Tom Sut­cliffe

Chang­ing of the Guard

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

Kasper Holten was ap­pointed Covent Gar­den’s Di­rec­tor of Opera in 2011, having pre­vi­ously been boss of Den­mark’s Royal Opera whose ul­tra-mod­ern home Oper­aen by the docks in Copen­hagen was paid for in 2005 to the tune of well over US$500 mil­lion by Mærsk Mc-Kin­ney Møller of the huge ship­ping com­pany. Holten’s mother is Bodil Ny­boe An­der­sen, gover­nor of the Dan­ish Na­tional Bank from 1991 un­til 2005. Holten fol­lowed Elaine Pad­more at Covent Gar­den who had been his pre­de­ces­sor at the Royal Dan­ish Opera. Born 1973, he got an unusu­ally early start in his the­atri­cal ca­reer and is a com­pe­tent di­rec­tor in his own right, though his suc­cess away from stages he has run is not re­mark­able. His best pro­duc­tion at Covent Gar­den was Szy­manowski’s King Roger. His farewell stag­ing of Wag­ner’s Meis­tersinger was per­versely trans­posed to a gen­tle­man’s club circa 1930, with ap­pren­tices turned into zero-hours con­tract wait­ers and wait­resses, and min­i­mal ev­i­dence of Hans Sachs’s cob­bling pro­fes­sion. The goldsmith’s daugh­ter Eva in the age of Hollywood was scarcely go­ing to be a will­ing bride for prize-song win­ner Sir Walther von Stolz­ing. So Sir Kasper Holten (as he is in Den­mark) has her de­part alone at the end, even more dis­rup­tive than Stolz­ing’s at­tempted re­jec­tion of the “Meis­tersinger” sta­tus for which he has been com­pet­ing.

It is cur­rent Ger­man fash­ion (called Regi­ethe­ater – or “di­rec­tors’ theatre”) to per­form op­eras in pe­riod pro­duc­tions where they do not re­ally fit. Holten’s syn­op­sis of the opera in the Covent Gar­den pro­gramme de­scribes Hans Sachs as an am­a­teur com­poser - like Martin Luther. In fact Sachs, a “pro­fes­sional” cob­bler, was also a his­toric very fa­mous poet - whose abil­ity with words and music is what grabbed Wag­ner’s in­ter­est in him. Nurem­berg

was an im­pe­rial town in the age of Albrecht Durer when Wag­ner’s opera is set. Be­cause Hitler loved Wag­ner’s music-dra­mas and used Nurem­berg for his gothic-re­vival pa­rades and bul­ly­ing does not make Sachs’s sense of pride in lo­cal Ger­man cul­ture sus­pect. Wag­ner’s truths are uni­ver­sal, and much of Holten’s de­tailed stag­ing and di­rect­ing does not add up. I dis­liked David Bösch’s Mu­nich pro­duc­tion of the work last sum­mer, with Walther as a gui­tar-play­ing drop-out and Sachs run­ning his shoe re­pair busi­ness from a van parked in a sub­ur­ban slum. It seems Holten’s mo­tive for set­ting it all in a sort of gen­tle­man’s club was his dis­cov­ery that clubs like the Gar­rick and Trav­ellers’ do not have women mem­bers. On News­night Holten sug­gested that should be made il­le­gal here. Hmmm.

Wag­ner un­der­stood class and lo­cal­ism very well. The opera is meant to start in a church - but Holten presents the hymn-singing then as a cho­rus re­hearsal in the gents’ club. Re­ally noth­ing in this grandiose Dan­ish stag­ing de­signed by Mia Stens­gaard, Anja Vang Kragh and Jes­per Kong­shaug makes the opera gen­uinely live. It’s just an­other would-be clever com­men­tary on a mas­ter­work, rather than proper flesh and blood re-en­act­ment. Sadly it was not well-sung ex­cept by the beefy Amer­i­can Eva (Rachel Wil­lis-Sørensen), Se­bas­tian Hole­cek’s ro­bust Koth­ner, and Jo­hannes Martin Krän­zle’s self-re­gard­ing Beckmesser. Both Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and Al­lan Clay­ton as Sachs’s pren­tice David have fine voices but nei­ther fit­ted their roles con­vinc­ingly. And Bryn Ter­fel’s voice had gone scratchy and al­most miss­ing, while An­to­nio Pap­pano took the over­ture and much of the first two acts at a strangely bland com­pla­cent speed - though in act 3 he be­gan to calm down and rel­ish this lux­u­ri­ous won­der­fully en­er­gised score.

I don’t think Holten will be missed at Covent Gar­den. I did not enor­mously en­joy the re­vival of David Bösch’s Trova­tore new last sea­son, but it was firmly and stylishly con­ducted by Richard Farnes (now no longer in charge at Opera North after much dis­tin­guished work there), and it made sense as theatre. The fact that Gre­gory Kunde’s Man­rico, Lianna Haroutou­nian’s Leonore, and Anita Rachvel­ishvili’s Azu­cena were not the best I have heard no doubt re­flects the fact that my first Trova­tore in Salzburg in 1962 gave me an un­for­get­table taste of Leon­tyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Gi­uli­etta Simion­ato (the lat­ter was seven days short of 100 when she died

in 2010). The Covent Gar­den per­for­mance of this Verdi on 6 Fe­bru­ary was the three hun­dredth and forty-ninth there! Adri­ana Le­cou­vreur by Cilea in David McVicar’s ef­fec­tive 2010 pro­duc­tion of this in­trigu­ing but not well known piece was very well re­vived thanks among oth­ers to Ger­ald Fin­ley im­mac­u­lately reg­is­ter­ing the sup­port­ing role of Comédie Française stage man­ager Mi­chon­net. But An­gela Ghe­o­rghiu’s re­turn to the ti­tle role was also com­pelling, and Brian Jagde as her beloved Mau­r­izio and Kes­nia Dud­nikova as the evil Princesse de Bouil­lon were equally thrilling. The in­ter­na­tional-qual­ity line-ups for these two re­vivals was fully up to the Royal Opera’s best stan­dards.

