Tom Sutcliffe considers questions of life and death

In the theatre we find that death is generally taken more seriously than life. This thought occurs because a few weeks ago I went to the first night of a new production of The Marriage of Figaro in Berlin, and then a few days later to a brand new opera at Covent Garden called Morgen und Abend (though sung in English with English surtitles). The Mozart is one of the great comedies of all time. Nobody dies. It’s very funny but it is also one of the profoundest explorations of what it is to be human.

‘Morning and Evening’, with text by the successful Danish writer John Fosse and music by Georg Friedrich Haas, is a serious and intentionally deep contemplation about life before and life after death.

Did Mozart perhaps have the easier task? Whatever he really believed in terms of faith – and he was very pleased to be a Freemason – he does not in his operas ever try to give flesh to apprehensions about eternal life; though notably in his Requiem he seems to suggest that we need our deeds judged. In Figaro he leads us steadily through moments of delicious entertainment towards that concluding great scene of forgiveness by the Countess of the incorrigible Count, who spends the whole opera panicking that his wife may be cheating on him when he spends almost every other moment trying to cheat on her. The scene – at the end of what Beaumarchais called ‘a mad day’ in his hit pre-revolutionary play adapted for opera by Mozart and his brilliant librettist da Ponte – has a musical atmosphere that always reminds me of the voice of Neptune (deus ex machina) introduced by sombre trombones at the end of Mozart’s Idomeneo, sorting out the tragic mess with mercy from on high. In truth, comedy is at least as serious as serious opera.

Beaumarchais’s spoken play is a French classic as important as anything by Molière – and political in a way that Sheridan’s great comedies such as The School for Scandal never are. In spoken theatre actors add the variety and spice of life to what they say and how their characters come to life, whereas in opera the pain and delight within characters shine through the music – whose genius always offers an extra layer of accessible sympathetic resonant meaning.

Fosse and Haas’s world première was hypnotically performed, with much attractive and expressive music. It definitely showed us a world. Richard Hudson’s designs (using a slow-motion revolve and carefully spaced bits of furniture) also had everybody dressed in grey and pale-faced: elegant and rather ghostly; though life before death was also shown as monochrome. But how lifelike was the world of ‘Morning and Evening’ compared to Figaro? Fosse has not made a tragedy or even much of a drama out of the fragments of narrative concerning Johannes’s birth and then death, on which he chose to focus. Being serious about life after death tends to be either risible or tedious – pearly gates and St Peter as a kind of border guard are a feeble joke, and Father Ted (before Dermot Morgan’s unexpectedly early summons) gave little impression on TV of what to expect on arrival.

Tragedy traditionally ends with corpses, death being no laughing matter. But few can easily accept the end of our life as we know it. We cannot imagine not being. Johannes in the opera is much the same after death as before – which I suppose is what the Church has always believed and taught about eternal life (Fosse converted to Catholicism two years ago).

I wrote a review of Haas’s opera for the website of the Critics’ Circle which they wittily headed ‘From morning to yawning’. Fosse’s conversational work did not involve me. In fact this new opera is profoundly mundane, despite its exciting colourful musical moments and fine affecting singing by urbane baritone Christoph Pohl as Johannes, and Helena Rasker and Sarah Wegener as the women in his life. However, songs are all about words, and if characters have little to say of interest there is slight chance that their songs will be engaging.

But every moment in Mozart’s great comedy is burgeoning with truth and life. This Figaro at the Berlin Staatsoper was conducted by the Venezuelan whizzkid Gustavo Dudamel and staged by veteran Jürgen Flimm, the company’s artistic director. Neither had much sense of the fascination of this work of genius. It was Dudamel’s first major operatic outing, and very uncertain. It was bad luck for him that Flimm was so casual about how he dealt with the carefully crafted jokes and locations, and the fundamental story of the opera. None of the insights rang true.

Martin McDonagh’s new play Hangmen is at the Wyndhams Theatre in London until March 5. It’s mostly set in a pub run by a retired British professional hangman – so obviously many decades ago. It contains some of McDonagh’s usual intriguing false leads and unexpected departures; but I cannot help feeling that its energy and despatch lack the potential of McDonagh’s earlier plays, especially his brilliant The Pillowman. This new play has too many echoes of the brilliant Joe Orton (of Loot, and What the Butler Saw). Wildean language added irresistible extra energy to his farces.

Hangmen is not a farce, though it gets plenty of laughs. My problem with the new play is what it is for. What is it really about? Somehow McDonagh is telling us both too much and not enough at the same time – a mistake he has never made in the past (especially in his extraordinary and very personal films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). Perhaps I should see it again, as I still think McDonagh is great. But you cannot always win – though Hangmen did well at the Evening Standard Awards. ND