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.
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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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