Cut and paste baroque

Peter Brook's response to Mozart.

In this week's issue of the New Statesman, editor Jason Cowley devotes the "Notes in the margin" column to some reflections on Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute" at the Barbican. Brook, he wrote, "continues to experiment with form as he seeks to get ever closer to the essence of the dramatic art". Here, our theatre blogger GIna Allum offers her take on what she thinks will be Brook's "swansong".

So the old innovator comes once more to London. At the age of 86, after 70 or so productions and a clutch of films and books, Peter Brook is finally bowing out, and A Magic Flute is his swansong. And since we know the work as The Magic Flute, what, we might ask, is in an indefinite article?

Well, a good deal, as it happens. The title signposts the piece as a personal one; one man's response to Mozart - or, more properly, one collaborative team's response to Mozart. This is cut-and-paste baroque, pick'n'mix singspiel, with the original three hours' worth of music pared to a bare 90 minutes. Arias à la carte are spliced with dialogue in demotic French, and there are swingeing cuts to music, structure, characters and orchestra (it is performed with one piano only).

Austerity opera, maybe. Certainly the numerical underpinning, the triple symbolism of Mozart's Masonic allegory (three temples, three boys, three flute solos), is shrunk. Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, instead concentrate on the doubling that informs the story: the hero Tamino has a coarse counterpart in Papageno, who is also in want of a wife; Papageno himself gets his own clone -- the object of his uxorial quest, Papagena, is dressed as his doppelganger.

Then there is the competition for hearts and minds between the binary powers of Sarastro (male, rational, enlightened) and the Queen of the Night (female, vengeful, destructive). The magic flute itself has a bloody duplicate in the Queen's red dagger. Brook, for all his chops, chose to keep and enshrine the narrative pattern of women as surrendered wives and pale imitations: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him a woman steps out of her sphere." We are still all lodge brothers together, apparently. This is where the lack of an orchestra, with its plurality of voice and possibilities of equivocation (lyrical woodwind to counterpoint Sarastro's priestly pronouncements, for example), flattens and thins the opera.

The set design is a simple arrangement of bamboo poles: a phallic, bristling forest of giant flutes, which becomes a porcupine thicket for Tamino's rescue-quest, and is rearranged architecturally for Sarastro's temple. When the Queen of the Night knocks the pillars down in her hissy fit, the entire cast finally restores the masculine order by picking up these outsize spillikins for their, as it were, re-erection.

What we gain from this reduced, deboned and hashed opera is a certain intimacy and fluidity: actors have tiny interactions with the piano, or stop the music altogether (to get the straying Papageno out of the audience). A constrained Mozart, against a severe backdrop, still shines with startling clarity. The diminutive Malia Bendi-Merad sings the Queen of the Night's fiendishly difficult aria, "Der Hölle Rache", which demands the tessitura of a lark, with pinpoint delicacy. The sound of the cast's voices, unbuttressed by instruments, is an unexpected pleasure. Their movements, too, have been stripped of excess and honed by Marcello Magni to a debrided, graceful minimum.

Costumes bear the Brook hallmarks of the timeless and placeless -- namely, ecru and baggy -- though they are primped with vaguely oriental touches; incarnadine flashes denote the Queen's bloody doings. The lighting is stealthily beautiful. Admittedly sometimes the drive for simplicity can cause the childlike to slip into the childish: when Tamino and the rescued Pamina undergo trial by fire and water it is a slow strut up and down the stage, done with all the gravitas and self-importance of kids dressing up and making-believe.

Brook's casting is typically described as colour-blind, but perhaps colour-sensitive would be more accurate. The two black actors are the only ones who don't sing, and don't have a named role. They are by turns "gracious spirits" who further the action, and stagehands who shift the scenery. That said, William Nadylam is such a strong, attractive presence, that the action appears to revolve around him. He is the one who conjures the magic flute's appearance and disappearance, and when he stares down the cast at the end of the play, it is as if they are all creatures of his imagination.

The Magic Flute proved to be the composer's swansong, too, so it seems fitting that Brook has chosen it as his last project. Mozart haché it may be, but the dialogue between the two men is an interesting and at times delightful one. While we may not be getting essential Mozart, we are surely getting essential Brook.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times