Reviews – The Flying Dutchman & Madam Butterfly
ENO is currently an artistic contradiction. On the one hand, and bar the occasional directorial and artistic misjudgment, the music making has never been of a higher standard.
Take the current productions on stage. Without a doubt Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a masterpiece of music theatre. It is visually cinematic and opulent – opera interpreted through the lens of a tasteful Hollywood camera lens. And while the individual production elements – the shoji screens, the masked and black-robed stagehands and the puppetry – could have threatened to distract, in fact they enhance the unfolding drama and work in perfect sync with the Puccini’s music itself. In an original interview at the time of the production’s debut, Minghella said that he had more than a few recordings of the opera on his iPod. And it shows. The directing and the production underline the nuances of the opera perfectly.
And the cast too is incredibly strong. The original ENO Cio Cio San, Mary Plazas, returns in fantastic voice and is ably supported by Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki, John Fanning as Sharpless and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. And in the pit Oleg Caetani, once Music Director Designate before the fall of Sean Doran. He drew wondrously warm and fluid playing from the orchestra and demonstrated that this is an opera he has a deep love for.
On the other hand there is The Flying Dutchman, a new production by Jonathan Kent. This production first and foremost is a triumph for Ed Gardner, the orchestra and the chorus. Never have they sounded so superb. The strings are warm with added bite, the wind are translucent and sonorous and the brass bright and clear. Gardner shows that at least in ‘Romantic’ Wagner he knows how to handle the ebb and flow of the music, picking out the orchestral detail and finely balancing the pit and the singers. I wonder how long he will remain at ENO? And the chorus too is as superb as ever. But the singers underline that there is still some way to go with casting sympathetic Wagner performers. The Dutchman of James Creswell may have the volume and heft for the role but there was a distinct lack of finesse throughout. His was a one dimensional Dutchman. Stuart Skelton’s Erik was finely sung and well acted but again – and because I think of the production and his last-minute appearance – a cipher. Of the male roles it was the Daland of Clive Bayley that drew the strongest performance and characterization.
But the greatest disappoint was the Senta of Orla Boylan. She does indeed have the notes and the heft but – and this may be isolated to this run of performances – her voice has a singularly unattractive edge to it which distracts from the music itself. Throughout the performance she was shrill to the point of discomfort.
Yet it was Jonathan Kent’s production that ultimately failed to knit everything together in a coherent manner. A series of clever ideas – like his ultimately flawed Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Marriinsky – Kent’s premise from what I could gather, that childhood influences were at the crux of this drama, didn’t quite gel. The First Act opened with Child Senta reading The Dutchman as fairytale while her father left her to go to sea. Clearly the love between the two was deeply founded and from the body language it was clear that Daland loved his daughter very much. This made his agreement to barter her for gold to The Dutchman more bewildering. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to portray Daland as cold and greedy from the start? That would have made Child Senta’s retreat into the land of make-believe more credible. Instead we are then suddenly presented with Adult Senta who, and one can’t fault Boylan’s acting ability, is clearly a woman on the edge and living within the confines of the book given to her by her father. There is no evolution from the child to the demented woman we are suddenly presented with.
And sadly it seems whenever the ENO is in production-drought in terms of ideas it falls back on the failsafe – a violent crowd scene complete with drunkenness, sex and rape. Granted sometimes these directorial motifs are relevant if overdone – I refer to Castor and Pollux – but at ENO they seem to happen rather a lot and for now apparent reason at all.
In this production, rather than blurring the lines between the reality of the factory floor and the crazed world in Senta’s mind we are instead provided with a scene replete with a square-dancing chicken, a cross-dressing sailor and – naturally – a muscled dancer who can’t wait to get his kit off after performing various sexual positions with members of the cast astride one of the conveyor belts. None of these motifs was ever suggested in previous scenes (I would loved to have seen Kent try and get in the comedy chicken suit) and therefore it was as visually and unnecessarily brutal as it was physically violent. But all credit to ENO’s wonderful chorus for making it as believable as it was.
And sadly for me, it dampened the denouement as Senta, realizing that in realty her life is stifled and ugly, kills herself with a broken bottle.
And this sense of confusion seems to me to be spilling off stage as well. Cue the curious remarks by Artistic Director John Berry a few weeks ago regarding opera at the cinema. In The Stage he commented that “this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work … It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”
This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb.
And clearly Berry spends a great deal of time chasing down those directors who have cinematic or television experience – Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam to name two. Granted their productions left a great deal to be desired. And Sally Potter and Abbas Kiarostami who faired only slightly better.
Anyway which director envisions his opera as being “made for the screen” rather than for the stage? Well apart from LePage perhaps.
Clearly it is well nigh impossible to determine if people who shell out £25 for a cinema ticket will as readily fork out up to £200 for a ticket at an opera house. But even if it attracts a small number of people to dip their toe in the water then surely that’s a good thing? And also Berry fails to recognize – almost selfishly – that it isn’t only about footfall into his own theatre he should consider, but also the simple fact that it might help the industry as a whole? To raise awareness, interest and expose opera to a potentially new and sympathetic audience.
I wonder if his remarks have more to do with the recent appointment of the new Chairman at ENO, Peter Bazalgette. While some people have been more than a little sniffy at his appointment, I think it is a bold move. Yes this is the man who brought us Big Brother, but he has an innate understanding of audiences and having met him a couple of times myself he has an incredible excitement about opera as an art form. He might not be a dyed-in-the-ink opera fanatic but he does hold incredible respect for what is done on stage. I think ENO is safe from any threat of dumbing down at the London Coliseum, as directors seem more than capable of doing that themselves.
So perhaps Berry’s comments are more of an artistic warning shot across the bow of his own Board? ‘I won’t tell you how to raise money for the company as long as you do not interfere in what’s on stage’.
If so that is a shame. I think that English National Opera has more of a responsibility to promote new ways to reach the audience. Now that they finally have a Chairman who is more than a little skilled in the world of artistic and creative diplomacy they should explore their options.
Surely taking opera to the widest audience possible would be in the spirit of Lilian Baylis?