Sunday, 9 April 2017

Eyes (and ears) front: 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel'

It's hard to imagine how my latest two visits to an opera house could be more different. The last time I was in the Royal Opera House, I saw the new production of Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg', while my trip to the London Coliseum yesterday was for Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Carousel'.

And yet, rightly or wrongly, they seem to share a link that - once I started mulling it over - I found hard to shake off: that their 'offstage' circumstances are bound to influence and colour the way they are received and discussed.

'Meistersinger' was Kasper Holten's farewell production as the ROH's Director of Opera. He heads back to his native Denmark (where he has said he wants his young family to settle), earlier than we might have expected. Both his own productions and overall tenure at the ROH seem to have provoked mixed reactions, and the fact that he was bowing out with an opera featuring a bunch of reactionaries resisting artistic progress didn't go unnoticed. Personally, I'd guess that a new production of 'Meistersinger' must've been in the works for some years, longer than KH would've been deciding whether to stay on or not - but I don't know, and I don't particularly want to know. The 'critique of the critic' - if that's how one wants to view it - is all there in the opera already.

I saw three operas directed by KH - 'Don Giovanni', 'Krol Roger', then 'Meistersinger' - and they show to me, at any rate, a definite consistency of approach which appeals to me personally. Without going into all-out 'Regietheater' (the practice of reinventing source material - think modern-dress Shakespeare - but increasingly a by-word for a director-as-dictator pushing interpretation to the limits, sometimes steamrollering over the received wisdom about the composer's intentions) ... we are invited into 'Kasperworld', a slightly surreal - but not 'unreal' - domain where unexpected visuals add a further dimension to what we hear. For example, the projections in 'DG' included the writing of the anti-hero's conquests across the background - while the number of his seductions can be sung for comic effect, the endless list of names brings home his horrendous treatment of hundreds of women. 'Krol Roger', a brilliant psychodrama, was enacted around a large effigy of the king's head, with dancers moving like synapses within, playing out the mental struggle.

And so, onto 'Meistersinger', where the scenes are blurred, so that characters can occupy the same space on stage but 'be' in any location - Sachs's workshop, the meeting hall, the streets. The set also revolves, so that some of the action is played out 'backstage', without anyone breaking character. While I'm still not sure this worked 100% dramatically, I liked the idea - one thing constantly running through the opera is artifice: everyone is putting up a front of some kind. Both Sachs and Eva have to skirt round the fact that he might have won her, and she might have gone for him; Beckmesser is barely holding himself together; Walther is striving to be something he isn't - and David pretends to be something he isn't when teaching him. Spoiler alert: the most infamous example is the ever-problematic ending, where Sachs seems to 'snap' out of his progressive outlook, go back to being old-school and praise heritage German art. For this, KH had a clever twist up his sleeve, where Eva flees the scene rather than submit to Walther, who - against his initial instincts - ends up going down the trad route and joining the elite.

With this in mind, I found the 'theatrical bubble' presentation appealing and stimulating. It needed great performances to carry it, and I felt we got these: stand-outs for me were Bryn Terfel (unsurprisingly) who, I felt, caught particularly well the underlying melancholy of Sachs - no mean feat to sing so powerfully yet convey a kind of weary resignation in the acting. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was superbly cast, giving Eva a strong-willed maturity that made her convince opposite both Sachs and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and give the surprise ending a meaningful foundation. Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton brought Lena and David - who could so easily be a sub-plot 'mirror couple' - to comic yet tender, emotionally-sung, three-dimensional life.

(Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton, in Clive Barda's great production photo, copyright Royal Opera House 2017.)

'Carousel', meanwhile, is the latest in a series of musicals playing at the Coliseum while English National Opera ('ENO') is between seasons. But there has been a bit more 'between seasons' than usual, with ENO's business woes resulting in the decision to make the 2016/17 season shorter and less resource-heavy than usual.

I've made no secret in the past on this blog of where my sympathies and loyalties lie when it comes to ENO: they're with the company (small 'c') - by which I mean, the Chorus and Orchestra. As a punter, it's quite clear to me they are an exceptional group of musicians and I want to see them treated with maximum appreciation and respect, and given as much gainful employment as possible.

[STOP PRESS: As I type this, the Olivier Awards are being announced. ENO's 'Akhnaten' has won Best New Opera Production, and Mark Wigglesworth - their previous Music Director who sadly resigned - has won Outstanding Achievement in Opera for conducting ENO's recent 'Don Giovanni' and 'Lulu'. I couldn't be more pleased.]

The 2016/17 season - while it had some great shows which I loved - could and should have used the Chorus, in particular, more than it did. The musicals are potentially controversial because they historically bring in talent rather than use what ENO have already - but at the same time, the organisation are quite upfront about using them to generate income from the Coliseum when it might otherwise be dark.

Encouragingly, however, 'Carousel' is using the ENO Orchestra and Chorus alongside a song 'n' dance ensemble, which made me feel more comfortable about going along to support it. It's a musical I happen to like - at least in terms of the songs - and it was a chance to take my mum and dad to the Coliseum. (Phase 1 in a long game, aiming at getting them along to an opera.) However, the lead roles are not taken by opera singers, as I generally experience them - but 'crossover' classical stars Alfie Boe as Billy and Katherine Jenkins as Julie.

I had a really good time at 'Carousel' - I think it's a show that will give everyone exactly what they want to take from it. [With my blessing, please stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.]

Lots of it, I thought, was absolutely terrific: the Orchestra are on majestic form, as are the Chorus, simply adding more and more weight to my existing conviction that they can do absolutely anything, brilliantly. For a 'semi-staging', the set was a lot more inventive than I was expecting - attractive, static backgrounds gave a feel for location, while wooden platform proved endlessly all-purpose as the action required. I particularly enjoyed the pathway being constructed for Billy to walk on while he was actually performing the 'Soliloquy' number - it added to the impression of his being lost in thought, with only the theatrical machinery there to support him. And there are two thrilling dance sequences - the overture (a reverse run-through of the entire story) and the heart-rending sequence showing Louise (Billy's daughter) grow to adolescence.

AB and KJ both gave sincere, committed performances. I actually found this aspect of the show the hardest to get used to: the singers were miked up. This is not to criticise the leads at all - I can honestly say that I've never really followed their careers because they don't tend to perform repertoire in the way I want to hear it. But I'm used to hearing people in the Coliseum sing with that much power and conviction without amplification - so the point is, it simply sounded different. I took a long time to get to grips with it. But there is absolutely no question - we were surrounded by fans of both performers, who clearly loved every minute. And it's hard to imagine anyone with an emotional investment in either or both of the stars coming away disappointed. It actually made a welcome change from what one unfortunately sometimes hears on exiting the opera house or concert hall - certain attendees (casualties of extreme fandom, which can so easily damage the ability to simply enjoy oneself), racing to be the first to pick holes in a production or performance to their companions.

Here is some sample text from a recent review of ENO's 'The Winter's Tale' - I don't really want to name the reviewer:

I tweeted these 'grabs' when I saw them because they are everything I dislike in music writing. The lower one has that horrible 'Inner Smirk-le' tone that we are all sneering at a shared, hated production (well, I loved 'Thebans'). But the one on top seems to imply that if there's any difficulty or issue floating around a company or production, then it can and should be used as a kind of ammo, to back up whatever negative stuff one might want to say about it.

I reject that ill-meant smugness totally. As unlikely a pair as they may be, 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel' have both reminded me how important it is to take what we see and hear onstage for what it is: a heady concoction of ideas, talent, effort and commitment, brought alive by gifted, dedicated people. We should never take them for granted.

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