Reviewed: Wozzeck and Don Carlo

Terror – eye-opening and mind-expanding – is the great equaliser, as these two productions by the ENO and Royal Opera House make clear.

Wozzeck; Don Carlo
ENO, London Coliseum; Royal Opera House

Tragedy is a great equaliser, uniting opera’s paupers and princes and levelling the class divide in a volley of blood and betrayal. At the Royal Opera House this week Verdi’s Don Carlo – a drama of kings and empire – has hoisted the black flag high, while English National Opera have hustled their audience into crack-dens and council-houses for Berg’s bitter gutter-parable Wozzeck. A classic revival and a new production, a lavish visual spectacle and a brutalist bit of social realism – Don Carlo and Wozzeck share nothing except a core of violence whose ferocity still shocks.

Carrie Cracknell is a natural fit for Berg’s opera – a director with an instinctive grasp of emotional nuance, as the charged restraint of her recent A Doll’s House at the Young Vic so vividly demonstrated. Making her opera-directing debut here she avoids so many of the classic first-time pitfalls simply by placing the score at the centre of her thinking. Too often to theatre or film directors (of whom we’ve seen an endless parade at ENO of late) the music is an irritating incidental rather than an organic part of their drama, and the results can be oddly discordant or just plain wilful.

Her Wozzeck comes dressed in cheap lycra and poached in the stench of yesterday’s half-empty beer cans and half-smoked fags. Nothing remains of the glamour of soldiering Instead we’re confronted with the bleak array of options facing the squaddie returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Death, and a flag-draped coffin, is the best of a short list that also includes paranoid amputee and rapist.

In a brilliant dramatic transposition the doctor becomes a drug-dealer; his “beans” are pills, forced upon the hapless Wozzeck who is at once drug-mule, guinea-pig and customer. If James Morris doesn’t quite achieve the malevolence of Clive Bayley’s Doctor in the recent Welsh National Opera production, then his bonhomous, everyday demeanour is possibly all the more disturbing for its rejection of the trappings of an opera-villain. His efficiently-sung, calm delivery also provides a necessary dramatic anchor for Leigh Melrose’s Wozzeck.

Lost in the phantasmagoric visions that over-take his reality, Melrose finds – and more impressively sustains – an edgy place for Berg’s demanding vocal writing that chafes thrillingly against the orchestral richness from Ed Gardner’s pit. Sara Jukubiak makes an impressive ENO debut as Marie, her Act III song all the more horrific for its vocal beauty, and strong support also comes from Adrian Dwyer as a wheelchair-bound Andres.

In so complete a reworking some sacrifices are inevitably made. Religion is the elephant in the room, lingering in the translated libretto but excised rather awkwardly from the drama, and by compressing Buchner’s social strata into a single miserable slice of exiles and misfits Cracknell also loses a crucial angle on Wozzeck’s misfortunes. Her canny adaptation – nasty, brutish, and mercifully short – is however a serious and thoughtful one. It certainly made me think, yet what it couldn’t quite do in the crucial, final moments was make me feel.

Feeling isn’t an issue in Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 Don Carlo, revived on this occasion by Paul Higgins. Bob Crowley’s stylised, insistently red, black and gold designs frame the action with symbolic emphasis, adding to the monumental quality of Verdi’s epic. And if they teeter on the edge of excess in the violently gilded auto da fe, or threaten to tip over into baroque self-congratulations in the marbled splendour of Carlos V’s tomb then it only serves to raise the stakes on the emotions which must equal these visual for sheer volume.

Don Carlo lives and dies with its cast, and what a cast this current iteration has on offer. Even the absence of soprano Anja Harteros (who pulled out after opening night) doesn’t diminish its attractions, with Lianna Haroutounian bringing a girlishness, a dramatic vulnerability to Elisabetta that Harteros, in her vocal peerlessness, could never quite achieve. Acts IV and V put Haroutounian to a test no less daunting than that the heretics faced a few scenes earlier, and she rises with unobtrusive skill to the occasion, never losing the role among its technical demands.

It helps that she is partnered with Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Carlos, perhaps the best singing-actor of his generation, and a tenor who opts for vocal colour over force every time – crucial in this slow-burn tragedy where the minutiae of emotion need to be felt to keep the screw turning act after act. Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor is a glorious grotesque, waddling and oozing his way across the stage to Verdi’s vivid musical accompaniment, and bringing the horror to balance Mariusz Kwiecien’s gallant Rodrigo. Only Dusica Bijelic’s page Tebaldo blots the elegant vocal patterning of this cast, blurting rather shrill at the top, and never quite settling into a happy relationship with Pappano’s orchestra.

Don Carlo is an opera of extremes that must all be kept in balance if it is not to topple under the weight of its own excesses. Pappano is a master of controlled-impetuosity, ordered chaos, and is his instinctive, paradoxical feel for Verdi’s score that coheres this revival. You’ll be harrowed and hurt by an evening spent with this Don Carlo, but wonderfully so. Terror – eye-opening and mind-expanding – is the order of the day at both ENO and the Royal Opera this week, but what a way to face those Gothic ghosts.

Anja Harteros as Elisabette di Valois and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. Image: ROH.
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear