The Vixen cunningly badgers a Mail-reading badger

Singing lessons

Spare us the social justice preaching in opera

On Opera

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As everyone knows, opera’s purpose is to convey — at irksome length — unwanted data about things like sex-worker healthcare in nineteenth- century Paris, the untaxing dilemmas of pre-Revolutionary grandees (boring afternoon: hmm, shoot stuff, or shag/whip the servants), pre-modern wars between shithole countries, and a bunch of Italians bickering probably about whether their dough-based food has been undercooked in the manner indicated.

Opera directors are now Stakhanovite miners at the coalface of social justice

We should be grateful that directors have troubled themselves to introduce elements of relevancy. Taking pity on the benighted masses who approach on their knees, crying “Master, sensei, guru, what should we think?”, they bestow their wisdom, gleaned from a lifetime’s studying the mystic scriptures of the Guardian and the London Review of Books.

So, at long last, we can see a piece like Leoš Janáčeks otherwise pointless portrayal of woodland life, The Cunning Little Vixen, through a prism conferring some purpose, thanks to director Jamie Manton at ENO.

The forest where these stupid animals waste their and our time has now fallen victim to Big Timba, doubtless to print copies of the Daily Mail, and denizens, furry and otherwise, are condemned to a dreadful time adapting to the resulting erosion of both soil and opportunities for poachers and child-molesters (particularly galling given the number of children infesting the place). This was pre-war, so there were no camps of Ukrainian refugees being tasered by Priti’s shock-troops, but picturesque Roma had surely been violently evicted — at any rate, there were some old supermarket trolleys lying around.

With opera directors now Stakhanovite miners at the coalface of social justice, the nub of their job is to dish up a correct quotient of women/BAMEs/disadvantaged children/trans activists on stage, and ensure that (importantly) they all have simply masses of agency. Next, it is vital to establish how furiously we disdain Western “civilisation”, Israel, and white men. After anguished asides on global warming, some small heed may be paid to the contents of the opera at hand, in the unlikely event this is deemed appropriate.

Happily, this homiletic zeal has finally reached G.F. Handel, previously a stranger to any notion of “meaning”. After March’s attempted fuck-the-patriarchy Theodora at Covent Garden, the London Handel Festival opened with a production of Acis and Galatea — you know, boy meets girl, gets whacked by rock — wherein (we were told) Handel does his nut about the global ghastliness caused by “our evolved practices, which on the face of it seem to be for the benefit of the many, but are in fact for the good of the few”. It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Naughty us.

This guff wasn’t addressed beyond the programme note, obviously, but you gotta start somewhere. It did mean that the actually useful life lessons contained in Acis were rather elided: my favourite is the bit where a passing shepherd counsels the frisky giant Polyphemus against raping Galatea on the grounds that it’s only half as much fun as consensual sex.

One of the nicest things was the way the imperturbable audience rose above even noticing the absurd staging, and sat peaceably enjoying Handel’s perfect serenata gorgeously sung and played by our latest Baroque wunderkind, David Bates, and his singers and band.

Baffled by the emotional truths of the purest of all opera, sometimes they even forget to harangue us about Palestine

This annual festival, of which Acis was the headliner, is a great little affair, with a whiff of village hall, dignified by our consistently top-end performers of this rep. Over in Germany, they have a peculiar idea that G-Fred was theirs (although he got the hell out as soon as he could), and May is when they lay on rather more expansive celebrations in his birthplace — Halle, near Leipzig — and in the stultifying university town of Göttingen in Lower Saxony.

After decades of legally-enforced guilt-tripping, the Germans have honed the art of beating themselves up in opera stagings. Nearly every production is at pains to inform the audience they are a gang of Nazis, after which the melomanes shrug and gorge themselves on the hotdogs and Sekt the theatres provide.

But the Germans do take Handel seriously, and there’s nothing much this month to detain us in Britain; checking out Julius Caesar in Göttingen, or Ariodante at Goethe’s magical eighteenth-century theatre near Halle, would seem to be the best possible use of time. The latter is the essence of Handel’s patented dodge, a distilled sample of souls under pressure, innocence betrayed, joy and faith and atonement earned through torment, the dawn of imaginative sympathy and the startling concept that other people might actually exist. Handel doesn’t give a toss about storytelling, even less about being socially useful, but the combination of optimally pithy Metastasian quatrains with music that spirals down into the characters’ hearts and into matters of distress, comfort, love, is what he does better than anyone else.

Directors, despairing of ways to fill up the lengthy arias, have the characters make tea, or sodomise each other, at leisure: baffled by the emotional truths of the purest of all opera, sometimes they even forget to harangue us about Palestine. And if those Germans try any abuse or other funny business, you can bask complacently knowing it doesn’t apply to you.

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

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

Critic magazine cover