On Opera

Spring to life

April in London has a number of operatic things that look kind of fun

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Even by the Olympian standards of the Covent Garden stalls, it was a top effort: the old dude beside me was snoring happily within five minutes of curtain-up on Rusalka. Actually at 200 quid a pop it’s not such a bad deal: for a start, you miss the brain-formattingly dull, virtue-semaphoring production they’ve served up, Dvorak’s music is lovely and lulling, the seats are cosy, and you get two intervals to top up the tanks. Arguably the Royal Opera should think about a cunning pivot into the sleep-therapy sector.

Dvorak’s music is lovely and lulling, the seats are cosy, and you get two intervals to top up the tanks

March looked uncannily like the good old days in more ways than that, too. While Covent Garden retrenched to traditional strengths, English National Opera over at the Coliseum was on fizzing form with the delayed first instalment to another of those Ring cycles of theirs that may never happen — a spooky re-run of events here twenty years ago when the place was again taking a punishment beating (followed by craven apologies and loads of money) from the Arts Council.

And ENO has been saving up the best after a patchy season (i.e. a massive improvement on previous years). Although I hate to dole out a tedious “what’s on”, April in London has a number of things that look kind of fun. I mean this in the operatic sense, naturally, which need not intersect with the English language at any particular point, and perhaps it’s not the exact mot for Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence, getting its UK premiere at Covent Garden, based on an American high-school shoot-’em-up, but it comes with extravagant encomia from nearly everyone who’s seen it (though her previous operas have been a bit woozy and diaphanous for my taste).

I’m thinking more of the reappearance of Erich Korngold (Die tote Stadt, ENO), best remembered for his blockbuster film scores — Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and all that. Of course, only weirdos actually listen to film music, but these and the scores of his contemporary, Max Steiner (endless cataracts of unbelievably romantic splurge like the Bette Davis number Now, Voyager), transplanted the Wagner-on-Viagra muse of Richard Strauss subconsciously into the minds of Forties’ viewers, and of everyone since.

Both were Viennese lads whose hometown made them unwelcome, hence the move to Hollywood; Steiner was actually Strauss’s godson, and those scores amounted to opera continued by other means, which is pretty much what those film melodramas were, too.

That was a stroke of luck for these composers, really, since their particular model of opera was approaching the buffers at warp speed. Listening to stuff like Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena or Korngold’s “other opera”, Das Wunder des Heliane, of 1927, you understand these guys have twigged that the game — at any rate their version of it — is history, but they’re damned if they’re not going to take the whole edifice down with them in flaming apocalypse: the operatic equivalent of the Berlin bunker.

The operas are predicated on the challenging notion that Tristan und Isolde — the most extreme, untrammelled work of music-theatre ever made — was frankly a bit of a cop-out, and that Wagner hadn’t gone nearly far enough in mining extremes of passion and solipsistic mania. These chaps weren’t going to make that mistake, no sir: this time, they were gonna go far, far too far.

Which is what everyone really wants from opera: preposterous, intense extremism — otherwise why bother? A similar kind of lunacy took hold south of the Alps, where Puccini’s contemporaries, frantically trying to get anyone to notice them, dished up ever greater levels of frenzy and delirium; the pre-Mussolini years were packed with composers like Italo Montemezzi and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari writing scenarios of caricaturish hysteria (Opera Holland Park has always had a weakness for these ridiculous creatures) like L’amore dei tre Re and I gioielli della Madonna.

Which is what everyone really wants from opera: preposterous, intense extremism — otherwise why bother?

The feverish orgy of Expressionism, Decadence and Romantic opera produced, in Korngold’s operas, a marvellous anti-literalist mayhem that even makes Verdi’s Il trovatore, by any standards a piece that pushes the boundaries of civilised drama, seem a tad tame.

But though you must be prepared to take a bit of aural and emotional punishment when confronting these monsters, they are hardly difficult to listen to, flowing along with a pleasant mixture of the transcendent, ethereal and sublime (and plain schlocky) amid all the bellowing and thundering.

The Dead City is a dry run for Heliane; fans of neurosis will not be disappointed. It’s based on a symbolist novel, Bruges-la-morte, mostly takes place in a dream, and concerns a chap finding original if ill-advised coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his wife.

And there are more goodies at ENO this month: the unlikely hit of Philip Glass’s Akkadian-scripted opera Akhnaten, adorned with much slo-mo Robert Wilson-lite action, more gold spray than Shirley Eaton, and way too much juggling.

For any sentient being, this hommage to A minor is a bit Cirque du Soleil-on-rohypnol, but it’s very popular. There’s also a new American opera, Blue, about bad cops, and a staging of Gorecki’s voguish Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. That’s it for the season. But pleasingly there will actually be another: and that noise you can hear is the gnashing of teeth at the hopeless and absurd Arts Council, foiled yet again.

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