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Brilliance and brainlessness at ENO - Michael Church [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Michael Church

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Brilliance and brainlessness at ENO [Nov. 9th, 2009|02:37 pm]
Michael Church

To see the revival of David McVicar’s fabulous ‘Turn of the Screw’ (left) is to be reminded just how good English National Opera can be when it sticks to its metier: getting brilliant directors to give tried and trusted classics a new and original twist, with singers who understand how to work as an ensemble. While 84-year-old Charles Mackerras cast a lovely spell from the pit, the cast who bodied-forth Britten’s ghost-story might have been born to their roles. No praise can be too high for Michael Colvin’s sinister Peter Quint, Cheryl Barker’s louring former governess, or Rebecca Evans’ plangent incarnation of the current governess; the boys alternating as Miles - opposite Nazan Fikret’s vividly-imagined Flora - were as good as any I have seen in that precarious role (the treble voice must be strong and pure, with no intimation of the adolescent break to come); Ann Murray, as the housekeeper, carried real authority. Tanya McCullin’s delicate sepia designs haunted the mind long after the last notes have sounded; the moment when Quint literally summons Miss Jessel up out of the earth remains one of the most convincingly spooky I’ve ever seen.

To see Rupert Goold’s version of ‘Turandot’ (right), on the following night, was to be reminded that this company can still, with great deliberation, shoot itself in both feet. Nothing in Goold’s theatrical track record - garlanded with praise for his flashy ‘Enron’ production - had given an indication as to how he would deal with this problematic work, with its melange of sublime music, adolescent emotion, and sheer vulgarity: we were assured his take would be original. It was, but only in the sense that it plumbed depths of crassness never before seen at the Coliseum.

The curtain went up on a Soho - or SoHo - Chinese restaurant, where a Halloween party was in progress containing just about every stereotype known to metropolitan man. Camp queens, jewelled Goths, a trio of Elvises, a Chelsea pensioner, some Hasidic Jews, a NYPD officer, a nun - you name it, it was all in there somewhere. There was also a white-suited Tom Wolfe journo, who was sometimes the invisible chronicler, and sometimes the impresario making things happen; the Emperor was presented as the shambolically-colourful lord of Longleat on a bender; Ping, Pang, and Pong were dolled up as camp cooks with cleavers, sometimes supported by a bevy of dancers with pigs’ heads, and at others by a leggy troupe of mannequins. You got a message: this director doesn’t like women.

You also sensed his desperation to reference everything to topical reality: unsurprisingly this periodically misfired, with some stereotypes being toe-curlingly out of date. Nothing made dramatic sense at any level; the ritualised violence was about as threatening as the violence in ‘The Mikado’. When the journo got inexplicably impaled by Turandot, and scrambled up onto the kitchen range - yes, we were in the servants’ quarters for the final act - to expire bloodily with his notebook falling from lifeless fingers, we got a clumsy reference to the dying Puccini, but so what? Nothing, I repeat, made sense. The whole thing was like having the room invaded by a tiresomely camp friend who is constantly shouting ‘Let’s do the show right here!’, when all you want is to have some sort of conversation.

The sad thing was that in strictly musical terms this was a decent evening. If Kirsten Blanck’s Princess Turandot was efficient rather than inspired, Amanda Echalaz’s Liu was ringingly sung, as was Gwyn Hughes Jones’s noble Calaf; the chorus was in splendid form, and the long trio for Ping, Pang, and Pong was rivetingly delivered under Edward Gardner’s skilful beat. What a waste.

What this show reflects is that most common of failings among would-be cool-dude directors - a total lack of faith in the work itself. When in doubt, let postmodern ‘style’ replace thought, and turn it into a Broadway musical: ‘That’ll draw the crowd!’ Oh really? It will be interesting to see whether ENO has the nerve to revive this brainless travesty.

And so to the long-awaited ENO double bill: Bartok’s ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ in an unusual pairing with Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ - opera and ballet yoked together for once. To direct the former, ENO has drafted in Daniel Kramer, another flashy young theatrical figure - but at least one with a brain. So simple, and so obvious: transpose the castle to a basement in an Austrian suburb, and turn Bluebeard into Josef Fritzl. Why not? Bluebeard’s collection of ghostly victims makes an excellent fit, as does his enjoyment of this secret harem. We meet the Duke - Clive Bayley, possessor of the most wonderfully sepulchral bass - on a dimly-lit street, where he links up with soprano Michaela Martens. Their initial encounter is crudely, almost comically sexual, as she applies her lips to his like a limpet, before being drawn in through his front door.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of designer Giles Cadle’s coups de theatre by describing them: suffice it to say that the eye is as ravished as the ear is by the glorious singing (and the equally glorious playing under Edward Gardner in the pit). Bayley’s Duke is an extraordinary creation, sometimes convulsed with fearful excitement, sometimes dancing about like a delinquent 12-year old. And though his patent lack of sex-appeal makes Martens’ initial attraction inexplicable, he projects a queasy and credible necrophilia. The final tableau is so shocking that the applause takes at least a minute to materialise - and to me it felt crassly over the top, but the rest of Kramer’s Polanskian imaginings are highly persuasive. What we need now is a revival of Willy Decker’s majestic ROH production of this work, with John Macfarlane’s darkly suggestive designs. Kramer’s literalism is ingenious, but ‘Bluebeard’ is better served by something more oblique.

Meanwhile Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ was woefully ill-served by the banal choreography which the Ireland-based Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre chose to plaster over it. We were promised a dance piece which would reinforce the ritual intensity of the music, but what we got instead was a cloudy sequence of events which did precisely the opposite; it might have been a ‘Lord of the Flies’-type story, and then again it might not. A sacrifice of sorts began to unfold at the outset - we were in a park full of young social rejects in a bleak Celtic place - but the whole thing degenerated into undressing, cross-dressing, and much donning of animal masks, with the final sacrifice replaced by what looked like a clumsy piece of social didacticism. Nijinsky’s choreography worked because the music was gloriously transparent through it: this choreography was opaque, while the music - conducted with an odd lack of finesse - blundered irrelevantly along below. Memo to ENO: by all means revive ‘Bluebeard’, but in tandem with something that works.