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The Art of Cultural Appeasement – The BBC’s Maestro At The Opera

In Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Opera on April 30, 2012 at 7:16 am

According to a press release from the BBC, four ‘well-known’ personalities will ‘compete to conduct a complete Act of a legendary opera performance on the hallowed main stage of the Royal Opera House’ in the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera which starts on BBC Two on May 4.

The “brave trainees” are Josie Lawrence, Craig Revel Horwood, Professor Marcus du Sautoy and Trevor Nelson. Each will have a mentor in the form of an opera conductor – Sir Mark Elder – and they will “learn about working with orchestras, soloists, choruses and all the complexities of how you stage an opera” as well as experience “all its pitfalls and high drama on and off stage!”.

With the aid of Danielle de Niese and Dominic Seldis as well as Pappano, Kasper Holten and singers such as Lesley Garrett, Alfie Boe and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the series promises to give viewers an insight into “the passion, fun, fear, glamour and glory of the world of professional Opera”.

All in one hundred and eighty minutes.

Stop. Stop right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I will support anything that brings opera – in fact any classical music – to the wider audience. Yes of course it should be entertaining. But it also has to be intelligent. It has to celebrate the art form rather denigrate it. It should have value. And most importantly it shouldn’t patronize. Maestro At The Opera fails on all counts.

Have I seen it? I don’t need to. It is the principle that I object to.

It assumes that by lowering the standards and therefore the expectation of the audience it will achieve something. Clearly not ratings for the BBC as they have marginalized the series onto BBC Two rather like the marginalization of BBC Young Musician on BBC Four. Pace, the Young Musician Final is on BBC Two. But by the evening of the Final does it matter?

But back to Maestro At The Opera. Taking four people who – bar du Sautoy – have never expressed any interest in opera (or even classical music most likely) and hoping that they will ignite the smallest spark of interest in the audience is like asking a cat to sing.

At least when the sycophantic bumbler Alan Yentob ventured behind the scenes with his egotistical programme Imagine he didn’t attempt to glamorize the world of opera. He told the story as it was, even clearly exposing the vanities of the singer. Imagine might create a world that clearly revolves around the “sun that is Yentob” but at least it wasn’t artificial. You didn’t have to like the protagonists but you admired their talent and passion.

And while Tony Hall claims it is a “wonderful way of bringing opera to BBC audiences”, I would argue there is a better and a more reasonable way to spend the Licence Fee. Broadcast actual performances. Package around them, if you will, programmes that excite interest and if the BBC gets it right then people will watch. If it can be done for Shakespeare it can be done for opera.

Furthermore why not actually choose four up-and-coming real-life conductors and follow them? Even if it cannot be of their own careers or in the actual opera houses where they might be currently, but instead in an artificially-created environment on Bow Street, then so be it.

If the BBC can make programmes to find the UK’s best butcher, hairdresser and every other profession for BBC Three, why can’t it have the balls to consider doing something like this properly and with creative integrity?

There are budding maestri both here in the UK and around the world that have spent years training to be conductors. They have studied hard. Sought out every opportunity to gain more experience. And more often than not got paid very little.

To follow four individuals who have devoted their lives to opera and performance, to hear in their own words what they hope for, what they have sacrificed and what they are scared of would – in the hands of a talented television producer – be gripping drama. All the more because the viewer would be watching a true creative experience unfold rather than something that has been scripted.

I am even sure that the opera world could deliver the same ethnic-social mix of the current four contestants so that the BBC could tick that box too.

But no.

Instead we have what amounts to both a vanity project and tickbox-television from the BBC.

For Jan Younghusband it ticks the box that says the BBC must make “the arts” more popular. The BBC is often accused of “dumbing down” television. Often that claim is ridiculous.

But what Younghusband has done here is something much worse. She has prejudged.

For her any audience who might show an interest is already ‘dumb’ and therefore she has created a programme based on the lowest common denominator – celebrity-of-a-sort. Maestro At The Opera isn’t about the art form at all. It’s The Voice without the potential for discovering new talent. It’s about seeing how ridiculous four people can look because that is what Jan Younghusband believes the audience wants to see. In a way it’s almost cruelty-reality TV. Not only for the four protagonists but for the viewers at home as well.

