Wednesday 12 September 2007

EIF Capriccio, or The Director's Concept is Paramount

There follows a belated report (originally drafted about two weeks ago) of the second staged opera of this year’s Festival…

It is now official. This is the worst year for staged opera at the International Festival since 1999 (the year of the Bankamura Turandot, and the last time there were a mere two staged operas on the programme). This production is a disaster on every level, and raises questions about Jonathan Mills’ artistic judgement.

When I first saw Capriccio on the programme back in April, I was surprised. The RSNO and an incredibly starry line-up of soloists (including Anne Sofie von Otter, Soile Isokoski and Christopher Maltman) gave us a magnificent concert performance in 2004. However, doubtless Mills was limited in his choices, although one wonders whether he was so limited in his choice of company (the connection, like that with the dreadful Kosky seems to be a Melbourne one).

Unfortunately, problems set in from the very start. The opera begins with a string sextet. The playing was second rate, meanwhile on stage the insanities of the production were charging full speed ahead. For those of you not au fait with the opera, it is set among the Parisian aristocracy in 1775. Taking his cue from the date of composition (1942) the director, Christian von Gotz, moves the action to that period. Or at least he sort of does. Echoes of Nazi Germany persistently intrude, but the main action still takes place in opulent period costume. Reviews implied this was supposed to bring out the fantasy qualities of the whole exercise – the Count and Countess escaping the horror of Nazidom with this other worldly discussion about opera. The trouble, as with so much this Festival, was that near complete narrative incoherence resulted.

It was really impossible to understand what was going on in the tacked on bits. Who were the two people who visited the Count during the sextet? What was he giving them? What were they giving him? Why did two Gestapo officers come in and then go away again? And why, at the end of the sextet and apart from the fact that the real text requires it, did the various cast members then suddenly decide to get into period costume? The rationale, the motivation for any of this was wholly unclear. This held true throughout the piece, culminating in Clairon (the actress) allowing the Count to strip her of her period dress, and reappearing with her hoops fully visible – but totally unremarked by any of the other cast members; and by the Count’s apparent suicide (totally unsupported by anything in the text).

The period staging was just silly. Servants in jack boots kept wandering on and placing red boxes of various sizes on the stage – it was never clear what the damn things were supposed to signify. There was endless clutter of furniture and props. The characters, particularly in the second half, seemed to be the victims of a collective caffeine high in that nobody could stand still for more than two seconds. Most bizarre of all was the occasional reappearances of the two Gestapo officers from the sextet, possibly the least threatening Nazis since ‘Allo ‘Allo. Periodically two ante-rooms (really looking more like cupboards) would slide on at either side of the stage. The two Gestapo officers would be standing in them, but would soon have to leave in order to accommodate either sexual acts or costume changes. There was no reason for them to be there, and their presence was totally ineffective.

That ineffectiveness was an inevitable result of von Gotz’s resolute determination to flout the text. The Nazis are unthreatening because we know perfectly well that all they can do is stand there. Nobody can be massacred, or arrested or carried off without actually changing the score and the text which, one suspects, von Gotz would have liked but did not dare to do.

The nonsense of the production was compounded by the poor quality of the musical performance. One of Strauss’s major achievements was to write such marvellous music for the female voice. The leading soprano in a Strauss opera should have a rich tone, a warmth, a power. Gabriele Fontana, singing the Countess, was lacking in all these areas. The voice was sour, hard and consistently strained. In fact I’m hard put to remember the last time I found a voice so unpleasant to listen to. Worse was Dalia Schaechter, singing the acress Clairon, whose voice was not even third rate, and at times inaudible. Only Hauke Moller as the composer Flamand and Michael Eder as the director La Roche rose above the mediocre. Eder delivered his tirade against philistinism in the theatre with fire, though he began to run short of breath towards the end. Moller achieved the greatest sense of romance in the whole evening with his evocation of watching the Countess reading, his thoughts in tune with hers, gradually falling in love. But the staging battled to wreck even these performances. For the love scene, von Gotz had the two on opposite sides of the stage. In the tirade, the Gestapo wandered on yet again and did nothing – and their feeble presence actually diminished rather than enhanced the suggestiveness of the speech.

In the pit things were not much better. The orchestral sound was thin, Markus Stenz lacked a feel for the warmth, the drive of Strauss’s music. Time and again you could feel the music fighting him, listening one wanted it to burst free, one wanted to take every player by the scruff of the neck and say to them this is passionate music give yourselves to it. But Stenz was obviously not equipped to inspire that kind of playing.

I was left with several reflections. The first was frustration with this kind of approach to opera. Having read the extensive, and very interesting programme note, about Strauss’s troubled experiences in Nazi Germany I could spot a number of suggestive aspects of the text where subtle and powerful parallels could have been drawn. However, like so many modern opera directors (and most live performance directors inflicted on us at this year’s Festival), van Gotz was utterly incapable of subtlety. He tried to ram his imposed message down the audience’s throat rather than allow the audience space to reflect.

The second was that this is actually a wonderful piece of music – opera as slice of life. I was not wholly convinced by it as a work when heard in concert, but last night I was incredibly struck by the resilience of the work against this combined assault – one somehow felt the beauty, and the suggestiveness of Strauss’s paeans to the importance of art all the more for the fact that the performances and production were so poor.

The third was that I do begin to have a slight qualm about Jonathan Mills’ artistic judgement – in the sense of which productions he is choosing to buy in. From where I’ve been sitting we have had one too many concept productions this year where narrative cohesion is completely destroyed by spectacle and silliness. I do hope this isn’t going to be a sign of things to come.

I have written at length on this production because opera is the art form which means the most to me, and because the International Festival has been an oasis of opera especially since the effective demise of Scottish Opera. To have only two staged productions is, in itself, a worrying development. But the musical qualities of both are what really concern me. While one might make an exception for Orfeo himself, and for the band and some of the choral singing in that same production, neither was of world class standard. Possibly one problem is the funding situation, which leads me to a final thought. Most opera companies now present productions funded by syndicates. WNO’s fabulous Don Carlos was built in that way, and the COC’s Ring Cycle included numerous opportunities for small to large scale sponsorship. Perhaps the Festival might think of doing the same, starting from the £50 mark with minimal benefits and moving upwards to the big bucks. I would certainly make a donation on an annual basis to support staged opera.

In the meantime, we can only hope that next year (as 2000 was to 1999) will prove a bumper opera year.

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