on Monday his thoughts on how to depict the aristocracy in Prokofiev's War and Peace in terms of today. And they are, of course, the Russian plutocracy, still inordinately fond of balls and the 'I want it now' mentality of poor manipulated young Natasha and...servants. As we know, slavery too exists in frightening statistics. So I believe a convincing equivalent can always be found.

Interestingly, though, Richard Jones felt that Puccini's detailed instructions for Fanciulla del West couldn't be tampered with: they were perfect as they stood (give or take a slight update). Not sure, either, that one could convincingly update Meistersinger. Used to think the same about Rosenkavalier, but again it's Jones who proved me wrong.

wanderer said...

This has been a terrific read - and with two Brunnhildes for the price of none, so to speak. And surely I'm not the only one to have had the great pleasure of both : Catherine Foster in Shangahi (Carsen) and Susan Bullock in Melbourne (Armfield).

My production thoughts would be simply that it has to make sense (to the performer, as Susan Bullock points out) and to the audience, and by making sense I mean a production must convey the moral dlilemma(s) and conflict(s) in such a way that the audience not only can, but must be made to, see the issues as its own.

To my eye, that Dutchman overture scrim looks very Nolan-esque.

David said...

Except that it's no scrim, wanderer, but a fully 3D realisation (as I tried to imply in describing it). The ship gets partly disembowelled as I think you see in some of the later images. But I do remember Nolan's scrims for Samson et Dalila - the most original thing about an opera which wasn't really worth taking seriously IMO (though we also got Domingo and Baltsa).

Carsen is one director Catherine might have cited as the best alongside Sue's: I had no idea the Cologne Ring which went to Shanghai - and must have been excellently conducted by Markus Stenz - was his. You know I admire Neil Armfield's work, too, and your descriptions and photos of the Melbourne Ring made me very much want to see it.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I must apologize right off for veering off-point, but as I've made my concert-going rounds this week, I've been thinking of your comment here, "I'd now rather investigate stuff outside my comfort zone, like Rameau, than hear yet another performance of a Shostakovich symphony" (exception noted, of course). I do know what you mean, even though I have miles to go in listening to works live even for the first time. I have just today had the opportunity to hear Shos 8 live for the first time (van Zweden/NY Phil), with thanks to you for putting me on the trail of this piece, and well beyond that, to encouraging me to commit to a study of Shostakovich’s symphonies and, particularly, to pay focused attention to the 8th. I was absolutely knocked flat by the performance I heard today, and so gratified, too, that the two young people sitting next to me, who'd never heard anything by Shostakovich—and to whom I was able to give a few simple pointers for listening—were knocked flat, too. I’d been feeling regretful (to put it mildly) that I missed the chance to hear/see V. Jurowski conduct this work earlier this season—and I still wish I’d been there, though now the regret is different—it’s about missing the chance to hear live another, sure to have been compelling, interpretation of this monumental, shattering work. The real point here is that this chain of events owes an enormous amount to your encouragement, and I can’t thank you enough.

David said...

I'd love to have heard Jaap van Zweden's interpretation of Shostakovich 8, Sue. I've only heard him conduct once live, a programme that I went to unwillingly as I seem to remember it was an LPO 'Friday pops' concert. But his Tchaik 4 blew me away.

So, yes, I'd make exceptions when the conductor is a must (as I did for Jurowski's opening-of-season concert).

I do think this is an ideal work to blow young people away: how could one not be caught up in its terror and even its sheer virtuosity?