And as for you Ms Hadlow – this new series won’t – however patronisingly you put it – take viewers “right to the heart of one of the world’s greatest opera institutions”. More likely than not those who deliberately tune in will have been to the opera already and won’t recognize the alternate and fictitious reality you have created. And those who accidentally surf across it – if they stay long enough – will wonder why three has-beens and someone they don’t recognize have been given airtime at all. The format of the show will only reinforce their view that opera is elitist and – in their opinion – boring.

But both Jan and Janice will no doubt ensure that Maestro At The Opera looks pretty. A saccharined veneer of pseudo operatic interest. It might even win them some awards for their trophy cabinets.

So why has the BBC done this?

It’s simple. It’s an act of appeasement. Cultural appeasement. In the same way that the BBC has marginalized the arts generally, Maestro At The Opera is the easy way out.

For the BBC the aim is clear – appease those who might have any decision in the future of the corporation and at the same time demonstrate to anyone who will listen how the masses are being kept happy by convincing them that it has been made ‘especially for them’. Don’t for a second dare to hope that by creating a more challenging concept based on real talent and musicianship, people might in fact watch and actually consider seeing an actual opera.

No. The BBC is too scared to consider that option. Cowards.

But the BBC has the Proms on television I hear them cry. They don’t – but could – broadcast every single concert on BBC Four and what they do broadcast cynically helps to pad out the figures published every year in their annual report. If you take out the Proms what else is there? Very little and what there is lacklustre and mediocre.

But I can’t blame the Royal Opera House. Granted they could have stood firm and insisted on actual conductors and real lives but let’s face it, who would turn down three hours of free advertising on the BBC?

Rather smart of Tony, Tony and Kasper if you think about it. Bravo.

Sky Arts anyone?

Further Reading:
More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Dear Mr LePage

I start off with a series of confessions.

First, I have not seen your interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in its entirety. Not yet. But I have seen Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. The first on Opening Night in New York as well as the second performance in that run, and Götterdämmerung courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera’s excellent HD Live Season.

Second. I am a Wagner fan. Perhaps a ‘purist’ but not a ‘cranky’ operagoer. But a great admirer of Wagner and of opera as a whole in it entire dramatic sweep.

Third. I have seen a few complete Ring cycles live, most recently in San Francisco and more than a few on DVD including Kasper Holten’s Ring from Copenhagen and Chereau’s thought-provoking interpretation. And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New York.

Therefore I read your interview in The New York Times with interest and increasing anger.

Of course any production will have its detractors. Its naysayers. The people who simple refuse to ‘get with the project’. But I find your position, well, faintly ridiculous and offensive. And I don’t only mean your criticism of the ‘purists’ and ‘cranks’ many of whom, I might incidentally add, funded your project through the benefices of their sponsorship and support.

And of course I stand corrected if somewhere along the line The New York Times has in some way misquoted you. It happens.

But your argument, in fact your rearguard defence given in the Met’s ‘unadorned office’, simply does not quite gel. Not for me.

On reading, and re-reading the article in question, I was struck by your claim that after focusing on each opera individually, you can now more easily ‘envision’ the quartet.

I have worked in the industry and seen some of the best producers and directors at their ‘business’. I have looked on as they have struggled to bring together sometimes disparate ideas together into one coherent narrative – and not always with total success. So I have to ask, did you not step back at any time and see Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as a whole – ‘a package’ (Really? A package) – at any moment from after you put the phone down on Peter Gelb and said, “I’ll do it”?

Even on the most basic of production issues did you not check and redress in rehearsal (and I seem to remember that you were given a great deal of rehearsal time) that the projections could be seen on the singers’ bodies?

And most vitally has it really taken countless individual performances before you would concede and take action on the “groaning and grinding” of “that monster”? It’s almost arrogant to reach a solution that involves only moving them in the “less quiet moments in the score”. Thank goodness – I can almost hear you say – for Wagner’s ‘loud bits’.

And as for the direction of the singers, this is something that the majority of critics, bloggers and people who attended commented on. Direction. What direction? From before the very first Ring cycle was performed at Bayreuth, Wagner was very clear on the relationship of his music to the staging. And of the required acting ability of his singers. I am glad that Siegmund and Sieglinde are going to spend more of their time toward the front of the stage. My recollection was that they are already spending quite a lot of time at the front of the stage. It’s just that they aren’t being directed in what to do when they are there.

