ENO’s Orpheus: no fun
On Opera

Schlock of the new

Those in charge are in thrall to vain provocateur directors

Do our big opera houses hate their audiences? You’d certainly think so, given the solids they keep dumping on them: there must be a secret codicil to their mission statements compelling them to alienate or disgust their public wherever possible. Covent Garden, increasingly reliant on kleptocrat immigrés to fill its better seats, last year scandalised the thousands of Russians who came to Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with a touching tableau of their sainted national composer bestowing oral gratification upon a portly Guards officer — and that was just the start of it.

Sure, the Russians are doltishly behind the times in failing to grasp that Piotr Ilich’s deployment of genitalia is the most interesting thing about him, so I guess the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim was giving them a handy leg-up into the twenty-first century. A talented man who you might think puts too much of himself in his work, Herheim noted of his staging: “I am an artist first, but also Catholic and homosexual. That should not be left out.”

Half a mile away, English National Opera smartly wiped the smiles off its puppyish audience’s faces in Jacques Offenbach’s usually delirious operetta Orpheus in the Underworld by conjuring up a scene in which Eurydice bears a stillborn baby before cracking up into wailing misery. Nobody laughed for an hour after that, I can tell you. The suburban crowd of dopey wedding-anniversary naifs, led to expect a jolly, indecent show, sat in hollow-eyed gloom, rueing the day they were born. The director was Emma Rice (unregretfully “let go” by the Globe not long ago).

She has described her love for opera thus: “It’s a dreadful sound — it just doesn’t sound like the human voice.” Rice’s other notable contribution was to modify Eurydice from Offenbach’s jet-propelled Second Empire sex-missile, gleefully putting it around the gods, into a used-up rag of disempowered trafficked goods, an interesting reflection on the neo-Victorian victim-cult of some modern feminism.

Those in charge can’t tell the difference between serious reimaginings and childish attempts to shock, so in thrall are they to vain provocateur directors

And so it goes: I could give you more, though they never seem to happen at the unfashionable but sensibly-run houses outside the south-east of England. True, opera houses in receipt of zillions of public money are not there just to provide comfort-viewing for cossetted plutocrats whose ideas of opera are stuck in the 1950s. Wresting opera out of its corsets and whalebones is bound to result in a few black eyes, pinched fingers and other injuries — and indeed there is much fun to be had seeing audiences throw a tantrum when shows don’t match their babyish expectations of massive frocks, sets and sopranos: the posher the crowd, the louder they squeal when a piece is stripped of schlocky romance-for-little-girls impasto and presented with some attempt to divine what the authors might actually have been driving at.

And yes, opera seriously needs to keep digging around the dramatic possibilities of its scanty repertoire. Done in a grown-up way, that’s what keeps it ticking over, massively ups the intellectual interest, and creates an audience, as happened at ENO in the 1980s and ’90s, when the twentieth-century theatre of Meyerhold, Brecht and Craig was finally introduced to a dubious opera public.

But those in charge can’t tell the difference between serious reimaginings and childish attempts to shock, so in thrall are they to vain, provocateur directors and Arts Council-brewed shibboleths of “challenging” the audience. And there is a strong whiff of contempt for the customers, though alas in these days of PR-coaching few are prepared, as Covent Garden’s general director Nicholas Payne so happily did in the 1990s, to refer to them as “fucking ra-ras” on the telly.

But here’s a surprise — a Christmas present for those who wade through the blood-spattered, underpant-clad slurry we frequently endure: this is all about to become a thing of the past (or anyway, less of a thing). ENO is finally replacing its artistic director Daniel Kramer, a one-man band of the idiocies du jour, with Annilese

Miskimmon, intelligent, talented, imaginative, a seasoned director and administrator who can begin the haul of enticing back the moribund place’s abused and discarded audience — not rocket science, actually, since it just means putting on a series of decent shows.

Suddenly (and for the first time for ages) the British opera scene looks almost wholly in competent hands: the houses in Cardiff, Leeds, Glasgow and Belfast continue to do their job usually better than in London, and Glyndebourne and Covent Garden have both shed wantonly misguided artistic directors, replacing them with local lads (Stephen Langridge and Oliver Mears) neither of whom is motivated exclusively by a desire to abuse or punish his audience.

I can’t tell you how unusual this feels. Of course, for those who still want to take a beating in the opera house, there’s always Germany.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover