Julietta and The Magic Flute

The English National Opera's autumn season opens with Julietta and the Magic Flute, both of which run until early October.

Something old and something new open the autumn season at English National Opera. Fairytales or cautionary tales, however you read them, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Martinu’s Julietta offer phantasmagorical visions that only opera would dare to dream. And with dreams this beautifully, disturbingly vivid, why would you ever want to wake up?

Twenty-three years old may be prime ingénue territory if you’re on the stage, but not if you’re a production. First seen in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s The Magic Flute has since returned for umpteen revivals, many billed as the “last chance…”. We’ve been promised that this is positively-and-definitely the final appearance for this classic of the ENO repertoire, but watching a young cast (and even younger conductor) bring energy and charm to Hytner’s visuals, it’s startling how fresh it all still seems.

True, this has never been the deepest or most philosophically engaged of treatments. Jeremy Sams’s quicksilver translation dances its way through the German original, rendering it in rhyming couplets whose inevitability is only matched by its knowing glee. Bob Crowley’s designs likewise made a gesture towards the opera’s Masonic subtext with its ruined temples and generic hieroglyphs, but never really weaves them into any kind of coherent statement. Perhaps the genius of Hytner’s conception is precisely his willingness to allow the jostling inconsistencies and conflicting elements of this singspiel to co-exist, never attempting to corral them into a single reading.

Directed by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas this revival lacks occasional dramatic focus, but is carried by a strong ensemble of singing actors. Luxury casting for the Three Ladies includes Pamela Helen Stephen and Elizabeth Llewellyn (sparring deliciously over their duties), and is matched by smaller cameos from up-and-coming Rhian Lois (an enthusiastically Welsh Papagena) and the trio of excellent boy-trebles.

Sadly in this second performance of the run, Shawn Mathey’s Tamino seemed a struggle, tiring audibly towards the end and lacking any of the natural physical ease of Duncan Rock’s Papageno. Delivered in a broad Australian accent his pleasure-loving bird-catcher snatches the show out from under Mathey, and makes one long to hear his Don Giovanni. An efficient and vocally exemplary Pamina from Elea Xanthoudakis only lacks a little tenderness to be sublime, but even she couldn’t match the starry debut of conductor Nicholas Collon.

Best known for his work with the Aurora Orchestra, Collon’s work here maintained his characteristic lightness of touch, bringing out the pulsing offbeats of the Overture and bringing the same clarity of drama and swift pacing to the subsequent action.

While The Magic Flute provided a slick send-off to one show, a new production was christened in Richard Jones’s Julietta. Who better to direct Bohuslav Martinu’s surrealist opera than the often surreal and wildly imaginative Jones? It’s a pairing that amplifies the symbols and allusions of Martinu’s sprawling allegory while cleverly pushing past its more tired structural elements.

At its premiere in 1938 the resonances of a town of people condemned to live in the moment, denied the humanising capacity for memory, would have cut keenly to Europe’s political situation. In 2012 this opera has to work rather harder for its impact, wriggling out from under the crushing weight of the bloated “it was all a dream” concept and an elusive score.

The French influence on Martinu glistens through in the filmy orchestral gestures and textural abstractions. Vocal lines are forgettable (deliberately, surely) and are carried along by the orchestra’s surging moods. Jones’s brilliant cast of black and white grotesques find themselves silhouetted against the rich, almost oriental, colours of wind and strings, with the denatured glitter of tuned percussion never far away.

This is a true ensemble show, built around Peter Hoare’s ardent bookseller Michel. Questing ever more desperately after his beloved Julietta, whose love song (heard once on a visit to her seaside town) echoes perpetually in his head, Michel’s adventures turn ever more Kafka-like as he encounters the people of this town-in-stasis, and eventually ends up facing a desperate dilemma in the Central Bureau of Dreams.

Hoare’s tenor deploys its full range of colours, trying to bring life back to Martinu’s more ephemeral melodic lines. His full-blooded frustrations and emotions fight valiantly against the lulling malaise of the dream-world, with its temptress, Julia Sporsen’s richly-sung Julietta. A sequence of fine cameos comes from Andrew Shore (Man in a Helmet/Seller of Memories/Convict) and Susan Bickley’s Fortune Teller crowns the moving forest episode.

A triumph of totality, this Julietta is ultimately about the absolute integration of its elements. Antony McDonald’s designs call on Martinu’s accordion – the only sound that can awaken memory – building houses among its folds before reimagining them into the filing cabinets of the Bureau, which in turn inform the symbolist simplicity of Jones’s characterisation. Ed Gardner extracts all possible life and consciousness from a score doomed to subside into sleep and nullity. All these elements collide in a final tableau that might just transform this operatic dream into real-life nightmares for its audience.

The London Coliseum. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis