Friday 1 July 2011

Christopher Alden's School Days, or, I refuse to dignify this with an extended analysis

Normally on this blog we take pride in the depth of our analysis, indeed we rather enjoy writing long reviews. This will be brief, probably the briefest thing I have ever written on the blog. If you want more depth on the particular madnesses of the production there are plenty of other critics who have provided it.

Such brevity is easy to stick to because the nature of the evening, from my point of view, is simple. This is a play without text by Christopher Alden about a collection of people who had a miserable time at school, coupled to a soundtrack by Benjamin Britten, and a text by Shakespeare. The problem is that the music and text are inhabiting a completely different world from Alden's play, that is Alden's play basically assumes that virtually nothing in the text means what it says. I cannot off the top of my head think of any other opera production I have seen which so consistently makes the words sung meaningless by the actions with which they are accompanied. About the music there is obviously more room for interpretation, but I felt that certain tendencies in the score were exaggerated in the performance to fit Alden's design and certain other elements hurried over or otherwise obscured (all of which in the first half slows things down to a painful crawl).

In fairness to the company stuck in this madness, they sing and play to a very high standard (indeed musically probably to a more consistently high standard than most of the rest of the season has attained) but the production is so utterly at odds with the music that it left me almost cold and often bored because of the way in which characters were rendered nonsensical.

I have now seen this opera staged three times. I mention this because the second time (last November in Chicago) was a traditional production, and that didn't work either. My benchmark is, instead, the excellent simplicity of the ROH Linbury production. I am also not saying that every production of this opera should have fairies, woods, flowers etc. What I am saying is if you remove all that you must replace it with something that works in relation to the text and music. Christopher Alden presumably must believe he has done this (otherwise it's an utterly gross abuse of directorial power – and one does slightly wonder from the way he stages the mechanicals play if this may be intended). For me it was a complete failure. ENO has perpetrated far too many such failures this season.

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