Tuesday 31 December 2013

Highs and Lows of 2013

We've reached that time of year again…

Best Opera: Honorable mentions go to the outstandingly sung revival of Don Carlo at the Royal Opera (I was lucky enough to hear Anja Harteros's sole performance) and the Proms Gotterdammerung (Andreas Schager's moving Siegfried especially lives in my memory) but the outstanding opera event of 2013 was Aldeburgh Music's Grimes on the Beach in both its Maltings and seaside incarnations.

Worst Opera: The Edinburgh International Festival had a pretty terrible year as far as opera and theatre was concerned (the technology theme was almost universally a kiss of death) but the Lyon Opera production of Fidelio which Jonathan Mills unwisely programmed was especially awful.

Best Play: Sadly undervalued by other critics (Southern snobbery perhaps?), but for me the finest play of the year was the outstanding Port at the National Theatre, featuring Kate O'Flynn's remarkable debut there.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Satyagraha at ENO, or in which it is again demonstrated that Philip Glass is not up to writing the Big Ideas Opera

This was my third Glass opera. I had reservations about Einstein on the Beach and I thought The Perfect American dull so I did not have high hopes of this and went principally because I'm a completionist when it comes to opera and wanted to tick it off the list. It is clear that there is an audience for Glass, the Upper Circle was fuller than I have seen any part of the Coliseum for a very long time. That it was fuller than for the musically infinitely superior Billy Budd (the last time I sat in that part of the house) I find really quite depressing. Maybe it's me, but I just cannot see much in Glass at all.

Glass's first cardinal sin in this opera and the one that makes me angriest, is with regard to the text. Modern opera directors are always ripping established texts to pieces, or ignoring them, or interpolating bits of other classic texts. Glass has a different strategy here, and one already visible in Einstein on the Beach. He apparently thinks the text is irrelevant. This is the only basis on which I can see any justification for the rule that this opera must be sung in Sanskrit and that proper surtitles are not allowed. I now feel I have a somewhat better idea of what neophyte Wagner-goers must have struggled with in the pre-surtitle age. It is true that bits of text are occasionally projected onto the set but these were not always visible from my seat, and are sufficiently intermittent that one can rarely be sure who is singing what. It is no defence to say the text is printed in the programme or on a printed sheet – this is unreadable once the house lights go down. As far as I was concerned for most of the evening the performers might just as well have been singing “la” to everything. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I happen to think text quite important to successful opera.