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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times