Why does opera have to have so many Wagnerian Nazis and smug anachronisms?

Alexandra Coghlan reviews new productions of La donna del lago and Ariadne auf Naxos.

La donna del lago; Ariadne auf Naxos
Royal Opera House, London WC2; Glyndebourne, Lewes

A new production of Tannhäuser opened in early May at the Rheinoper in Düsseldorf. This wouldn’t normally have made international headlines but its director, Burkhard C Kosminski, had relocated Wagner’s opera to Nazi Germany, confronting his audience with vivid images of gas chamber deaths and concentration camps.

Protests ensued and the production was cancelled. While ethical questions have dominated public debate, Kosminski’s Tannhäuser also raises the embattled issue of “Konzept” – that king of German Regietheater that places the director’s vision above all else, even the intentions of the composer. It’s a philosophy that has never fully taken root in Britain but two new productions – Glyndebourne’s Ariadne auf Naxos and La donna del lago (“The Lady of the Lake”) at the Royal Opera House in London – show the extent of its influence.

We all know the score with Rossini. Belly laughs and bel canto silliness are the bread and butter of The Barber of Seville – and if you’ve seen Le comte Ory, La Cenerentola or Il turco in Italia, this impression is only confirmed.

All of which can lead to problems when it comes to staging the composer’s serious works. Heard far less often, these take a musical language of glossy, self-regarding excess and use it as a vehicle for tragedy and historical drama. It’s a dislocation that modern directors often find uncomfortable and the results can be extreme.

John Fulljames’s new La donna del lago for the Royal Opera House makes you wonder why a director would bother to stage a work in which he seems to have so little faith. His high-concept treatment of Rossini’s take on Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake involves more framing device than action. We are asked to laugh at the reductive, 19th-century romanticising of Scottish history, to join with Rossini and Scott (inserted into the action here as minor characters) in poring over cultural archetypes preserved in the glass cases of a museum.

It’s all frightfully clever and meta-theatrical but Fulljames can’t have it both ways. Rossini’s opera needs the sincerity and mythic delight of Romanticism if it is to have any hope of engaging its audience. Stifle these and at best you have a smugly self-defeating piece of cultural analysis, certainly not an engaging drama.

Fortunately, La donna del lago is a singers’ show and, with a cast led by Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez, you only have to close your eyes to have a superb night at the opera. Freed from the acres of tartan and the wearisome insistence on disembowelling, raping and pillaging, you can relish the trickling fluidity of DiDonato’s semi­quavers, which transform Rossini’s four-square melodies into organic and unexpectedly beautiful arabesques.

Flórez is almost indecently comfortable in this repertoire – he is a rare tenor for whom it is a showcase, rather than an assault course. If his “O fiamma soave” is indulgently slow, then it’s a right he earns with his bravura athleticism elsewhere.

A coloratura trio between him, DiDonato and a late substitute, Michael Spyres (Rodrigo), is as good as anything you’ll hear at Covent Garden. Simon Orfila makes a strong Royal Opera House debut as Douglas and Daniela Barcellona outmans everyone as Malcolm.

If La donna del lago is an innocent opera traduced by an overly knowing director, no such claim can be made for Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera Ariadne auf Naxos. A complex compositional history reflects just how aware both Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal were of balancing the relationship between the opera’s framing first-half prologue (life) and its second-half opera (art). Making her UK debut with this production, the German director Katharina Thoma might betray Strauss but does at least succeed in making a dramatic case for her disjunctive shock-and-awe approach.

Blithely ignoring the jarring effect of the German libretto, Thoma relocates the action to a Glyndebourne-style English country house in the 1940s. The fireworks that ordinarily end the prologue become German bombs, setting us up to treat the second-half opera as a continuation, not a dramatic break.

Rather than fiction invading life, here we have the reverse. We find ourselves back in the country house, now transformed into a makeshift hospital, unable to escape fully into art and fantasy while painful reality keeps obtruding into the drama. So far, so interesting.

Unfortunately, the problems really start here, climaxing (quite literally) in some facile self-pleasuring for the showgirl Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb) and a decidedly confused encounter for Ariadne (Soile Isokoski) and Bacchus (Sergey Skorokhodov).

What conclusions – if any – we are supposed to draw about art, fidelity and life are, however, wilfully unclear. Neither are the individual performances aided much by Thoma’s concept, with only Kate Lindsey’s radiant, delicately finessed composer rising above the confusion.

