To the bitter end

Why on earth would we want to see the same tawdry old stories endlessly re-enacted?

On Opera

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

Western civilization has weathered many a squall: Black Death, the Nazis, Katie Price, but there was always bound to be a last straw — finally provided by, according to UnAwoken arms of the media, the rewritten ending of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at the Regent’s Park Theatre this summer. And while it’s usually little Leftoid dewdrops who quake at apocalyptic signs they descry in innocent phenomena, on this occasion, pleasingly, it was the red-faced cry-babies of the Right bewailing the End of Things.

The fact is, Oscar Hammerstein was a chap who couldn’t pass a roadkill without dressing it up in a spangly tutu and deelyboppers, and of course it was his upbeat ending — where dead nogoodnik Billy gets to redeem himself post-mortem in a particularly nauseating manner — that had been changed from Franz Molnar’s less emetic version in his original play, Liliom.

Opera directors are appalled by the optimism of these endings, and itch to correct them

Carousel was one of those second-chance dramas from the war — cf A Matter of Life and Death, Les jeux sont faits etc — when the notion of allowing recent stiffs another innings had a certain sweet validity; so we can forgive Oscar’s editing. But the era of Love Island and looming helotry in the glorious Chinese world-empire isn’t really the time or place for happy endings, is it.

I suppose it was ever thus, and no doubt the Thracian Telegraphos had similar seizures as people monkeyed around with their local Orpheus story — first Ovid, turning the hero gay in a wanton bit of Greek-hazing, then opera, serially perverting the amusing ending (Eurydice drawing the go-back-to-Hades card, our lad torn to bits by Guardian Women-style harpies) — the closest to a properly gloomy outcome being those operas where Orpheus (firmly back with the hets by now) winds up actually saddled with his ghastly wife again in a careful-what-you-wish-for parable.

The princelings who paid for opera during its 18th-century heyday demanded finales in which the aristo hero (ie, them, but with their balls lopped off, and in a big skirt) fixed everything up like Jim: downbeat denouements were reserved for peasants and next Thursday’s wheel-breakee bread-filcher.

Opera directors — crowd-control busybodies seduced by the fantastic sums they get paid into believing they are visionaries — are appalled by the optimism of these endings, and itch to correct them (along with anything else they find “problematic” or uncongenial). It’s popular, for example, to end Don Giovanni with the old hound going to hell, for sure, but living it up like Georgie Best down there with the birds and the booze. Similarly, we’ve seen the likes of Carmen popping a cap in José’s ass before he gets to stab her, Tosca Bobbitting Scarpia, Butterfly gutting the entire Pinkerton family à la Kill Bill before waltzing off to Sapphic bliss with Suzuki, Gilda hopping out of her sack like a party bunny and neatly resolving her daddy-issues by drowning Rigoletto.

And certainly we must thank these gurus for pointing out how silly we were to treat fellows like Scarpia, Pinkers and José as role models — jeez! How long did that take? But while we cheer on the sisters as they put history right, it’s hard to miss the obvious flaw: while it’s fun to make audiences cry by spoiling their little stories, merely pissing about with endings does not in itself redeem our fallen world. (Gioachino Rossini neatly made this point by providing alternative smiley-face/sad-face endings of his Tancredi, not giving a toss which was used.)

No, to achieve anything worthwhile we must go further: to suggest, for example, that there might be more to Carmen than a cautionary tale by one of those deadline-pressed lady columnists on the Daily Mail about what happens to provocative young things who avidly court rape and murder; or that Wagner’s Ring is not actually “about” dwarves, giants and dragons splashing about in the Rhine, contrary to what the audience thinks.

The ideal future would be one where the stage action at no point reflects the script

Naturally, this idea meets terrific resistance, entertainingly so: I recall a happy evening at Covent Garden watching impotent rage among the interval corporates because there were NO BOATS in the staging of Britten’s Peter Grimes — the director having discerned that the opera is not mainly concerned with herring (for which, better see Albert Herring).

This is a tricky notion to get through to a British audience, terrifiedly clinging to the teat of watch-with-mother theatre and its petty-bourgeois literalism. But now we are not six, why on earth would we want to see the same tawdry old stories endlessly re-enacted? Surely everyone is sick of this wasteland of shopworn clichés: opera plots are a byword for idiocy even among fans.

The ideal future would be one where the stage action at no point reflects the script, a mere framework for more elevated concerns: never again need we actually watch the wrong baby being chucked on a bonfire, someone failing to identify his wife at a fancy-dress party, a camp teletubby chorus pretending to be stormtroopers, or doing each other at an orgy.

These mortifications past, it only remains to decide what we will look at while the music unfolds as God intended, unmediated by all the “nasty business” the stage is heir to. Fractals, slo-mo videos, Donald Duck cartoons, soft porn? It can only be an improvement.

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