“People are protective”. Yes they are. But shame on you. Even amid all the stories swirling around about having to strengthen the stage and ongoing technical troubles there wasn’t a person in the auditorium on any given night – or in a cinema somewhere in the world – who didn’t give the production – and you – the benefit of the doubt.

And ‘false’ debate? If you are going to construct a 45-ton set of planks then expect debate. Welcome discussion. And listen. I don’t deny that giant transforming sets have been used elsewhere. But I can’t think of one before this that consumed everything before it – singers, orchestra, dramaturgy, narrative and originality.

I would argue that everyone who sits in the opera is there for the music. Focused on it. Music first. Production second. A good production enhances an opera. A fantastic production can result in greater and deeper understanding and insight. Opera is a combination of various elements including the music and the production. Funfairs and circuses provide spectacle, often using multi-ton machines that do creak and moan but for the very reason that it doesn’t matter if they do so. It doesn’t detract from the pipe-organ music of the ride.

But not at the opera. The audience can and does deal with, and accustom themselves to appropriate scene-changing noise. But your “monster” made that impossible.

As to your point that The Ring is ‘always dipped in these layers and layers of social-political stances’. It’s right and proper that directors should reinterpret Wagner and often they will look to their own society as well as the past to do so.

For them it magnifies the ideas of the Ring. It personalises it. But you didn’t magnify the ideas of The Ring. You smothered them. There was no personality or character in your bland interpretation. And by the way opera singers don’t only use their eyes to magnify the emotions they are experiencing. Ask them and you’ll find out it’s much more complicated than that.

And so to the ‘purists’ and the ‘cranky’ operagoers. I have never heard anyone I know – and I count myself sometimes as a cranky purist – say “We don’t want those people because they don’t know what opera is”.

The majority of those who go to the opera – however often – are well aware of the difficulties and dangers this art form is facing. Falling sponsorship, tighter budgets and the need to attract new and younger audiences.

Yes some people do sit there with scores. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way. But the majority of us sit back, listen and watch.

How absurd. How patronising. How insulting of the audience that you purport to entertain to dismiss them with a childish facial expression. Again. Shame on you.

Your Ring Cycle promised hope that it might meet some of these challenges head on and pose some questions. Sadly your patronising attitude just confirms one thing to me.

It was a vanity project. Yours. And Peter Gelb’s.

But well done. You did go back to the 19th century. You have created a modern take on a last-century folly.

La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on April 16, 2012 at 8:40 am

Review – The Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast (Saturday 14 April)

Violetta Valéry – Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont – Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Flora Bervoix – Patricia Risley
Annina – Maria Zifchak

Production – Willy Decker
Set & Costume Designer – Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer – Hans Toelstede
Choreographer – Athol Farmer

New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor- Fabio Luisi

According to Deborah Voigt I am one of millions who has experienced live performances from The Met via live HD simulcasts. My first was the final instalment of LePage’s Ring cycle Götterdämmerung, and while the production itself remains as flawed as it was for his Die Walküre, I couldn’t fault the high production values of the broadcast itself.

So with that in mind it wasn’t a hard decision to book a seat for Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata. Not only to see what all the original fuss was about when this pared down production debuted in Salzburg in 2005, but also to hear Natalie Dessay essay her Violetta.

And this was also my second Verdi production at The Met. My first was Il Trovatore during my visit to see Die Walküre live. It was not a good experience and at the time I did wonder if Peter Gelb and his management team allowed the lure of high box office returns overwhelm their good sense in casting the opera. The principals were poor and the conducting even worse. The evening was only salvaged by David McVicar’s production.

So after this production of La Traviata I found myself asking the same question. Had Gelb and his Finance Director fallen into the honey trap offered by Ms Dessay? She first sang the role at Santa Fé in 2009 but three years later in a bigger house I wonder if I was the only person left disappointed?

Do not misunderstand me. I am an admirer of Natalie Dessay in Handel, Mozart, the bel canto composers and even the CD of Strauss excerpts alongside Felicity Lott, Angelika Kirchschlager, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen under Antonio Pappano and the players of Covent Garden.

But Verdi’s La Traviata is an unforgiving opera. Not only is the story harsh and brutal, but the music he wrote literally takes no prisoners and is similarly brutal as it exposes those who tackle it. Fortunately the sublime beauty of Verdi’s music is that even when the singing is mediocre his genius shines through. And this was very much the case in The Met’s production.

