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

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

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge