Sunday 15 March 2020

Susanna at the Royal, or, Opera in a Time of Pandemic

This was one of the strangest live performance experiences I can recall. Not for the performance itself, which was well sung and played in a production which had strong elements but didn't quite cohere. No, it was strange rather because of the external health crisis and the way that kept impinging, do what I would, on my mind as I watched and listened.

I had havered for the last few days as to whether to attend. I have found it difficult, both in my professional life and in relation to this performance to be sure institutions in this country are doing the right thing in carrying on when universities and arts venues on the continent are closing down for weeks. Let me be clear - I am quite specifically not making a judgement on whether the policy is right, I am not qualified so to do, but talking about how I have felt. Nevertheless, in the end I decided I would attend this performance. The run has been sold out since booking opened but there were enough empty seats to suggest others had reached a different conclusion, and I saw at least one audience member in their seat wearing a face mask.

Of the qualities of the performance itself it is hard to know whether one's judgement can be trusted. For what it's worth I thought it was in the main very finely sung and played. There were some lovely aching sweeps of sound from the London Handel Orchestra, and many nicely characterised solos. Conductor Patrick Milne kept a sense of dramatic momentum while not being afraid to linger where appropriate. The three central performers - Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha (Susanna), Patrick Terry (Joachim) and Yaritza Veliz (Daniel) all sang impressively. Rangwanasha's powerful voice really opened out in later arias, and both Terry and Veliz sang with great beauty, though the latter's command of the English text could have been strengthened. Michael Mofidian (Chelsias) brought a rich bass voice to his arias. The Two Elders (Andres Presno and Blaise Malaba) were not quite in the same league - nor always helped by the movement direction - but still sang perfectly creditably. The Royal Opera House Chorus brought the judging townsfolk to convincing physical and vocal life and in the present moment their reflections on a wider power had a disturbing resonance.

This was my first encounter with director Isabelle Kettle. The idea of setting the piece in a fishing village suffering from a shortage of fish and (judging by the opening chorus) a surfeit of plastic was fine, and stripping down the set to force focus on the trial and judgement in the second half also worked well. But the detail didn't always cohere - for example it never really became clear to me why Joachim was compelled to leave. There were some mistaken incidents of busyness - the townsfolk dismantling the house set didn't quite work - though the semi-reassembly towards the conclusion worked better. The idea that a stoning will follow the trial was effective, though the lowered cage in which Susanna was placed was less so. Movement (Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) was the least convincing element tending too often to prompt me to wonder why people were doing what they were.

But overall the performance on its own terms was in many ways very good, if not quite on the same level as last year's Berenice. But the problem was, I found it impossible much of the time to shut out that external situation. I kept noticing performers touching their faces and then each other's. I began to notice the spit flying out over the orchestra. I became aware, in that context, that I was sitting in the front row of the Stalls - a place I'd usually be delighted to be located. I found myself wondering how did the performers feel about all this physical contact given the pandemic. And then, at the curtain, as the performers received rightly warm applause, I confess I was rather staggered to see the soloists and conductor take hands as usual and step forward for final collective bows. In my professional capacity the previous evening I was commenting on the Trump press conference, in the course of which much was rightly made about the poor behaviour modelled by the president in persistently shaking hands with his guests on the podium. The same question naturally raised itself as I watched this performance.

The arts sector is plainly staring into a crisis that could threaten its very existence (though it is important to note that it is far from alone in that). There have been ominous reports showing how rapidly major organisations I cherish like the Royal Opera and the National Theatre would be in dire financial situations if forced to close for an extended period of time and potentially refund ticket holders. It is not surprising therefore that most arts organisations are following the British government line that closures are not necessary - despite the fact that other sectors like sport and increasing numbers of universities are taking a different view. But if performances are to continue, and I suspect many of us watching events on the continent assume this cannot be so for much longer, surely organisations have to respond more to the new realities. Taking hands at the curtain is more a question of signalling the right behaviour (but no less important for that). It will be tougher to accept that production quality might have to be sacrificed to reduce direct contact between performers but again it surely cannot be the right signal that performers are continuing to embrace and touch each others' faces when the rest of us are being urged to avoid doing so.

Before I attended this performance I had it in my mind this might be my last opera for some time (I am due at the ROH's new Jenufa in early April but it is hard to imagine that going ahead at this point - though I should be delighted to be proved wrong). I was struggling with what seems the likely disappearance, at least for a time, of something central to my life. But as I sat through this performance that question receded in the face of those posed in the previous paragraph. As long as performances are to continue in the present moment it seems to me it behoves arts organisations to do as much as they can to model good behaviour to their audiences, and to safeguard the health of their performers. I was not convinced after this afternoon that the Royal Opera has got as far as it needs to in either area.

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