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.

 

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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