Saturday 25 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Cenerentola at the Festival Theatre, or, Mr Herheim Thinks It's All a Joke

There is an ensemble maybe two thirds of the way through Act 1 when the main characters sing about being confused and unable to believe what is happening. In the context of the plot this is a reaction to Don Magnifico's claim that his third daughter (Cinderella) is dead. In Stefan Herheim's knockabout comedy version (which rarely made me laugh) this is played as a mockery of the audience. The house lights come up, an image of the audience is projected behind the ensemble, and they direct the remarks at us. I've got news for Herheim, I'm afraid I wasn't confused, I had a pretty fair idea what I thought about proceedings and it was not complimentary.

One of the maddening things about this show is there is the kernel of a good idea visible. That is that a contemporary cleaning lady is imagining the whole drama. But the execution is significantly flawed. We are given absolutely no indication of her life, beyond the fact she is a cleaner. Everything else that happens on stage appears to be the product of her imagination (though there is also an argument that the whole thing is being dreamed up by the ghost of Rossini). Either way the effect is that it never feels as if anything is really at stake in this drama - we don't know enough about the cleaning lady to care whether she's fantasising or not, and given that it appears to be all a fantasy I never cared what happened to any of the characters in the fantasy. I assume that Herheim thinks the whole thing is a farce. There are certainly farcical elements to it, but that is simply not the whole story of the piece. Had it made me laugh I might have felt differently about it, but while others clearly found the whole thing a hoot, I'm afraid I rarely found it funny.

Beyond the general conceit the show suffers from other vices of current opera productions. It is continuously busy - as usual I ended up craving some stillness which never comes. The set is tiresomely mobile (there are a number of occasions characters are not supposed to be able to see each other which are very unconvincing), projections are projected, chorus members and the ensemble charge about the place rarely stopping. It became at least for me a tiring and irritating watch. Among the particular sillinesses was Alidoro suddenly appearing to become a cardinal and receiving directions from one of the many Rossini lookalikes now apparently doubling as God, and the ensemble dressing up as tables for the Act 1 finale. The most maddening thing is the device of having members of the ensemble conduct each other, sometimes with a quill which seems to indicate some kind of power over everybody else (linked to another half baked idea that Rossini is writing this as it goes along). I found this, as it went on, and on, infuriatingly distracting. Again it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Herheim thinks the whole Rossini style is too silly to treat as drama - which is all very well, but ends up being self-fulfilling - that is, if it wasn't empty nonsense to begin with (and I actually don't think it is) it certainly is by the time Herheim has finished with it.

At this point in the narrative it becomes necessary to introduce a housekeeping note (I commented on this on Twitter last night without response from the EIF and have written separately to them about it). I paid £50 for a ticket in row E centre block of the Upper Circle. No indication was given at the time of sale or subsequently that my view would be in any way restricted. But it is. A walkway has been built up from the stage around the orchestra pit and on several occasions everybody then on stage disappears onto it while singing and were then invisible from my seat. Judging by the people craning forward in front of me the problem persists into the rows in front, and it will certainly apply to the rows behind. Clearly nobody from the Front of House management or the International Festival checked the sightlines in advance of the opening. I do not regard this as acceptable. You need to check sightlines throughout the theatre and you need to reduce the price if the view is restricted and warn the purchaser that this is the case. I am prepared to excuse the Festival not realising this problem when booking opened. I am not prepared to excuse them not checking it in advance of last night's opening performance. I was really quite annoyed.

Musically there are some compensations. The orchestra plays with a great deal of fizz, and if it were a purely orchestral performance of Rossini there would be no issues with Stefano Montanari's conducting. But sadly there are singers involved. Montanari is another person who should have been making checks in different parts of the theatre. In the Upper Circle most of the time when the orchestra played with volume the singers became nearly inaudible. Nor were pit and stage always in harmony. The singers, when audible, were generally solid, though they did not always find that seeming effortlessness that the best performers of this music can command, and they were unable to transcend the production to make me care about their characters.

I've seen worse operas at the Festival. Clearly many people in the audience thought this was hilarious. But the Herheim comedy approach rarely amused me. I didn't think the musical standards were sufficiently high. And I was very annoyed about the viewing issue. In sum, if you haven't booked, I can't recommend rushing to buy a ticket. If you have booked and are in the Upper Circle you should be asking to be re-seated below, or to have part of the price of your ticket refunded.

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