Reviewed: A Fidelio for the future

Hi-tech and full of trickery, but can the music survive?

 

Fidelio, Opera de Lyon (coming to the Edinburgh Festival, summer 2013)

A space-age opera for a space-age opera house – it seems only fitting. Jean Nouvel’s astonishing opera house at Lyon took shape within the architectural shell of the original 1831 Opera when that space became unworkable in the 1990s. The result belies its neo-classical exterior in a black-lacquer, modernist fantasy of escalators and walkways, extending high up into a new vaulted roof-space – a triumph of spatial and aesthetic reclamation. Now American artist Gary Hill has set up his own concept-space within Beethoven’s Fidelio, creating a futuristic, sci-fi meditation within the musical shell of the original. It’s bold certainly, and visually arresting, but can it equal the ingenious creativity of its surroundings?

There are plenty of folk who have bet that it will. Already scheduled to travel to the Edinburgh Festival this summer with some minor cast changes, it will be interesting to see if Hill makes any alterations to his staging in light of this first run as part of Opera de Lyon’s opera festival, with its theme of “Justice/Injustice”.

We open in a shoal of intricately projected constellations, darting and swirling seemingly in mid-air – one of the sensory delights of Hill’s visuals, which sustain an almost four-dimensional stage-space throughout. A narrator sets the scene in a post-apocalyptic world (it could be the future, could be a parallel universe, she tells us in language drawn from Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem Aniara) in which humans have fled the earth, setting up a temporary home – Aniara – in space. Their only hopes for survival and communication lie in the all-knowing, super-computer MIMA.

All of which translates rather more prosaically to Fidelio on a spaceship. Metallic fashions (the more sartorially implausible the better) are in, and walking is out, thanks to the futuristic Segways on which the characters dart elegantly about. The evil Don Pizarro watches over his captives on screens that he summons from the air in front of him, and Florestan finds himself tortured and imprisoned in Blade Runner-esque fashion in the steel bowels of the ship.

What’s interesting about Hill’s conception is the extent to which video-art and live action are integrated. Act I is substantially more successful at this than Act II, offering us a genuine glimpse of the opera of the future in which the visual trickery and magic of virtual reality and film are brought to bear in an art form that revels and welcomes such excess. At its best – in Don Pizarro’s persuasive visual manipulation of Rocco, or the abastract ballet of images during the quartet – this is thrilling stuff, blending with and amplifying the original work. But at its lazy worst this Fidelio almost feels like an 1980s park-and-bark staging set behind an inexhaustible screensaver of visual doodlings.

None of which speaks to the music, which suffers a little among so much conceptual activity. Conductor Kazushi Ono struggles often to unite pit and stage – an issue that will hopefully be resolved by the summer. Singers push forward against his sedate tempi, legatos never quite connect, and with such other-worldly visuals there’s more than usual pressure for the brass and strings to achieve the transcendent loveliness that Beethoven’s score makes possible. Sadly all too-often in this space-fantasy Ono’s orchestra (and his horns particularly) remain distressingly earthbound, with some serious intonation issues blighting Act II.

The cast too is a little uneven. Nikolai Schukoff’s Florestan is the stand-out, and those hearing him reprise the role in Scotland can look forward to some secure and sensitively projected work at the top of his range and unusually personable characteristation. Michaela Kaune’s Leonore (replaced by Erika Sunnegårdh at Edinburgh) is less secure. A voice of no-great loveliness proves serviceable enough for the most part, but misses that glowing warmth that can transform her first aria into something miraculous. She is balanced by Karen Vourc’h’s pert Marzelline, whose voice shows signs of interesting things to come, but currently phases in and out of focus, struggling to sustain an even line. I wonder whether, among all the distractions of projections and Segways, the singers were able to give their best – something this first-time opera director might do well to consider.

Hill’s is undeniably a catalyst show – a masterclass in what is possible if new technologies are harnessed to old scores, offering a truly 21st-century model of gesamtkustwerk. Yet in many ways this feels like a prototype rather than the finished product. There’s little point in embracing all that digital technology has to offer if the musical basics are neglected. Get it all right and opera’s future, so often in doubt, could be assured. Get it wrong, and we have an empty spectacle that diminishes even as it attempts so desperately to amplify.

 

The opera house in Lyon (Getty Images)
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The new Tate Modern building is perfectly designed for the Instagram generation

Almost every three minutes a photograph of The Switch House is uploaded to Instagram tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location.

