Tom Sutcliffe on seeing and believing


Berlin’s Komische Oper, like the Bavarian State Opera, has a festival in July when one can catch up with the new work of the season. I saw two productions by Barrie Kosky, the clever Australian who runs the Komische and is a favourite to take over Munich in 2021. But what really excited me was Damiano Michieletto’s Komische production of Massenet’s under-rated, moving and beautiful Cendrillon (first performed at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1899). Michieletto rejigs Cinderella’s misfortune as a severe disability, making her a cripple with a terribly damaged leg. Her romantic dream (answered by the Fairy) is additionally illustrated as a traditional ballet pas de deux with gauze-mounted scenic imagery and immaculate dancers performing on behalf of the singers to paint an extra level of the idealised romance. Perhaps precisely because the story we have followed earlier was updated and relocated to a ballet school (run dictatorially by stepmother Mme de la Haltière, whereas Pandolphe, Cinderella’s father, calls no shots) this “old-fashioned” yet resonant transformation was extremely touching. I had been irritated to start with by the rejigging of the story, which is standard fashion now in German theatres. But in fact Cinderella crippled, not just an exploited poor relative, was more potent theatrical magic than a mice-and-pumpkin coach and horses. One cares about disability more than inability.

Things that cannot and that can happen are equally sound operatic currency. Puccinian verismo, Shakespearian fantasy, old and new folk tales about witches and wizards, historical tragedy – all can engage our imagination in operas. We grasp what is poetic truth. We do not take everything literally, which is one reason why the general assumption in the media that atheism is the only intelligent default is so irritating, though perhaps no more so than Alpha’s way of anchoring the “meaning of life” in studied words rather than in the being and faith inside us (which already connect us to meaning and meaningfulness).

The reason I love opera so much is that both music and singing free the words from their usual mundane obligations. But, given that opera composers want to bask in the freedom of their art, there is a problem with some kinds of realism and ambiguity. How much uncertainty can be reconciled with operatic conclusiveness – the situation as it works out, the end to which we have come when the last notes die away, when the singing voices are silenced? One cannot tell the future of the human race after the funeral pyre of Siegfried has been set alight by Brunhilde, but the political lessons one must draw from Wagner’s Ring Cycle are legion. What does one believe about what one has seen? There is a dynamic to the achievement of operatic profundity which needs personal events, matters with which to identify, as well as meaningfulness and mystery. That was why I was so grateful to my wife for suggesting my book on the theatrical interpretation of opera, published 20 years ago, should be called Believing in Opera. How we come to appreciate opera depends on how we respond to the way it is staged as well as to the music and words and singing and orchestral river flowing through it – in other words the material from which in performance it is made up.

Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest was transformed into an equally funny small-scale operatic masterpiece by Irish composer (and skilled organist) Gerald Barry, and it’s highly likely that Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Underground (at the Barbican in November) will prove just as irresistible. The completely personal and original music Barry writes is always perfectly structured for the dramatic and characteristic task in hand. It never fails to shock and delight, as it insists and stomps in its wonderfully lyrical yet upended way. No, the music is not comic as such. It is conceived for serious musical purpose, with its wit and lyrical shafts and apparently unreasonable insistent discords. But it fits, and it winks at us and shines as it invariably matches its dramatic purpose.

Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel, premiered at Salzburg and opening at Covent Garden next April, is based on Luis Buñuel’s 1961 film of the same name. As with his previous operas, Powder Her Face (1995, about the sex-life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll) and The Tempest (2004, for which my wife Meredith provided the original text with some choice echoes from Shakespeare), the new work is not only musically rich and exciting, and typically personal in its language, but witty too. The story is about dinner guests being entertained by the wealthy Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile after an opera they have attended. Things do not go smoothly. The prima donna is present, as well as the conductor, a famous pianist, and a well-known doctor. But the servants have left, and the guests after extemporised supper find that they themselves are unable to leave. The opera, like the film, takes us through their declines and concerns, until they are said to be behaving like animals. Two guests who are lovers commit suicide. The maestro is near death. The mysterious imprisonment of the guests in their past becomes public knowledge. A crowd outside the house want to rescue them; but the power preventing that is metaphysical. One is reminded of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the fragility of civilisation, the thinness of the ice on which we parade. Opera as a bastion of civilisation (a complex notion) is always poised on the margin of pretension. Yet it draws truth from our absurdities.

In an interview before the premiere, Adès said his job as a composer was to get the music from one moment to another, until a destination is reached. “Every piece of music is looking for an exit, and the fun thing in this opera is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room.”

Tom Cairns’s production responds wonderfully to the strange perceptions of the opening two acts. But, as Buñuel’s surreal story moves towards hell, judgment, and what it is all about, the theatrical terms of trade become harder to negotiate. The “angel” intervening is shown as an enormous bear by video on a screen – but the opera is not about a bear, but about us and life. Did the servants know something hidden to the wealthy and privileged, as Beaumarchais’s (and Da Ponte’s) Figaro and Susanna knew more than the Count and Countess? The prima donna’s final song moves us all on, and at least articulates a chance to hope. “In a way,” Adès says, “the exterminating angel is an absence of will, or purpose, or action – why do we ever do anything?” For Buñuel, we would otherwise be at the end with death and extermination. The opera threw Adès back on “how miraculous it is that we can and must act, indeed that we are alive at all”. Can there be culture without religion? Or is religion failing to find its feet in the questioning, questing culture of the more-than-a-century-past since Victorian confidence evaporated? Somehow there has to be a coming together.