Fidelio – Opera de Lyon – Edinburgh International Festival

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

Star Date: 12 August 2013

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

There are many areas of human endeavour where we must applaud glorious failure. Better, surely, that risks are taken than that we make do forever with the urbane and the familiar. The trouble is, when it comes to space travel, risks that don’t come off tend to result in crashes of spectacular intensity. Such is the case with Gary Hill’s interpretation of Fidelio, which for some reason never entirely explained, he chose to set in space.

This was a production with a lot of “concept” going on. It may be some time before we get to the singing but in a sense, that is true to the experience. One was never entirely convinced that the singing was the point of it.

Not only were we to be experiencing Fidelio on a spacecraft, but it was a spacecraft that was first known to humankind through its appearance in a Swedish science fiction poem that was published in the 1950s by Harry Martinson. Thus, we were on the good ship Aniara which somehow had found itself going off-course from its mission to colonise Mars. That it wasn’t the only thing that was going off-course was to become something of a theme of the evening.

It must have been such a wheeze deciding that the principle characters would mostly get around the spacecraft on Segway machines. There is certain dramatic ballet to be had by such machines gliding around. The trouble is, one controls a Segway by shifting one’s balance. It is a delicate operation. That one can persuade opera singers to perform on them is in itself worthy of note. However, directors who consider this course of action in future might be well to observe that if the singers are standing stock still with their hands by their sides in order to prevent themselves whizzing off into the wings, then it is a fair bet that their acting abilities are somewhat curtailed.

It was not always clear why some of the cast appeared on Segways at some points and walked on their legs at others. At one point Fidelio zoomed off-stage into the wings from which one could hear a decisive thud and came back on foot for the rest of the opera. Whether this was an accident or an expression of a new and previously undiscovered level of existential angst in the mind of the director was never clear.

Particular mention should be made of Don Pizzaro’s costume which made one wonder whether the cosmos had somehow conspired to mate the Mikado with a passing armadillo. It should come in handy if Opera de Lyon ever decide to stage the Savoy operas in a lunar safari park. Having seen this production, we must not rule out the possibility. The other costumes by Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson might have some second-hand value if Blake’s 7 is ever re-commissioned.

Then there was the video. Digital projection was not merely a feature of this production so much as its whole raison d’etre. Digital images were projected onto the rear of the stage throughout. Meanwhile, a gauze curtain was hung in front of the action during the whole opera and further digital images were projected onto this. Sometimes they related to the action. Sometimes they didn’t. What they did do was move constantly. Lines, polygons, imagined space-worlds all appeared before our eyes and jiggled and danced before us. It was as though someone was trying to demonstrate what was happening inside the head of someone with attention deficit disorder who was enduring a migraine whilst watching Star Trek. The poor cast, whizzing about on their Segways behind this curtain of dizziness could thus not be seen entirely clearly nor in all cases heard.

And so we come, at last, to thinking about the singing and in this respect it was an opera of two halves. The first half saw some spirited singing by Erika Sunnegårdh as Fidelio/Leonore whilst the second was somewhat energised by Nikolai Schukoff’s Florestan. His cry of injustice from within his prison cell was powerful and heartfelt and suddenly drew one’s attention away from all the digital action that was crowding one’s vision at the time. His voice had enough emotional intensity to focus the mind for a moment on what all this was supposed to be about – a political prisoner incarcerated because he had stood up to a tyrant.

Pavlo Hunka as Don Pizarro, the villain of the piece may well have had a good voice but struggled even more than the others to reach beyond the curtain that hung between him and the audience. Michael Eder produced a little more clarity as Rocco and provided a very solid underpinning to the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar which was a rare moment of tranquillity and a thing of touching beauty. Valentina Naforniţa’s Marzelline and Christian Baumgärtel’s  Jacquino completed that foursome but always sounded better in the tutti pieces than they did on their own.

There was dialogue for them all to negotiate too. New bits of German dialogue which had been written presumably to fit within the concept or which had perhaps been drawn from Harry Martinson’s poem. Either way, it was all rather forgettable, something which the cast seemed intent on demonstrating once or twice by apparently forgetting their lines.

That gauze screen in front of the action was a wretched decision and made it seem as though the action was all taking place within the context not of a theatre but of a conceptual art gallery.

Full marks to the chorus and the orchestra though. They produced some stunning sounds and each at one point or another acted as the booster rockets for a flagging evening. By some distance, the most exciting musical offering of the whole night came from a powerful chorus singing from the back of the stage and mostly invisible.

This was clearly a production which divided its audience. There was laud and raucous booing at the end but mixed in with cries of bravi from some. Perhaps the greatest failing was in billing it as an opera. Had we been encouraged to see it as an art event during which the participants would happen to try to sing Fidelio then we might have been on firmer ground. In billing it as an opera, the Edinburgh International Festival encouraged us to believe that it was in some way an interpretation of that work when in fact it was not.

It is good that there are opportunities for directors to do this kind of thing. It is important that someone reaches for the stars. However, this particular production showed what happens when the risks don’t come off. It was, from time to time, spectacular. The concept itself though was doomed from take off.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Opera Review – David et Jonathas

This review should appear at Opera Britannia shortly.

