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

Show Hide image

Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.