I go to the theatre and opera twice as often as I go to church: in the first five months of this year I attended 36 shows, almost two-thirds of them abroad. Writing about opera and theatre has been a significant part of my work for almost 40 years.
I did not set out to be a critic but a performer, and since I started trying to write the role of critic has changed radically – mainly because newspapers are shrinking. Also the live performing arts in Britain are now seen as entertainment – fine if that is what you want. Which is quite like how religion is seen, a private taste, hobby or pastime.
In the Sixties, when I started as a professional singer, most of the Arts Council budget went to support the live performing arts: subsidy for classical music in the capital was spooned out to all-comers by a nice civil servant called George Mann working for the Greater London Council at the Royal Festival Hall, operating through the London Orchestral Concerts Board. Even in the seventies the newly rebuilt Nottingham Playhouse was still a genuine rep. In 1945 there had been about 90 British theatre companies -based in places like Crewe, Penge, Amer-sham, Halifax, Rhyl, Oldham, Hastings, Rugby, and Wigan as well as in regional capitals like Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.
I try to see a lot of opera in the German-speaking world because, with its 80 opera companies, it is the worlds operatic engine. Germany also supports 250 theatre companies. It’s a paradise for singers and actors. In the USA the Met is the only full-time opera company.
In London we’re lucky to have English National Opera as well as Covent Garden – though if I were not a critic I could not afford to go very often. It is companies that build an audience habit. Where would the Church be without its parishes?
Wagner in Germany
Wagner’s Lohengrin is getting four new productions this season in Stuttgart, Berlin, Frankfurt and finally Munich – where next month it will be staged by Richard Jones, today’s best British opera director. I saw Stuttgart’s and Berlin’s versions two days apart, the former conducted with exquisite delicacy by the company’s Generalmusikdirector Manfred Honeck, but staged as a tedious abstract courtroom drama with almost no visual setting at all. The chorus formed a tiered wall of dummies at the back of the stage. The only truly energized performance was Wolfgang Koch’s Telra-mund. The director Stanislas Nordey was fired before the show opened.
In Berlin Stefan Herheim, a brilliant directorial talent soon to be seen at Covent Garden, told the story traditionally, as well as picking up on the opera’s dubious nationalism. Herheim’s mani-cally detailed staging brought to mind Heinrich Mann’s comic description of a performance in The Loyal Subject (1919). Everybody on stage seemed to be enacting a puppet version of themselves. The opening notes of the Prelude brought us a larger-than-life carnival figure of Wagner in his quaint velvet cap waving an inspirational quill as a baton. The chorus of Brabantian tribesmen summoned by the King were all operating puppet clones of Wagner or of warriors in horned helmets. Dorothea Roschmann’s plangent Elsa and the feisty Ortrud of Michaela Schuster made their relationship the heart of the show. But the big scene between Elsa and Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin in the final act (with him in tunic, boots and winged helmet) was also memorable – though his rather Anglican timbre was never Wagnerian. Daniel Baren-boim’s hard-driven conducting evoked the parade-ground aspect of a work that articulated Germany’s nineteenth-century identity crisis and bred the Nazis’ dire fantasy of national purification.
Purcell in England
Katie Mitchell’s version of Purcell, After Dido for ENO at the Young Vic, was criticized for excessive detail but struck me as compelling and absorbing. She mixed up simultaneously enacted scenes to make us think of the male-female equation this Purcell miniature encapsulates. We heard the sound of running water in a sink, a rainstorm outside, birdcall sound effects. Written (surprisingly, considering its genius) for a girls’ school, Purcell’s opera is both a classic saga and a psychological trope that repeats and repeats in everyday lives. So Mitchell here presented images of a mournful abandoned loved one, of a man in a futilely failing relationship, of a woman preparing for suicide.
Filmed in close-up, different scenes were projected on to a large screen above the stage. Chorus and soloists were perpetually busy with detailed actions to illustrate Mitchell’s relevant filmic expansions. Susan Bickley brilliantly doubled the roles of Dido and Sorceress, as if the Queen were author of her own fate. One watched singers minutely organize tap water to flow over dishes or light candles, while registering the vocal line in yet another of the virtuosic four-part choruses with which Purcell pursues and comments on the drama. Original, telling and deeply moving.