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.