It's a Tuesday morning in the Tate Modern Switch House”s “Living Cities” display.  A group of teenage girls charge around the room, phones in hand, paused on the camera screen, hunting down a potential Instagram post or Snapchat story. A young man is capturing shots of Mark Bradford”s 2004 “Los Moscos”,  a violent collage made from the materials found on the floor of his Los Angeles Studio. Ten minutes later the same man remains looking at his screen, observing the images he has taken on his iPhone camera. A group of tourists are posing for a photo on Marwan Rechmaouis”s “Beirut Caoutchouc”.  A young girl tells her Dad “that”s a really good photo that you took”. Kader Attia's “Untitled (Gharrdaia)” is surrounded by lenses of Canon cameras attached to bodies.

You can't miss it. The camera is literally everywhere: in every hand, in every room, in front of every painting.  

Downstairs, in the room “Between Object and Architecture” Yayoi Kusaama”s “The Passing Winter” (2005) seems to be a hotspot for the perfect Instagram post. People crowd around the cube, placing not their heads, but their iPhone cameras through the inviting holes. I too am part of this. Standing just outside the grey tape boundary, I take a picture of myself in the mirrored cube. Add a Clarendon filter, adjust the brightness and contrast, and tap post. By the time I've left the room, three friends have liked it.

But why do we insist of photographing the art around us? And what are the consequences of doing so?  A common criticism of social media is that it discourages us from living “in the moment”. As we constantly view the world from behind a digital screen, the tech-sceptics say, we neglect details of life at that very second. But there are even greater ramifications for the clicking, capturing and photographing of visual art for the sake of your Instagram feed. As you take a picture of Louise Bourgeois  À L”Infini (2008) and adjust the brightness, contrast, structure, warmth and saturation, then apply a filter of your choice:  Gingham, Juno, Crema Sierra, Nashville or Sutro, you become an artist with your own digital palette, transgressing the intentions of Bourgeois in terms of colour, tone and texture. While the intricate effects of Bourgeois's own work may be lost in the snapshot, your Instagram feed gains. It becomes a mini gallery, holding these appropriated and transformed works.

As you pose in the cube mirrors of Robert Morris”s “Untitled” (1965), or next to Andy Warhol”s iconic “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), it becomes clear that the gallery is an ideal space for capturing the art via selfies. If you'd like to convey to your followers just how “cultured” and “artistically engaged” you really are (just look at the Tumblr “Tinder Guys Posing with Art”), this space allows you to promote your own self-image with ease.

I ask the woman beside me viewing (or rather capturing) Lorna Simpson”s “Photo Booth” (2008), exhibited in the “Artist and Society” display of the Boiler House, why it is she is taking images of the work. She tells me she herself is an artist, and so sees this work as inspiration, capturing photos as a record for herself.  Art is photographed as a means of preservation. The content of a gallery is simultaneously static and fleeting. If you come back to the Tate Modern tomorrow, or a week later, chances are Lorna Simpson's “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” (1986) will not have moved from that same space. You stand and observe the image, take it in, maybe read the detailed text beside it, and then move on to something that catches your eye in the next room.

The camera, however, offers a chance to capture the art forever. Will you ever come back to it? Perhaps not, but the image is stored away among your photos of a summer holiday, preserved as evidence of a piece of work that made you feel something. The camera provides a sense of security. It is a reassurance that you won't forget the image, just yet.

“But also”, the woman goes on to tell me “I think it”s really nice to share images. If I take a photo of this art, I can share it with my friends”. In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks of how the camera has changed the way we interact and engage with art. “The camera enables us to see something that isn”t precisely there in front of us”, he states, “allowing appearances to travel across the world in seconds”. I take a picture of a Gerhard Ritcher and Snapchat it to a friend with the caption: “Your fave!” A few seconds later, he opens the image and replies.

Indeed, in the corner of a display in the Boiler House, is a digital screen provided by the Tate that encourages an exchange of images between the gallery space and home. “When do you feel most creative? Post your photo on Instagram using #tatestudio and it may appear here”, it says. Alongside photographs of the studios of Claude Monet and Eva Hesse are square framed, edited images of the work spaces of @paulaclyde, @magpieethel and @rayofmelbourne. Social media, it seems, has become central to the identity of the Tate. Just look at its own Instagram feed, updated daily with times lapse videos and images of the art work in its collection. Access to free Wifi throughout the Tate Modern only epitomises the pertinence of social media to the art gallery experience.

When searching for “Tate Modern Switch House” in the Instagram search engine, you are presented with 194 posts with the hashtag #tatemodernswitchhouse, and a photograph almost every three minutes tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location. The most popular shots on Instagram, among Louise Bourgeois”s dresses and Marwan Rechmaouis”s immersive floor installation “Beirut Caoutchouc” are images of the concrete twisting staircases of the building and the newly expanded viewing gallery. This landscape of London, offering at various views as you walk around the external of the building, is perhaps one of the most photographed pieces of “art” to exist amongst the gallery space. There is a sense in which the Switch House has been built to be photographed.  And if you don”t bring your camera, you”re missing out.