As an actress she was – at times – painfully convincing but for me her performance in the title role exposed her vocal vulnerabilities mercilessly. While Ms Dessay sang all the notes – and who really cares that she didn’t sing the top ‘e’ at the end of the first act – there was something that remained just out of her grasp throughout the evening. Quite simply she lacked a richness of tone and heft for the music that Verdi wrote for his consumptive courtesan. Her voice remained flat and one dimensional throughout and added to this it seemed that for significant parts of the opera she was either in front of or behind the beat coming from the pit.

In short, Natalie Dessay’s Violetta was as colourless and pale as we would presume to be the pallor of her skin due to her prognosis.

And while son and father, Alfredo and Giorgio – Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky – fared better in delivering heft, what they made up in volume they lacked in subtlety. Polenzani has a rich timbred voice and is a good actor but there was little finesse or delicacy in his singing when it was required. As for Hvorostovsky it seems that his volume button is forever jammed on ‘loud’ and finesse is simply out of the question. What should have been a seminal series of scenes in the second act simply reminded me of shouting matches in my own Italian family’s household in moments of crisis. Except my parents really could act.

Indeed the most refreshing performances of the evening were the brightly projected roles of Maria Zifchak as Annina and the Flora Bervoix of Patricia Risley.

And in the pit was Fabio Luisi. In my last blog regarding the Met it was pointed out to me that Maestro Luisi was conducting Wagner like Verdi. I am afraid to say that in La Traviata his conducting was less Verdi and as lacklustre as the vast majority of performances on the stage. Admittedly it might be a problem of hearing the orchestra once-removed via satellite but – giving modern digital technology the benefit of the doubt – Luisi seemed to be conducting by rote with a distinct lack of bite being coaxed from the orchestra. Clearly Luisi is a virtual shoo-in to replace Levine at some point in the future. It would be a shame if this happenstance was merely the result of being in the right room at the right time rather than on account of his ability.

Elsewhere on the stage the chorus was impressive. The ensemble singing was for the most part strong but all credit to choreographer Athol Farmer for marshalling them so effectively and tapping into a real sense of menace especially in the second act.

And that sense of menace and brutality was at the core of Willy Decker’s production. It takes a brave and talented theatre director to take a well-loved opera and pare it back. And pare it back Decker did to literally nothing. And it was incredibly effective and emotive.

The main set was completely empty bar a single clock face and a solitary figure. It wasn’t too hard to deduce this was Violetta’s doctor Grenvill (Luigi Roni) and together with the clock, he was a constant reminder of her impending death. Built into the wall was a bench on which the protagonists either sat or walked along as the drama unfolded. And above the bench was a space where the chorus appeared. At some point towards the end of the first act as the chorus leaned forward from above as voyeurs on Violetta and Alfredo it occurred to me that perhaps Decker had been inspired somewhat by ancient Greek theatre.

The opening of the second act literally bloomed with flowers. The protagonists were robed in floral patterns and the sofas were extravagantly draped in them. But again Decker never let us forget – however subtly – the transience of the relationship and Violetta’s own life. The poignancy for example of their innocent game of hide and seek or how Violetta herself pulled off the covers, literally stripping bare the veneer of her own life before she is forced to abandon her life of happiness in the country.

However it was Decker’s reinterpretation of the Spanish divertissement that was a master stoke that underlined the brutality and violence of their world. Dispensing with the normally expected flamenco dancers and matadors, in Decker’s mind the divertissement became a malicious and cruel critique of Violetta’s life.

Even Decker’s resolution of moving without break from the second to final act was inspired, with the chorus – Violetta’s former party people – leaving her to her demise only to return later to reclaim the clock face for their ‘new’ Violetta who is even dressed in the dying courtesan’s red dress.

It was only in the closing scenes – and more as a result of her acting skills than her vocal ability – that Dessay almost convinced me that she was an almost credible Violetta even if she remained vocally bland to the end.

So while not the most disappointing La Traviata I have ever seen, this production – where the director has stripped away all artifice – requires singing and conducting of the highest standard for all the elements to fuse together effectively.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. This could have marred the entire evening had it not been for Decker’s single-minded production and – as stated above – the fact that the genius and beauty of Verdi’s music can overcome even the most mediocre singing.


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