Tom Sutcliffe’s heart sinks as he looks ahead at what is in store for British opera-goers throughout the rest of the season
You’re not always right, you know!’ Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who runs Garsington Opera and found it its new home on the Getty estate at Wormsley just beyond High Wycombe off the M40, was shaking his forefinger at me in the bar at the Coliseum on the opening night of Deborah Warner’s production of Eugene Onegin. My wife Meredith, a former music critic who became a librettist and playwright, and I were both feeling irritated and frustrated at the first interval of the Tchaikovsky. Warner has done striking work in the past. But setting the opening three scenes of this delicate emotional masterpiece in a barn with servants at one point busy sweeping the floor and with Tatyana’s bed next to a great pair of double doors out to the fields made absolutely no sense of many lines in the text and contradicted the realism to which the production appeared to be aspiring.
Tatyana is supposed to be shy and provincial, obsessed with romantic fiction. She is put to bed by her nanny. She pours out her feelings in the letter aria, one of the most intimate and convincing scenas in the whole operatic repertoire. Would such a girl be sleeping – in nineteenth-century Russia – almost outside? Would Onegin come into her bedroom ‘space’ to return her ingenuous letter of love?
Woolly and clumsy
Warner bizarrely gave us in Amanda Echalaz’s tall feisty figure a Tatyana not so much shy as neurotic. She ridiculously had Toby Spence’s Lensky actually writing pages of poetry as he awaited Onegin for the duel, or reading as he wooed Olga. Initially Audun Iversen lacked the cool condescension Onegin needs, and Brindley Sherratt was a hopelessly unconvincing Gremin. Conductor Edward Gardner’s feeling for Tchaikovsky’s limpid melodiousness was woolly and clumsy.
But the production was a relief for ENO audiences, not badly received, because it felt traditional, just as Sebastian Baumgarten’s Carmen at the Komische Oper in Berlin was applauded by the ‘progressive’ first night public in Berlin because it conformed to the current clichés of postmodern deconstructionism. In their diametrically opposite ways both shows suffered from irrelevant detail, inflated inapt contexts, narrative wobbliness and improbable characterizations. Stella Doufexis’s Berlin Carmen was a night-club tart in a cellar bar near a bombed-out Banco Santander. The guarding soldiers seemed like Stasi agents. Bizet’s music was set aside for numerous Flamenco episodes or docudrama cutaways. Only in the final fatal confrontation was the actual narrative followed more or less. Yordan
Kamdzhalov’s conducting and the orchestra playing were splashy, vulgarly loud.
An honest opinion
A critic who is not honest about his or her reaction is totally useless. Do I always think I am right in my reaction? Well, no. But that’s not the point – though history will show whether I got it right. By and large, if somebody like me thinks a production and its performers are doing the job well or badly is mere opinion yet reasonably objective. After all, I have no investment in hating or loving what I find in theatre or opera. I have rarely paid for my seat. Also I know there may well be something to like in opera performances because there are so many elements involved – a voice that’s fresh, a scene that works, an idea that gets its head and starts to persuade one. However, looking ahead at what is in store for opera-goers in Britain for the rest of this season, I am afraid my heart sinks – even at the prospect of the usually imaginative Richard Jones’s production of Tales of Hoffmann at English National Opera in February. The piece – in a single period room set where only the furniture and wallpaper design seemed to change – entirely failed to suggest Hoffmann’s genuine search for elusive passion and inspiration.
Stuck in a rut
I shall be intrigued to see whether Tom Morris can make something half as good as Peter Sellars did of John Adams’s remarkable Death of Klinghoffer for ENO (also in February). And the new Rusalka at Covent Garden from the Salzburg Festival brings a first taste for Britain of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s work (the team now running Stuttgart). But I shall not hold my breath about Jonathan Kent’s no doubt worthy ENO staging of The Flying Dutchman in April/ May or Robert Carsen’s naughty new Falstaff in May at Covent Garden, or either new Glyndebourne production of The Cunning Little Vixen by Melly Still (who did their uninteresting Rusalka) or Figaro by Michael Grandage.
Nor have I much hope that Annabel Arden’s new Bohè me for Welsh National Opera in June will be transformative, though I am sure it will be decent. Perhaps David Alden’s ENO Billy Budd also in June will be a return to form. My best tips for this season are Grange Park Opera’s Queen of Spades staged by Antony McDonald and Idomeneo staged by Charles Edwards – in June and both created by directors who are also their own designers. Wasfi Kani’s Hampshire opera festival last year provided the best production in the UK by a long way – David Fielding’s Tristan und Isolde. Opera in Britain is in a rut. ND