The veteran Straussian Isokoski feels unusually laboured as Ariadne, never quite finding that floated vocal space; while Skorokhodov went to pieces entirely on opening night. Claycomb’s Zerbinetta fulfils the cheap banality of Thoma’s vision but otherwise makes little impression musically and even the thrusting dynamism of Vladimir Jurowski’s pit feels tainted by the insistent earthiness of this anti-myth.

We’re all postmodern now. “Ceci n’est pas un opéra” is the battle cry of directors for whom the text is an enemy to be drama­tically tortured, read against itself until the friction flays it clean of any original truths and intentions.

If opera is to grow, as theatre has, into a mature contemporary art form, then we have to find a way to resolve this hostility, this self-harming anger against the genre. Endless powdered-and-wigged Figaros certainly aren’t the future but neither, perhaps, are Wagnerian Nazis, smug anachronisms or shell-shocked Greek heroes.

 

A scene from "Ariadne auf Naxos".

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Why I refuse to swallow the "clean eating" craze

Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth reveals the dodgy science behind the restrictive eating trend.

Some years ago, my sister fell seriously ill just as she was about to take her university finals. No one knew what was wrong, but we suspected – even if none of us dared to say the word aloud – that she had some form of cancer. How else to explain the vomiting and exhaustion, the pewter circles beneath her eyes? Many tests later, we learned the truth. She has coeliac disease. In the circumstances, this was wondrous news. All she had to do to be better was to give up gluten. In the years since, however, the sense of escape has gradually dimmed. What a pain it is. How lovely it would be for her to be able to scoff a bowl of proper pasta, to demolish a pizza along with everyone else.

It’s thanks to my sister that my tolerance for the swollen ranks of the gluten-free brigade is even lower than it might ordinarily be (which is to say, about as low as the Dead Sea, and then some). Coeliac disease is not a fad but a lifelong autoimmune disorder affecting 1 per cent of the population. It is exasperating to have to listen to non-sufferers spouting so much pseudo­science on the matter of gluten – lies and half-truths out of which some of them are making a great deal of money – though if there’s one thing that is more exasperating, it’s those same people refusing to explain themselves when confronted with expertise.

In Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth, (19 January, 9pm), a Horizon film presented by Dr Giles Yeo, a scientist at Cambridge University’s Metabolic Diseases Unit, the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, who eschew not just gluten but grains in their bestselling cookery books, were notable by their absence, having declined to appear. As Yeo tossed bones into a pan of simmering water, preparing to make their broth (“the ultimate superfood”), my blood was already boiling. What’s wrong, girls? Lost your nerve?

Yeo’s film, righteous and entertaining (if not, perhaps, sufficiently savage), took as its starting point the broad idea – promoted by the Hemsleys, among others – that while some foods aid “wellness”, others actively make us ill. The beauty of this open-ended approach was that it allowed him to show that clean eating is merely one end of the 21st-century food fad spectrum. At the other can be found people such as Robert O Young, who believes that alkaline foods can cure terminal diseases.

A one-time Mormon missionary, last year Young was convicted by an American court of practising medicine without a licence; as Yeo also revealed, in 2010, he charged a young British woman, Naima Mohamed, $77,000 for a stay at his “miracle” ranch in California not long before she died from breast cancer. The two ends of the spectrum are not unconnected. It was Young, for instance, who inspired the alkaline eating “revolution” of Natasha Corrett of the successful Honestly Healthy website. She, too, preferred not to appear in Yeo’s documentary.

The film built from sceptical jauntiness to what seemed to me to be a rather careful anger (perhaps the lawyers had been at it). One clean-eating star who did agree to meet Yeo was “Deliciously” Ella Woodward (now Mills), and with her help, he made a sweet potato stew, a photo of which he then uploaded to Instagram (social media and clean eating go together like linguine and crab).

But thereafter, he got out of the kitchen and on to a plane, eager to dismantle the diktats not only of Young, but also of his compatriots William Davis (the Hemsleys’ guru), a former cardiac doctor who believes that all human beings should give up wheat, and Colin Campbell, who advocates an entirely plant-based diet (Mills read Campbell’s bestseller The China Study before embarking on her own experiments).

Skilfully, Yeo queried the scientific evidence for these people’s claims and, in the case of Young, revealed his sweaty charlatanism. It was all rather, well, delicious, though I wanted more. Restricted by time and format, Yeo could not take the next step. What the rest of us need to do now is to call out the publishers and newspaper editors who enthusiastically peddle the diets of Ella and co, seemingly without recourse even to the most basic kind of fact-checking. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era