Les Arts Florissants – Edinburgh Festival – 17 August 2012

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This production of Charpentier’s biblical epic is a showcase for some exquisite vocal work which is delivered despite an incoherent dramatic interpretation which does nothing to aid a modern appreciation of the work at hand.

From the moment the curtain rises, the interpretation of this piece that we are going to be subjected to is clear. The cast stand motionless staring out at the audience in vaguely middle-eastern dress. Then as the music proceeds they separate out into two groups, one on either side of the stage. Our eyes look them over and realise that they are in fact wearing different dress. The men on one side of the stage (the Hebrews) are wearing black felts hats. The men on the other side (the Philistines) are wearing fezes. The two groups glare at one another and it becomes immediately apparent that the director thinks it is reasonable to retell the story of David and Jonathan using the stage directions from a left-over production of The Montagues and Capulets. The trouble is, and it is trouble that bedevils the work from the outset, David and Jonathan are not Romeo and Juliet at all. Their saga is one which is fundamentally about suspected treachery within a royal palace. Saul’s fundamental fear is that he will be overthrown by one of his own not by an enemy. Biblically, it is a saga with more than enough drama to get us through many a night at the opera. Sadly that rich heritage is ignored by a director apparently intent on delivering to us his own peculiar baroque confection which might just as well be entitled West Bank Story.

The sparse set is the inside of a wooden box. It is long. It is rectangular. It is lit with a cold, direct lighting scheme which will do us no favours as the evening progresses. And the sides of the stage move. They move in. They move out. They move in whenever any of the characters is feeling under pressure. They move out when the tension eases. After you’ve seen the walls move in and out a few times it all feels rather predictable. And they move in and they move out all over again.

The moving walls were also used to make smaller cuboid shapes in which some of the scenes were to occur though inevitably, the narrower the stage became, the more that audience members on either side of the stage missed some of the action.

However, notwithstanding this rather dull action on stage it soon became apparent that the joys to be found in the piece are all musical rather than dramatic. The singing was simply gorgeous.

In a strong cast, the two singers playing the title roles were outstanding. Pascal Charbonneau’s David was gentle on the eye and intense in his singing. Ana Quintans as Jonathas had a lightness of touch in her voice that seemed completely effortless. They sang well together though as male tenor kissed female soprano it was difficult to really enter into the conceit of a homoerotic undertone to their relationship.

Neal Davies’s Saul was not only King of Israel but also king of the stage. Though his opposite number in the Philistine army (Frédéric Caton as Achis) was to beat him in battle, Davies was to win the battle of the voices. His Saul was troubled, grieving and difficult to handle. Acted flashback scenes during the musical ballet interludes attempted to give us some insight into Saul’s troubles and why he was so high maintenance. Thus we had two child actors portraying a youthful David and Jonathas being present at the death of Saul’s wife. Now, all this is directorial embellishment, unsupported either by the text used by Charpentier or the text of Holy Writ itself, as any Edinburgh audience Sunday-schooled in presbyterian Morningside would surely have known. They might also have thought that presenting the Witch of Endor in the same outfit as Saul’s imagined wife, the better to call up the ghost of father-figure Samuel the Prophet, was taking one neo-Freudian step too far.

However, here again, though what was happening on stage was quite bewildering, the singing was superb. The stage was filled after a while with many women identically clad as Saul’s imaginary wife. As the Witch sang about King Saul’s troubles the wives all writhed around the stage. It was certainly visually very compelling but one was left wondering what was going on. The appearance of Samuel’s ghost to warn that Saul would come to a bad end was surely deserving of more theatrical magic than simply being sung off-stage to give the effect that Saul was hearing an inner voice. This, combined with the curious decision to move this revelation, which forms the prologue to Charpentier’s work to the end of the first half robbed the story of much of its essential tragedy.

However, that Witch could sing. Dominique Viese’s cross-dressing harpy was weird, strange and bewildering but his voice was one of the great highlights of the evening. Vocally, he was possessed a sorcery that not all countertenor posses; soaring high with a clever and entirely appropriate nastiness.

The star of the show though was not one of its principle singers. Without any doubt, the evening was made worthwhile by the most enchanting choral singing. Even when dealing with the most complex and decorated sections of Charpentier’s sumptuous score, the chorus of Les Arts Florissant was disciplined, precise and graced with vocal depth and insight. The greatest test of a choir is whether it can move me in a single word. As Jonathas lay dying in David’s arms, the whole ensemble cried “Alas, alas” with such pathos that the effect was heart-rending.

Down in the pit it was obvious that William Christie was firmly in charge.  A few early fluffs in the woodwind were soon put far from mind as the band got into its stride with Charpentier’s complicated and much embroidered rhythms. Particular note should be paid to whoever was operating the thunder sheet. The thunder appeared to roll around the theatre, unsettling and very real indeed.

The Edinburgh International Festival has made a great habit of putting on semi-staged works in recent years. It was disappointing that this fully staged piece would probably have worked better in an oratorio setting than by being given this dull and also confusing staging by director Andreas Homoki.

William Christie first tackled this piece in a great recording in 1998. The passion remains in the music. The business on stage did little to enhance the thrill and excitement of hearing Les Arts Florissants, still at the top of their game.

Rating: ★★★☆☆