Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Trio of Tragedies

It's not going well...Peter Coleman-Wright as Caligula

There have a been a few bloody nights at the opera lately - gore, depravity, evil and gallons of fake blood. And some pretty marvelous singing sometimes, through it all. Here’s the tragic round-up:

An old, old story but a modern opera by German composer Detlev Glanert, first performed in 2006. This was it’s UK premiere at the English National Opera, with a translation into English by the excellent Amanda Holden, and the eponymous lead role sung by Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. (Keen followers of this blog may recall that Peter C-W sang the lead in the Opera Australia production of ‘Bliss’, the 2010 Brett Dean opera). He sang the modern music well, as did his fellow cast members, and I enjoyed it very much. Though much bad stuff happened - we are talking about Caligula, after all - I thought the production was thoughtful.

The stage of The Coliseum Theatre was raked with a great stand of yellow plastic stadium seats. The chorus members, in various odd guises, waved little flags when hailing their god-emperor. Yes, we were referencing twentieth-century dictators, who liked to hold rallies in sporting arenas. Of course, we were also referencing the Ancient Romans, who were fans, if not inventors, of the arena spectacle. Clever. My only slight hesitation about the production would be to question the need for a naked woman (kudos to Zoe Hunn) to occupy the stage quite so constantly. She was supposed to represent the ghost of Drusilla, Caligula’s dead sister/lover, but was - understandably - distracting.

The opera is based on Camus’s 1938 play, rather than historical fact, and we see Caligula descend rather rapidly into chomping madness, tricking, torturing, raping, murdering and finally being murdered himself. As director Benedict Andrews puts it, “a portrait of a tremendous soul in terrible crisis.” Yes, understatement is difficult when it comes to Caligula.

Here's a review.

Caligula and his loyal subjects in the arena.

Icky - Angela Denoke as Salome
But wait - over at Covent Garden in the Royal Opera House is a production that has to take First Prize for hair-raising, skin-prickling ickiness, to say nothing of floods of fake blood. It was Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’, a short but powerful early-twentieth century opera about the crazy princess who demands the head of John the Baptist. Salome was sung by Angela Denoke, and she was spectacularly good, especially in the last 20 minutes when Salome has descended into complete insanity, clutching the bloody head, making a terrible mess with it, and singing Strauss’s eerie and beautiful music. 

The story - the opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play - is famous of course for the “Dance of the Seven Veils”, a scene that has been a challenge to many a hefty soprano. Ms Denoke is slightly built, but she wasn’t asked, by director David McVicar, to perform anything like a tacky strip-show. Instead, the music of the famous Dance led us through a series of scenes harking back to what might have happened to Salome to turn her into a raving lunatic (think abuse by her step-father Herod). This was clever, adding a bit of back-story to an opera which starts rather abruptly in the middle of the tale.

Somewhat similarly to ‘Caligula’, we were also treated to gobs of fairly gratuitous nakedness, with various supernumeraries in various states of undress, hovering distractingly in the background. But just to show that its not prudery that makes me object to this sort of thing, I will say that I approved of the muscular naked gentleman who was sent down into the pit to murder John the Baptist, reappearing smeared head to toe in fake blood, and bearing the head aloft for Salome.

Strauss's music is beautiful, and this was a divinely beautiful opera to hear, if rather gory to see.

Here's a review.

Billy Budd

And then back to the ENO for one of Benjamin Britten’s operas - well, they are rarely a bundle of laughs, and ‘Billy Budd’ is no exception. The other two operas may have concerned mad people, but this one examines evil per se, and depressing it is too. The story is based on Melville’s tale of a good sailor boy, loved by all, persecuted by an evil Master-at-Arms, Mr Claggart. Then, when he is provoked, Billy punches Claggart and Claggart dies; so the Captain sentences Billy to the gallows. Or was it the plank? The opera centres around the Captain’s remorse...yes, I told you it was depressing.  

Billy's in trouble...Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd
The music, being Britten, is lovely. The opera has an all-male cast, but we won’t hold that against it. I was a little disappointed in the cast, aactually. Billy and Claggart were only adequate, IMHO, though Captain Vere was well-sung by Kim Begley, and I liked Jonathan Summers as Mr Redburn, the First Lieutenant. But the Novice, a tenor role, was badly mis-cast. A young, lithe, weak, flawed boy is needed in that role, one who can put some subtlety into the role. Most of the principals were not great actors. The chorus, however, was heaven. I love those big menacing Britten choruses, and the ENO always does them well.

Here's a fierce review that shares my views on the casting & production.

The program for ‘Billy Budd’ is full of interesting articles about Melville, and men on ships. This production - though the libretto clearly and repeatedly mentions 1798 - is set in what looks like the bowels of a modern supertanker. It only just works. But the examination of the nature of good and evil is really what the story is about. From the program, here is an interesting commentary from W H Auden, critiquing Melville’s take on the subject in ‘Billy Budd’:

The passion of Billy Budd is convincing, but fails...and the ways in which it fails are interesting for the light they throw on the romantic conception of life. Like many other romantics Melville seems to hold:

  1. That innocence and sinlessness are identical, or rather perhaps that only the innocent, i.e., those who have never known the law, can be sinless. Once a man becomes conscious he becomes a sinner. As long as he is not conscious of guilt, what he does is not sin. This is to push St Paul’s remark ‘Except I had known the Law, I had not known sin’ still further to mean that ‘Except I had known sin, I would not have sinned.’ Thus when Billy Budd first appears he is the Prelapsarian Adam: Billy Budd in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such  perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company. He may have done things which in a conscious person would be sin...but he feels no guilt.
              2. That the unconscious and innocent are marked by great physical beauty, and therefore that   the beautiful are sinless.  
If the story were to be simply the story of the Fall, i.e., the story of how the Devil (Claggart) tempted Adam (Billy) into the knowledge of good and evil, this would not matter, but Melville wants Budd also to be the Second Adam, the sinless victim who suffers voluntarily for the sins of the whole world. But in order to be that he must know what sin is, or else his suffering is not redemptive, but only one more sin on our part....

....and much more thoughtful stuff in the same vein. If you want to look it up, it’s from Auden’s ‘The Enchafed Flood of The Romantic Iconography of the Sea.’ He makes it seem rather Parsifalian...

Trouble ahoy!

And so ends my report on tragic operas seen recently. I think I now need to go and have a  long lie-down with an ice-pack on my forehead.

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