Sunday, 11 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Opera de Lyon's Fidelio, or Falling Far Short of International Festival Calibre

The warning signs around this show have been there from the very beginning. The director, Gary Hill, has virtually no experience of directing any sort of live performance, nevermind opera. The concept (of setting it on a doomed spaceship) sounded worryingly at odds with the trajectory of the plot. When I read news reports that he had delivered all direction via an assistant and that he did not wish the characters to fraternise too closely with each other, my heart sank. That this production was an incoherent mess therefore came as no surprise. What I did not expect (given Opera de Lyon's blazing performances at the Festival in 2006) was that the performance would be so musically poor.

This production might be considered a typical instance of distrust of the form. I had wondered if it was mockery, but my companions suggested that that usually at least produces something coherent, and coherent this production emphatically was not. Gary Hill's distrust showed up in multiple ways. Many opera productions fall victim to the vice of pointless busyness – in this case it was pointless busyness in Hill's dreary repetitive video projections. Not unpleasant to look at for five minutes, extremely tedious when stretched across two and a half hours, so much so that it was difficult to see how he had achieved eminence in that field. I have said before that video/film intelligently used can be a powerful element in operatic productions (see the Knussen Double Bill at Aldeburgh last year, or Die Frau ohne Schatten at EIF 2011), but it cannot be the be all and end all (as this production decisively proves) and it would be nice if critics would stop pushing the line that it can (or indeed the claim that using it is bold and revolutionary).

Many theatre directors like to take to pieces the original work and reconstruct it with other material jammed into the gaps. Something along these lines, usually several somethings, appears at the International Festival every year. In other words to do this today is, like using video, neither bold nor original. It is however, generally more difficult to do it in opera because of the through composed nature of most works. Now I must give credit to Hill here, he has found a new way forward – surtitle text in certain places bore only a tenuous relation to the words the chorus were actually singing – it's a failure but an experiment that needs to be taken note of (if only because there are a frightening number of other operas where Hill or other alleged directors might repeat the approach). More significantly of course, Beethoven did leave Hill with an alternative line of attack – the gaps for spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. Into some of these gaps (and for about five minutes before the music even started), Hill had introduced excerpts from Henry Martinson's epic sci-fi poem Aniara. This ostensibly transfered the action to a supposedly doomed spaceship – though it was an idea never properly thought through. To give two instances, you might ask a) how Hill dealt with the problem of the happy ending and b) how he dealt with the sudden appearance of Don Fernando given that the spaceship is supposed to be in splendidly isolated doom. The answer is he doesn't, and these failings were indicative of the production's incoherency. The poem is not a great work of literature in itself, judging by the excerpts we heard this evening. Putting it into conversation with Beethoven's opera not only adds nothing to one's experience of the latter work but in fact plays a significant role in the removal of all passion and feeling from the opera. When you are longing for Fidelio just to end so you can go home then something has gone spectacularly badly wrong. Ditto when members of the audience are laughing at the idea of Florestan being waterboarded. The latter occurred, I should perhaps mention, because there was also a vague idea that the production was trying to comment (again unclearly and unsuccessfully) on attacks on liberty in the contemporary United States.

Hill has two further ideas. The first was to place his principal singers on Segways, with the exception, for reasons which were obscure, of Don Pizarro. Having so hampered them, Hill could apparently think of little else to do than have them engage in a lot of pointless circling of the stage so they can't address remarks to each other. This is no more successful than the many productions I have seen which have adopted a similar, merely less mobile, approach. The second idea was to assume that the audience needed prompts regarding basic topics sung about – the most glaring of these was the video projection of large spinning coins just in case we had not cottoned on to the fact that Rocco was singing about the importance of money.

Now sometimes such terrible productions can be redeemed by musically blazing performances. Sadly this was one occasion when closing one's eyes was no help at all. Put bluntly the musical performances made rather a mockery of the word “international”. It was across the board a second rate cast ranging from the very poor (Pavlo Hunka's Don Pizarro & Michael Eder's Rocco) to the passable in places (Erika Sunnegardh's Leonore). More disturbingly for a major company conductor Kazushi Ono had persistent problems both with keeping stage and pit in sync and balancing orchestra and singers – the former was too loud much of the time. I should note though that I sympathise with any singer trying to produce a quality vocal performance while circling the stage on a Segway. The Opera de Lyon chorus had particular problems with keeping in time and apart from one or two places towards the end sounded generally thin. The orchestra played solidly enough (though there were rather more brass fluffs than a top quality band would have), but like all the rest of it rarely compelled attention.

This was in short the worst operatic performance I have seen at the Festival since the abysmal Actus Tragicus in 2009. The Festival Management should be ashamed of having programmed it. As regular readers will know we sometimes give out Where's Runnicles awards. I therefore close this review by making this show the second recipient of The Niles Crane 'Sprinkling Hand' Award for Production Teams who Should Never be Permitted to Work in that Capacity Ever Again. I only hope that this is realised.

