Opera where all the stage’s a prison

We may have been a long way from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, but with singing this good and orchestra playing freed from the dampening pit of an opera house, Puccini’s score was alive with protest and beauty.

Fidelio Tosca
Coliseum, London WC2
Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

It goes against the fundamental principles of opera – Wagner’s all-consuming Gesamtkunstwerk of a genre – to perform operatic works in concert. Music is just one part of a dramatic experience that was immersive centuries before east London theatre companies first popularised the concept. No wonder that performances outside the opera house have often been seen as second best, a musical consolation prize in an age of austerity. But with directors increasingly turning auteur and staging a bloody coup all over the stage, has the concert hall become the place to see opera as its authors intended?

Calixto Bieito’s new Fidelio for English National Opera will certainly have driven some audiences from the theatre – for this is emphatically Bieito’s Fidelio, not Beethoven’s. Replacing the original spoken text with Jorge Luis Borges, a Spanish prison with a spaceage maze of platforms and pillars, and interpolating music composed some 20 years after the opera, the director doesn’t so much stamp his mark as stamp his foot through the fragile fabric of this work.

An attack on this Fidelio isn’t an argument for keeping operas in glass cases, preserved from innovation or alteration; it is an argument for applying a little intelligence. An opera about political and personal freedom cries out for contemporary application. Beethoven’s score can take a lot of messing around and still retain its beauty. But when human emotions are replaced with philosophical abstractions (writing “freedom” in marker pen on signs around the prisoners’ necks in a terribly post-structural subversion of the last scene) and coherence with Konzept, we risk losing much more than we gain.

The music struggled to emerge from the chaos of its mise en scène, and just in case it might succeed, under Edward Garner’s incisive direction, Bieito dealt it a death blow by opting for the Leonore No 3 overture (the longest and least-often used of the four surviving overtures for the opera), weighing down the action even before it began. Aside from Sarah Tynan’s vivacious Marzelline and the work of the excellent ENO chorus, the singing couldn’t supplement what the production lacked. Emma Bell’s Leonore was curiously muted in performance, lacking her usual clarity at the top of her range, while Stuart Skelton’s Florestan never bettered the beauty and range of tone-colours of his first note. The biggest disappointment, however, was Philip Horst’s Pizarro, struggling to project vocally and lost in Bieito’s fantasy of neurosis. Prisons of the mind might be the order of the day, but there’s no excuse for a director to find himself trapped in there, too, along with his characters.

A prison of quite a different kind was to be found at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool for a concert performance of Tosca, part of the mighty baritone Bryn Terfel’s residency with the orchestra. We may have been a long way from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, but with singing this good and orchestra playing freed from the dampening pit of an opera house, Puccini’s score was alive with protest and beauty.

Under the baton of their chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra were scene-stealingly good. The shading of their woodwind matched any set for atmospherics, painting Cavaradossi’s execution in the chillest of shades, while their strings swelled with sickening persuasion for Scarpia’s seduction.

The director, Amy Lane, kept the action simple, drawing all the drama from Puccini’s score itself. Uncluttered by concepts and complicated staging, the physicality of Terfel’s Scarpia was all the more dominant in so simple a space. Vocally, it was a crafted performance, more croon than bellow, occupying a much tighter range of musical emotion than would be possible in an opera house. The effect was to complicate the psychology of the role, narrowing the gap between seducer and psychopath until the confusion became the character.

Though occasionally tending flat, Victoria Yastrebova’s Tosca was a dramatic match for Terfel, facing down his force with brittle sincerity. Both, however, were outdone by the Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine, whose Cavaradossi was ardent and exquisitely sung, holding nothing back.

In opera, as in theatre, what’s on the page is only half the story. But the transformative drama of performance is generated as much in the ear as the eye, and in emotion more than either. That is something Bieito and his fellow director-auteurs would do well to remember the next time they seek to reinvent a classic.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Image: Getty

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France - that's why Euro 2016 must go ahead

As a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice.

After the Paris attacks, the great Bill Shankly’s words have rarely been so tested: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.”

