Opera: Not just the preserve of Bond Villains and Hannibal Lecter (Photo by Daniele Venturelli/WireImage)

How about some vistas of beauty?

Covent Garden’s first post-lockdown offering is in a long, grim tradition

On Opera

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Evidence that the young have not (contrary to reports) lost the ability to delight came when a survey of millennials, asked for a word to describe those who like opera, instead of the expected “moribund”, “tragic”, “solitary”, “insanitary”, etc, plumped for the rather diverting “evil”. Though when you ponder it, how could they think otherwise? The only place they might ever have encountered such mythic creatures will be in movies (watched on a phone on a bus), where a liking for opera is an invariable signifier of depravity: Bond villains, Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone, Lex Luthor.

Pleasingly, it is also demonstrably correct: consider the world’s best-known opera fans — Hitler, Marie Antoinette, Angela Merkel, Michael Gove — and a glance around the rapacious industrialists, perverts, financiers and Russians in the Covent Garden stalls seems unlikely to bring a glow to the heart.

Philip Toynbee fancied a bomb under the West Stand at Twickenham would set fascism back by 50 years. The composer Pierre Boulez similarly favoured blowing up the world’s opera houses (and had his collar felt by the Swiss plod immediately post 9/11 for his ancient quip).

Now that we all disapprove so strongly of jokes like these, we must find other means to punish the knaves who frequent the opera. And happily, nobody is keener to do this than those who run the opera houses.

More proof of this emerged when Covent Garden, to a fanfare evidently scored for kazoo and whoopee cushion, emerged from its seven-month slumber — a well-upholstered Fafnerian snooze that netted about 14 million of your English quid in state subsidy — to announce its plans to save the opera world from final dissolution.

This salvation is to be effected through a satirically engagé programme that would make you blush even as part of a self-consciously grungy festival organised in a multi-storey car park by recent Oxbridge graduates affecting to find opera cool.

Mortier and Bieito were both products of Jesuit education, so it is hardly a surprise that their work features a taste for punishment beatings

No celebratory Barber of Seville, bien entendu, nor yet the Puccini or Mozart everyone has been longing for: instead, an anti-colonial “one-person” drama about the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, recipient of worthy-but-dull notices on its premiere a few years ago and since sunk into happy oblivion, plus a fun-sounding three-singer programme “devised” by director Katie Mitchell and featuring the contemporary noodlings of three composers, all women, none of much interest even to most of those few who have heard of them. This grim farrago — unless the virus mercifully intervenes — is scheduled for late October.

It has to be said that opera houses carried out their punitive agenda with a bit more style in the old days. When the late Gerard Mortier, an engagingly misanthropic Intendant, was in charge at Salzburg he wasted no opportunity to insult the bejewelled audience, culminating in director Hans Neuenfels’s Busby Berkeley-style wheeling Nazis in Strauss’s bouncy operetta Die Fledermaus.

We’ve even had our moments over here. Graham Vick bowed out as director of productions at Glyndebourne with a Don Giovanni set on a heap of horse-dung. And Covent Garden’s former boss Kasper Holten and director Damiano Michieletto, emerging haggard and blood-stained from their native killing-fields of Copenhagen and Venice, were compelled to use a production of Rossini’s William Tell to denounce the audience for their relentless and vociferous support of rape in war.

My personal favourite was Il trovatore, presented in Edinburgh by director Calixto Bieito, for whom Verdi’s view of life was insufficiently gloomy, and who gave us a bracing vision of life in a car park (underground this time) with junkies being doused in petrol and torched, the heroine smeared in shit and raped in an old bathtub, electrode torture and so forth — all thoroughly enjoyed and tittered through by ranks of Morningside matrons.

Mortier and Bieito were both products of Jesuit education, so it is hardly a surprise that their work features a taste for punishment beatings. But for both, opera is determinedly moral and humanely didactic, and in times when the treatment of offenders and of mental illness has moved on from ECT and lobotomy, one is forced to wonder why the opera establishment, possessing this remarkable tool, prefers using it to abuse their audience, rather than attempting the rehabilitation these sociopaths desperately need.

Mitchell’s latest pi-jaw would seem unlikely to have much effect, since the handful who choose to witness it will already be unimprovably righteous. But real opera, of the sort that Covent Garden and the other national companies are signally failing to stage (while their European counterparts seem to be managing that), is entirely about forgiveness, atonement, compassion — yes, even Wagner, when he’s not actively inciting genocide — and could conceivably be of some use in humanising those who are less perfect.

Sure, art never actually made anyone a better person, though as Camus remarked, that’s no reason to stop trying. But there must be a chance that these vistas of undreamt-of beauty, these encomia to the wonder of existence, to the limitless potential for goodness of the human spirit, might just smooth off a few rough edges. Anyway, it’s got to be worth a go.

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