10 comments:

  1. This was the worst opera production i have seen in a number of years. Clearly the director wasnt remotely interested in Fidelio. It was a bit like monsieur jourdain had requested a sci-fi theatre piece to be played simulataneously with Fidelio. The videos were quite stunning but appeared to have nothing to do with the opera. when they did it was very banal. i felt sorry for the singers who were probably doing their upmost not to fall of their segways. in a less genteel place than edinburgh it would have been booed to the rafters. in italy it might have caused a riot!:)

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  2. Video killed the opera star. Opera de Lyons has a track record for over enthusiastic use of video projection, as those who saw the 2010 production of Porgy and Bess will recall - and it had its share of unintended laughter (projected giant cartoon fish jumping along with Summer Time), but this production reached new heights of absurdity. One consequence of the use of Segways was that the principals could not act, because of the need to concentrate on maintaining balance. I have seen far more physical expression in concert performances. As for the costumes, the mystery as to whether Don Pizarro was mounted on a Segway under his copious and rigid dress was solved when the unfortunate Hunka fell backwards during Saturday's curtain call. No Segway, but great embarrassment as fellow principals had to right him. Festival audiences generally do not drop below polite applause, but the booing of the director was sadly all too apparent.

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  3. I'm not sure I'd agree that the videos were stunning. For much of the time I thought they resembled a collection of computer screen savers for 20 years. When they got less abstract they were rather confused and not terribly impressive given all the modern TV and film Science Fiction I've watched. (And I don't know quite what to make of the marching robotic army that looked like a collection of C-3P0s, the least menacing robot in all of Sci-Fi.)

    I had suspected Pizarro wasn't on a Segway as there was a certain sway to his gait rather than the smoothness the others had, but it was nice to have it confirmed. His costume raised further questions, bearing little relation to the others - he seemed to have wandered in of the set of the Mikado. They seemed to have left the coat hanger in poor Rocco's and why Marzelline was dressed as some sort of robotic porcupine....? Actually I felt she had a fairly pleasant voice (when not drowned out by the orchestra).

    Unlike my brother, I did see Porgy and Bess, and completely agree about the projections in that (review here.

    I too have seen concert performances with more expression. Indeed, the last time I heard Fidelio in Edinburgh was one under Mackerras with the SCO and Christine Brewer. That was in a different galaxy.

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  4. And speaking of concert opera, it is rather a shame that there is none on offer in this year's programme.

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  5. Odd and unusual staging yes but I'm struggling to believe you we're at the same performance that I was. The performance of Leonore and Florestan were both vocally superb and the booing was not of the director but of the character of Pizzaro!

    Still, it would be a dull world if we all agreed on the merits of any performance....

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    1. Pizzaro was boo'd as a baddy and then the director was boo'd for being rubbish. The whole performance was ruined for me by the projection screen which obscured and muffled the singers. They should have lifted the screen after the introduction IMO and then it would have been OK (or had the screen behind the performers). I found the show boring and un-musical and the direction incompetent and pointless. 1 star from me.

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  6. In 35 years I have walked out of only 2 staged performances. The first was an amateur production of Brigadoon at the Churchill Theatre in the 1970s and the second was last night.
    The conceptual artist Gary Hill got it wrong.

    Opera is primarily about music performed in a dramatic way. When the brain has to respond to continually changing, and often banal images what goes in the ears takes second place to what is going in through the eyes.

    The music suffered in a big way.

    From the low frequency buzz followed by the 'narrator' before the overture, the concept was daft.

    Much of the imagery was puerile, the intonation of the orchestra was, at times, suspect and there was little or no drama.
    The gauze put an artificial barrier between the performers and the audience.

    Where was the "tingle factor"?

    In so many ways this whole performance was wrong - we left at the interval!

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  7. To respond to two points raised by anonymous at 14.40:

    a) I have heard this opera live twice before in first class performances - by Lisa Milne, the LPO and Mark Elder and by Christine Brewer, the SCO and Sir Charles Mackerras. Last night's performance was nowhere near the same league either musically or with respect to the role of Leonora.

    b) There were two lots of booing. Some limited pantomime style booing of Pizarro and a rather more full throated response to the directorial team.

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  8. The staging of last nights Fidelio was different and as said not completely consistent. However, I did not find it inappropriate. It was eerie in a modern way instead of medieval dungeons - OK Musically it was not all bad either, the lead performers Nikolai Schukoff (Florestan) and Erika Sunnegårdh (Leonora) were both great and as a result the second act was very enjoyable. I would agree, though, that the orchestra was too loud at times (especially during the first act).

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  9. Concert performances are the future, especially for fairly static works such as this.Opera North's Ring cycle is a very good example of how well this can work. Maybe Bayreuth should follow suit since this year's Ring there was apparently a ludicrous mess.

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