As bombers detonated their suicide belts outside the Stade de France, French and German football fans cheered what they thought were fireworks. They were unaware that it was the opening salvo in a night of barbarity. One of the bombers had a ticket for the game but, mercifully, was turned back at the turnstile. Had his bomb gone off inside the stadium, the immediate loss of life, plus the panicked stampede and two more suicide bombers lying in wait outside for escaping fans, could have produced a death toll higher than at Hillsborough, Bradford, Heysel or either of the Ibrox ­stadium disasters.

The French intelligence services have yet to conclude publicly whether the attacks were timed to coincide with the prestigious friendly or whether the crowd of 80,000 was simply another target of bloodthirsty convenience on an already preordained date. Either way, there’s no mistaking that an attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France. In the aftermath, the Germany-Netherlands friendly game was called off and Belgian football went into lockdown.

How should British football respond? To those who think that the sport is just 22 players kicking a ball around a field, this may seem a peculiar question. But ever since the tail end of the 19th century, when football escaped from its self-enforced ghettoisation in Britain’s public schools, it has had a greater purpose.

More than any other sport, football has been intertwined with politics. As Harold Wilson said: “It’s a way of life . . . a religion.” When President Rowhani of Iran wanted to bolster his image as a new kind of leader, he didn’t deliver a speech but tweeted a picture of himself wearing an Iranian football top, watching a match. Franco’s dictatorship clung to the all-conquering Real Madrid and punished FC Barcelona. On Robben Island, ANC prisoners idolised Billy Bremner of Leeds United and successfully demanded the right to play football.

In October, one of the biggest protests against the closure of the north-east’s steelworks was from 10,000 Middlesbrough fans at Old Trafford. When Catalans challenged hikes in transport costs, they boycotted public transport from the Camp Nou. The biggest “Refugees Welcome” signs in Europe weren’t produced by governments but by fans of the Bundesliga champions, ­Bayern Munich.

So while the singing of the Marseillaise at the England-France match at Wembley was a “hairs on the back of the neck” moment, most of us understand that it’s not enough. What is less well known is that this wasn’t the first time that one of the world’s few genuinely inspiring anthems has been performed in earnest in British football. A century ago, bands took to the pitch to play patriotic British, French and Russian music – not out of altruism but military necessity. The British army was under intense pressure at Ypres and urgently needed new volunteers. The War Office turned to football.

For many, the journey to Loos, Flanders and the Somme started with a routine visit to cheer on their local team. Their sport transported them from a home football field to their foreign killing fields. Many clubs, including Everton, held military training on their pitches, while Manchester City’s then stadium, Hyde Road, became a 300-horse stable. Hundreds of players died serving in the Football Battalion.

But for too long our national sport reflected Britain’s lack of ease with diversity. From the 1920s, the religious sectarianism that poisoned the west of Scotland was allowed to fester in Glasgow’s football. The sport’s tolerance of recreational racism became widespread. Outside stadiums, right-wing extremists sold their propaganda while, inside, black players were vilified – even by their own supporters. Football’s racism corroded its heart and was rationalised in its head: it was allowed on the pitch, cele­brated on the terraces and accepted in the boardroom and far too many changing rooms.

And now, as a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice. The sport and its fans cannot sit on the subs’ bench at a time like this.

In a nation where only one in five male workers joins a trade union, football is a rare regular collective experience. It is more authentic than click-and-connect social media communities. Despite high ticket prices, football offers the one place where thousands of working-class men, including many politically disenchanted young men, come together in a common cause.

British football has long since jettisoned its ambivalence regarding racism. But for organised extreme right-wingers, Islamophobia fills the space vacated by the anti-Irish “No Surrender” tendency on the sport’s fringes. Although the number of top-flight British Muslim players is infinitesimally small, the streets of Bradford, Blackburn and Birmingham teem with young British Muslims kicking a football. More clubs can harness their power to inspire and increase their ­involvement in community counter-­radicalisation strategies. Clubs should also take the lead by having zero tolerance for Islamophobia, training stewards and backing fans who stand up to fellow supporters.

And, finally, the European Championships, for which all the home nations bar Scotland have qualified, must go ahead in France next summer. There’s no liberté in cancelling. In the name of fraternité, let’s all back France as our second team. Allez les Bleus!

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State