Tom Sutcliffe on death and judgement


When I worked at the Oratory and Westminster Cathedral in the 1960s I think I only once sang at a Requiem when the Dies Iræ was used. The idea that death could be worse than life is out of fashion, except in some Evangelical circles. Eternal judgment – so telling in the tale of Lazarus – is just too frightening. Nor is it taken seriously by opera directors. Richard Jones’s Don Giovanni for English National Opera starts in a brothel and ends with Leporello heading below, and the Don escaping. ENO offers a neat unvarying visualisation – smart but inexpressive. The Commendatore, about to indulge himself with a whore, hears his daughter’s voice from a neighbouring room and goes to investigate further with fatal results which is indeed the story. But we have already seen (during the momentous overture) Christopher Purves in the title role repeatedly going through a door at the back of the set followed by a long succession of ladies – as if pre-illustrating the catalogue aria. I was unimpressed by Mark Wigglesworth’s low-grade conducting, too. In fact Christine Rice’s wonderful Elvira, and some of Caitlin Lynch’s singing as Anna, were the sole compensations. Jones’s Giovanni was charmless, apparently twinned with Leporello – perhaps meant by the director as psychological insight on the hero’s split personality or alter ego, but too clever for me. The world of Masetto and Zerlina went for nothing. Jones, whose Boris Godunov at Covent Garden was also disappointing, has gone right off the boil.

Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera about Tirso de Molina’s serial philanderer and the business of salvation concerns judgment more than suffering, when you really think about it. The doomed handshake with a stone guest is in the context of a meal with a stranger – the central idea, one needs to say, of the Christian faith. It is full of ambivalence, like all great opera, and like life. Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman has much to say about the Don and others in this feast of frustrated activity. We must not imagine Giovanni is unredeemable, with all his charm and love of life, or life of love. His errors are only a step away from the errors of the Count in The Marriage of Figaro, or from poor Ferrando’s in learning Don Alfonso’s lesson in Così fan tutte. Judgment is about punishment, and this life is pretty punishing. The image of what happens to the Don and how it is read by the others in the opera is profoundly expressive in a good production.

I think Stephen Jeffreys’s play The Libertine, about the Restoration poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester – author also of a satirical and perhaps obscene play called Sodom – is a useful reference point for any consideration of Mozart’s great opera. Rochester was the character story Verdi planned for his first opera, though it ended up as Oberto – something very different. Rochester as the play shows, came to a sticky end, died young, and held many complex and controversial ideas – including being regarded as a model atheist. But the play, with Dominic Cooper memorable and very effective in the central role, does provide perfect footnotes to the whole issue of judgment on which the Don Giovanni story should and can rest – even when clever directors find that hard to fathom. The Libertine is at the Haymarket Theatre until December 3.

Eternal judgment is the frightening, overwhelming notion that underpins our entire human endeavour – and it is of course also what lends such emotion to two other operas currently making the rounds: Billy Budd and Madama Butterfly. Judgment is most significant in the Britten opera, written for the Festival of Britain season at Covent Garden in 1951 and based on a Melville short story of the same name, which was unpublished until 33 years after his death in 1891. Opera North’s new production, directed by Orpha Phelan with a somewhat fragmentary below-deck set and carefully realised period costumes by Leslie Travers, is absolutely unmissable. I think it is the best cast performance of the opera I have ever seen, without a single less-than-immaculate performance, and it is extremely well conducted by Garry Walker, a Scottish conductor who is not yet particularly famous, but will be.

The fact that there are no women in Billy Budd renders it interesting on
various fronts. There is the background motivation: the fact that both Vere and Claggart are attracted to the beauty of the young pressed sailor – and both the production and E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s text do not fail to evoke the matter more or less subtly. But it would be hard to imagine a less camp or
nudge-nudge approach to the topic of sexual preferences. Indeed, despite the Royal Navy’s reliance in the years
leading to Trafalgar on rum, buggery, and the lash (according to various reputable commentators), the problem – if as such it should be held – is understood purely in the context of its consequences: in other words, of ultimate judgment. When I say the casting is perfect I should add that it is so especially because of the sense of an ensemble which hangs around this body of performers who are by no means all regularly together.

Britten wrote many masterpieces drawing on his self-understanding, and the anxieties of his life. This opera with its obvious homage to the great Verdi’s Otello is a blithely original and affecting masterpiece of truly Shakespearian power. See it.

The new Glyndebourne Madama Butterfly is problematical; but of course Puccini still works his magic. It’s updated to the 1950s, and set in a Nagasaki apparently unaffected by its 1945 nuclear fate. I think it is a pity that the opera staged by Annilese Miskimmon should have to cross so many hurdles from the updating to try and be natural and convincing. How does eternal judgment matter in this story of culture clash? In a way that relates to the unthinking imperialism on which “we in the West” can rest so much still of our comfort. Pinkerton does finally, as his cries at the very end acknowledge, recognise what it is that he has done. It is painful, and it is inescapable – just as the final judgement will be for all of us.