Losing the plot

Robert Thicknesse reveals how in searching for meaning, opera adaptations are becoming more obscure

On Opera

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Of all the hordes who have a beef with opera, the straight-theatre crowd are by far the sniffiest. Naturally enough, their objections start with the peculiar singing, and pretty soon it’s all Johnson’s “exotic and irrational Entertainment” and the laughs that Addison, Pope and those lads got out of Handel; and to be fair, G-Fred’s fat capons, standing around in armour, hooped skirts and big hats, making taxi-hailing gestures and hooting away in Italian, must have been a lot of fun.

Or it’s our foolish plots, usually citing the Verdian likes of Trovatore and Ernani — but I ask you, surely anyone who can’t get off on a premise like “wrong baby on bonfire” is lacking some essential bit of the soul.

Opera likes to advertise itself as the fruitful mating of music and theatre, but the apter connubial metaphor might be a fight to the death with kitchen utensils

The truth they miss is that these risible texts — transmuted from pigswill to gold by musical alchemy — demonstrate the fatuity not of opera but of the spoken theatre whence they emerged: a catalogue of shame from the moron Gutiérrez who produced the original El trovador to Maurice Maeterlinck, whom nobody would remember if not for Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande. Who is David Belasco without Butterfly, or Victorien Sardou but for large ladies launching themselves like dirigibles off the battlements (Tosca)?

In theatre’s history of abject ephemera, as M. Amis noted, search for something (other than old Oxford’s stuff, obvs) that has lasted a century and you are “soon reaching for a sepulchral Norwegian . . .” But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps — yes, perhaps in half a millennium David Hare and Jez Butterworth will be setting the welkin ringing on Alpha Centauri or somewhere. Who can say?

Opera likes to advertise itself as the fruitful mating of music and theatre, but the apter connubial metaphor might be a fight to the death with kitchen utensils. And directors who come to us from the theatre suffer much stress and conflict: they hate its being off-limits to mess with music and timing, but they do love the gigantic fees paid by state-run opera houses.

Those who try to wring these gamey old warhorses into some kind of credibility are instantly reviled by an audience who, while admitting operatic preposterousness (indeed, wearing it as some kind of badge of honour), also long for every cretinous nineteenth-century stage direction to be legally enforced: the ideal dramatic performance best represented by some gang from Bessarabian National Opera with their 50-date whistlestop tours from Redruth to Cullercoats, overnighting at Toddington Services, whose punctiliously literal shows feature temperamental scenery, Rodrigo the Dancing Stallion and the Musical Fountains of Seville (N.B. “No horse in Nuneaton”, as the small print always says).

So, while directors and their cohorts of textual analysts and dramaturges, stuck forever in GCSE Theatre Studies, ferret about unearthing and wildly over-interpreting dubious metaphors, large tracts of the audience would rather die than admit any meaning or purpose to the creature beyond its wigs, lacy flounces and whooping campery.

This often works out surprisingly OK in Britain, in a familiar tragic compromise, but even that tepid hybrid is off limits now. And when Covent Garden produced its latest all-expense-spared extravaganza — a prim little salon concert in the funeral-parlour-meets-whorehouse Crush Bar with Uncle Tony Pappano tickling polite ivories while laundered young singers with nice hair piped “Come into the garden, Maud” — clearly the time had come to seek out a bracing draught of hardcore Euro-opera.

And indeed, it turns out they’ve been a teeny bit more industrious over in outremer — as they can afford to with their ability to ignore such fripperies as box-office receipts.

Directors and their cohorts of textual analysts and dramaturges are stuck forever in GCSE Theatre Studies

Thus the empty Grand Theatre in Geneva lately witnessed a notable demolition of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito by the affable Swiss director Milo Rau (I’ve reviewed this online — and the show is on Mezzo TV). This poised, luminous miracle was dashed off by Mozart in 1791 to mark the coronation of some unworthy Habsburg or other, using a brown-nosing text that had already been wheeled out dozens of times for every princeling in the previous half-century.

Rau’s case (you guessed!) is that the first-century Emperor Titus, hitherto generally thought the most righteous dude, was actually a massive twat, busy repressing the shit out of everyone behind the scenes while giving it the large one with mercy and forgiveness for the cameras.

Standard teen provocation, indeed, but what is notable is that Rau is finally permitted to do what all directors long to: to demote the previously sacrosanct music, ditching the tedious bits, stopping the show to bung in a scene of a guy having his heart ripped out by two African ladies, or, best of all, sidelining the music during some particularly tiresome aria by turning off the translations and projecting a story about refugees, while the despondent singer warbles away forgotten and ignored in the corner.

Mozart might have agreed with Rau about Titus, of course (while muttering “Jeez, are you literally 16?”). But I’m sure he’d join in our cheers for this momentous liberation from the tyranny of the composer and his blasted notes. About bloody time too!

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