Dan­ger­ous li­aisons

A lit­tle re­al­ity can be a dan­ger­ous thing, points out Ge­of­frey Smith, who ques­tions whether overly con­tem­po­rary opera stag­ing pleases the di­rec­tor more than the au­di­ence

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market -

WHEN I think of the peren­ni­ally vexed ques­tion of the di­rec­tor’s place in opera, I’m re­minded of an ex­change be­tween Gil­bert and Sul­li­van. As the cre­ators of the Savoy Operas worked on the next in the se­ries, Sul­li­van ex­pressed mis­giv­ings about the mount­ing cost of the pro­duc­tion, which was over­seen by Gil­bert in his twin roles as li­bret­tist and stage di­rec­tor. Although sym­pa­thetic, Gil­bert re­fused to give way on what stag­ing the piece prop­erly would re­quire. As he put it: ‘The cast must be dressed some­how.’

On that sim­ple dec­la­ra­tion hangs a sem­i­nal is­sue in the his­tory of mu­sic theatre. Any pro­duc­tion that goes be­fore the public de­mands to be pre­sented in a cer­tain style, to a cer­tain ef­fect. How­ever, de­ter­min­ing the spe­cific na­ture of that re­mains a bat­tle­ground where each el­e­ment of the cre­ative process wants to have its say.

Should a pro­duc­tion aim to ex­press and en­hance the orig­i­nal char­ac­ter of a well-loved clas­sic or bring it fear­lessly, even prov- oca­tively, up to date, show­ing that its stature as a clas­sic means its dra­matic core can and should be rel­e­vant to our time, hold­ing a mir­ror up to the world we see on the 10 o’clock news?

Sup­port­ers of these com­pet­ing ten­den­cies co-ex­ist in any opera house and on ei­ther side of the foot­lights. Although au­di­ences might pre­fer more tra­di­tional ap­proaches, the pro­duc­tion side wants to press for­ward, push­ing the bound­aries to stim­u­late ex­pres­sion and ap­peal to a new gen­er­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ingly, opera houses try to pitch in both di­rec­tions. The cur­rent bill at Covent Gar­den is John Sch­lesinger’s clas­sic pro­duc­tion of Of­fen­bach’s Les Contes d’hoff­mann (un­til De­cem­ber 3), a feast of op­u­lence first per­formed in 1980. In what’s billed as its last re­vival, it re­mains a daz­zling ex­pe­ri­ence; Sch­lesinger cap­tures the fan­tasy and ro­mance with the epony­mous poet pur­su­ing his vi­sion of love from a Parisian sa­lon to a Vene­tian palazzo and a Mu­nich apart­ment.

The sets are sump­tu­ous, crowned in Act II by a gor­geous evoc- ation of a Vene­tian car­ni­val, so sen­su­ous it took 1980 au­di­ences slightly aback, that cre­ates the per­fect back­ground for the Bar­carolle de­liv­ered by sul­try cour­te­san Gi­uli­etta. Chris­tine Rice is ir­re­sistible in the role, with Sofia Fom­ina and Sonya Yoncheva sim­i­larly ex­cel­lent as Hoff­mann’s other ideal ladies. Vit­to­rio Grigolo makes an ar­dent poet and Thomas Hamp­son plays the Four Vil­lains who thwart his dreams.

Those who think opera should live more dan­ger­ously may be drawn to two other re­vivals by the Royal Opera House. Jonathan Kent’s con­tem­po­rary stag­ing of Manon Lescaut (Novem­ber 22– De­cem­ber 12) trans­plants Puc­cini to the world of sex traf­fick­ing, barbed wire, re­al­ity TV and broth­els. The pro­duc­tion has an in-your­face en­ergy that I found a lit­tle blud­geon­ing first time around, although Sir An­to­nio Pap­pano is clearly com­mit­ted to the score.

Verdi’s Il Trova­tore (De­cem­ber 1–Fe­bru­ary 9, 2017) is sim­i­larly hard-edged. David Bosch up­dates the ac­tion to what seems like the Balkan civil wars, with car­a­vans, paramil­i­taries and tanks. Il Trova­tore, opaque at the best of times, is not il­lu­mi­nated by the fris­son of cur­rent events. Verdi’s sear­ing mu­sic, how­ever, will be com­pelling when con­ducted by Richard Farnes, with Roberto Alagna and Gre­gory Kunde shar­ing the role of Man­rico.

Over Christ­mas (De­cem­ber 17– Jan­uary 24, 2017), Covent Gar­den (020–7304 4000; www.roh.org. uk) will of­fer what prom­ises to be an ideal blend of tra­di­tional splen­dour and con­tem­po­rary imag­i­na­tion in Robert Carsen’s new pro­duc­tion of Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier. Known for his rich, in­ge­nious feel­ing for at­mos­phere, Mr Carsen up­dates the opera to the time of its com­po­si­tion, the anx­ious, nos­tal­gic years be­fore the First World War. Led by Re­nee Flem­ing in her sig­na­ture role as the Marschallin, the cast boasts Alice Coote/anna Stephany as Oc­ta­vian and So­phie Be­van as So­phie, con­ducted by An­dris Nel­sons.

Der Rosenkava­lier was pro­duced with the Metropoli­tan

‘It’s a bat­tle­ground where each el­e­ment wants to have its say’

Above left: A tra­di­tional Les Contes dõhoff­mann daz­zles. Above right:

Jonathan Kent’s con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­tion of Manon Lescaut

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