It is al­most twenty years now since the Royal Opera House was largely re­built, a process be­gun in the early 1980s. The theatre got a sub­stan­tially al­tered au­di­to­rium, large ad­di­tional work­shops, the Lin­bury stu­dio theatre be­low ground, stu­dios for bal­let re­hearsals, and a huge side stage from which en­tire sets could be me­chan­i­cally fetched. The Royal Bal­let was moved in en bloc from Barons Court. The whole re­build­ing was premised on the no­tion that, like the Bol­shoi in Moscow, the his­toric Covent Gar­den 1859 gold and plush au­di­to­rium with its strik­ing medal­lion over the prosce­nium arch of Queen Vic­to­ria was worth pre­serv­ing. What was needed was not more seats with good sight­lines but state of the art new tech back­stage, so the theatre could be worked at full tilt, and new bar and restau­rant fa­cil­i­ties (and es­ca­la­tor) so the pub­lic could be stylishly fed as part of their evening out. I did not re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate, in 1997 when the opera house closed and the old stage was de­mol­ished, just how rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent the in­sti­tu­tion was go­ing to be­come. The old bars and cloak­store were small, well-dis­trib­uted around the pub­lic spa­ces, and ef­fi­cient. What is now a leisurely din­ner room above the en­trance foyer was then ac­cu­rately known as the Crush Bar. Every­thing about the place was hu­man, the fo­cus on live opera and bal­let and those per­form­ers on stage.

Sight­lines in the stalls are bet­ter now. But I pre­ferred it when the Stalls Cir­cle was on the same level as the Stalls, and its cen­tral sec­tion was not a light­ing con­trol box. The foy­ers are cold and im­per­sonal. I miss the bars ei­ther side of the en­trance to the stalls, and the steps in the Crush

Bar link­ing the Grand Tier with the Bal­cony. But per­for­mances are still the jewel in the crown, and there are more of them. And the in­sti­tu­tion it pays its way and no longer wob­bles to­wards deficits and bail-outs, as it did. Lon­don, since the re­open­ing in 1999, has em­braced the world’s mega-rich. Covent Gar­den au­di­ences are re­ally cos­mopoli­tan. You hear as many for­eign lan­guages spo­ken there as on south Lon­don buses. The Royal Opera House now spends over £4 mil­lion an­nu­ally on fundrais­ing, a bit less than the cut by Arts Coun­cil Eng­land to English Na­tional Opera’s sub­sidy. Just a quar­ter of ROH costs are met by sub­sidy - far less than most Euro­pean houses. Both bal­let and opera make money from stream­ing per­for­mances or putting them in the cin­e­mas of the world.

That is not the same as the live per­for­mance than you would be in a cin­ema re­lay. Open Up, the re­build­ing of some parts for which “phi­lan­thropists” are pay­ing, will do lit­tle to get or­di­nary peo­ple with­out se­ri­ous money into real live opera per­for­mances at the Royal Opera House. What will hap­pen for the busi­ness of opera in Lon­don after the ACE has squeezed ENO to the point where it might as well shut down? What will the Royal Opera House, now a huge in­sti­tu­tion em­ploy­ing over a thou­sand and thus far more peo­ple than it ever did in the past, do about its im­plicit vi­tal duty to the masses if it be­comes the only reg­u­lar fairly full­time op­er­atic game in town?

The UK (and in par­tic­u­lar Lon­don) led a charmed and re­mark­able op­er­atic life be­tween 1945 and the 1990s. For most of those 50 years the Queen’s cousin Lord Hare­wood played a cru­cial role by be­ing as­so­ci­ated with (and an ef­fec­tive pro­fes­sional, in man­ag­ing or help­ing to su­per­vise) one or other of Lon­don’s opera com­pa­nies. I think a num­ber of du­bi­ous ap­point­ments at Covent Gar­den and English Na­tional Opera since, re­spec­tively, John Too­ley and Peter Jonas re­tired re­flect our aban­don­ment in the UK of Ger­man-style en­sem­ble-based opera and theatre com­pa­nies. As we do not have such com­pa­nies in the UK, we also now have no­body with ex­pe­ri­ence of run­ning per­ma­nent func­tion­ing in­sti­tu­tions mak­ing theatre and opera, no­body who un­der­stands their full ben­e­fit in terms of mar­ket­ing and po­ten­tially im­proved pro­duc­tiv­ity at a rea­son­able price. The wider or­di­nary pub­lic needs ac­cess to un­der­stand what live

per­form­ing arts are about and why they are nec­es­sary and good for all. If Covent Gar­den’s opera were en­sem­ble-based its per­for­mances would be cheaper. Also the Royal Opera could present work in more than one theatre - and sup­ply opera to or­di­nary peo­ple at more af­ford­able prices in lo­ca­tions nearer where they lived. That should be the aim for our pre­mier

Mears. Bri­tish opera in­sti­tu­tion and per­haps for Holten’s suc­ces­sor Oliver

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.