Danger of stale imports

Tom Sutcliffe questions the wisdom of importing Americanized productions and laments the lack of opportunities for British operatic talent

John Berry the boss of English National Opera and Peter Gelb of the New York Met have been hymning co-productions. Sharing brilliant shows can be a good idea. But an updating or relocation of the story that chimes with American culture may seem rather a stretch in Britain.

For New York City Opera in 2006, director Jonathan Miller set Donizetti’s Elixir of Love in ‘Adina’s Diner’ in the US south-west in the Fifties. For Houston, Texas in 2002, James Robinson switched Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio even more bizarrely to the Orient Express in the Twenties, Agatha Christie-style (the production, like the train, has travelled far and wide).

Operatic de-skilling

But here we are in 2010, and both stagings have eventually washed up in Britain, at the Coliseum for ENO, and in Cardiff for Welsh National Opera, weary and travel-stained. A day earlier, Covent Garden unveiled its distinguished local grown production of Prokofiev’s somewhat underwhelming opera The Gambler based on Dostoevsky: a cold, stylish production by Richard Jones, with Antony McDonald’s clever colourful Twenties designs, euphoric inspirational conducting by British-born Antonio Pappano, and marvellous performances from Roberto Sacca in the title tenor role, Kurt Streit as the tenor Marquess, and Susan Bickley as the mezzo aged frumpy aunt who loses everything at the tables. The long cast list includes numerous home-grown talents.

Why I question these ENO and WNO imports is ‘subsidiarity’. WNO used to be known as a pace-setting ‘international’ opera company of which Britain could be proud. But these two shows are about as British as our nuclear deterrent. If we want opera as part of our culture in Britain, we need to own it. WNO will do a new Meistersinger in June with Bryn Terfel as Sachs, staged by Jones (who isn’t actually Welsh, and is often brilliant), which may honour that. However, we don’t just give £16 million to ENO and much the same to the Royal Opera so that the wealthy can pay huge prices unaffordable by the masses to consume the token showing of this art form which is all Britain can manage.

Few British companies

Despite the subsidy, jobs for our young singers and directors are as sparse as for actors. Imported productions, actors or singers contribute to our operatic de-skilling rather as the Potteries have been stripped of once famous English tableware makers.

Both operas also are conducted by talented non-Brits. Pablo Heras-Casado at ENO is young, Spanish, not very experienced in opera, and pushes the tempi faster than singing in English can stand. This job in Cardiff is part of the grooming of a potential foreign conducting star, and indeed James Levine, eternal music director of the Met, started out with WNO. Rinaldo Alessandrini, returning to Cardiff, displays little idiomatic empathy for a work that is the foundation stone of German opera. Meanwhile we in Britain have so few opera companies that our potential opera talents are obliged either to go abroad to hone their skills or to launch their own little semi-pro companies here, which do not help them burnish their skills working with proper established professionals.

Miller’s Donizetti is light, quite nicely sung, comic relief. American John Tessier was Nemorino for City Opera, and slightly resembles Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. But his manner is knowing, his voice colourless. Andrew Shore as the mountebank Dulcamara drives a sedan on stage. But Donizetti’s Adina was a catch, a property-owning peasant: whereas owning a diner is nothing special, and the idea of her reading the story of Tristan and Isolde is unthinkable. Jude Kelly’s lively and enjoyable 1998 ENO updating had much more authentic Donizettian charm and romance.

Serious points ignored

The Mozart in Cardiff introduces an impressive young Louisiana star, Lisette Oropesa, in the testing coloratura role of Constanze, but utterly travesties the moral seriousness of Mozart’s extraordinary challenging work. Robin Tritschler as Belmonte sings nicely but is dramatically a cypher. There’s no danger in this visually distinctive but irrelevant relocation to a train on the way to Paris. Mozart’s 1780s Pasha Selim could really execute his ‘guests’.

The point of the opera is he wants to win Constanze’s love without forcing her. The inability of the powerful to command love was a favourite theme of eighteenth-century opera. But Constanze’s great crucial aria ‘Martern aller Artem’ (‘Every kind of torture’) is here staged as a sort of Harrods sale, with the Pasha’s servants torturing her with consumerist gifts like silk stockings and delicious sweets to which she almost succumbs. Very silly and totally inapt. ND