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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If you don’t know what a Fwooper is by now, where have you been?

Meet the latest magical characters entering the Harry Potter universe.

Yesterday, the latest and final trailer was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them –  the latest Harry Potter franchise film from J K Rowling. Based on an index of magical animals that Rowling released for Comic Relief all the way back in 2001, it naturally features a whole range of strange creatures from the series – with familiar and fresh faces alike.

So, let’s get to know the animals we meet in the latest trailer.

Niffler

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

Any self-respecting Harry Potter fan will remember the niffler. A mole-like fellow mostly found down mines, the niffler’s most distinctive characteristic is its love for (and ability to sniff out) gold. Nifflers were part of Hagrid’s most successful lesson, when he buried leprechaun gold and asked his students to use nifflers to dig up as much as possible – “easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures”. And who could forget when Lee Jordan, on more than one occasion, released a hairy-snouted niffler into Umbridge’s office, “which promptly tore the place apart in its search for shiny objects, leapt on Umbridge on her reentrance, and tried to gnaw the rings off her stubby fingers”? Some would say the niffler is a distant relative of the New Statesman’s own Media Mole – sniffing out content gold on a daily basis.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Niffler is a British beast. Fluffy, black and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery. Nifflers are often kept by goblins to burrow deep into the earth for treasure. Though the Niffler is gentle and even affectionate, it can be destructive to belongings and should never be kept in a house. Nifflers live in lairs up to twenty feet below the surface and produce six to eight young in a litter.

An Egg

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A. It’s an egg.

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself. Who knows what magical creature is appearing from within this hatching egg – the only animal we’ve seen hatch in the Potterverse before was Noberta the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, but this egg looks too small to be one of those. Aside from dragons, we know from Fantastic Beasts that Acromantula, Ashwinder serpents, Basilisks, Chimaera, doxies and fairies, Fwoopers, Hippocampi, Hippogriffs, Occamys, Phoenixes, and Runespoor all come from eggs. My money would be on this being the egg of an Occamy – a key player in the next movie – but their eggs are made from pure silver. So I’d guess this belongs to a Fwooper.

Nomaj

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A (but should be XXXXX to be honest)

Meaning “no magic”, this is basically your common or garden variety Muggle, just with a fancy new American name. Look how Muggleish this one is, falling through suitcases like a chump and getting in a muddle about basic magical principles. Get it together, mate! It remains unconfirmed whether this man’s animate moustache is a magical creature in its own right.

Billywig

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

You might not remember billywigs from the Harry Potter series – they only get a couple of passing, esoteric mentions in the final book. But anyone who remembers Fizzing Whizbees – in Ron’s words, “massive sherbert balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them”, will have a tangential relationship with them – according to Fantastic Beasts, they’re a key ingredient in the classic wizarding sweet. These bugs seem to match the billywig description.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Billywig is an insect native to Australia. It is around half an inch long and a vivid sapphire blue, although its speed is such that it is rarely noticed by Muggles and often not by wizards until they have been stung. The Billywig’s wings are attached to the top of its head and are rotated very fast so that it spins as it flies. At the bottom of the body is a long thin sting. Those who have been stung by a Billywig suffer giddiness followed by levitation. Generations of young Australian witches and wizards have attempted to catch Billywigs and provoke them into stinging in order to enjoy these side effects, though too many stings may cause the victim to hover uncontrollably for days on end, and where there is a severe allergic reaction, permanent floating may ensue. Dried Billywig stings are used in several potions and are believed to be a component in the popular sweet Fizzing Whizzbees.

Graphorn

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

This is not a “canon” animal in that it doesn’t appear in the original series. God, it’s weird looking.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Graphorn is found in mountainous European regions. Large and greyish purple with a humped back, the Graphorn has two very long, sharp horns, walks on large, four-thumbed feet, and has an extremely aggressive nature. Mountain trolls can occasionally be seen mounted on Graphorns, though the latter do not seem to take kindly to attempts to tame them and it is more common to see a troll covered in Graphorn scars. Powdered Graphorn horn is used in many potions, though it is immensely expensive owing to the difficulty in collecting it. Graphorn hide is even tougher than a dragon’s and repels most spells.

Fwooper

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

We see a bright pink bird sail past the Graphorn – I bet this is a Fwooper. Again, not an animal from the seven books, but here’s what we know about it from Fantastic Beasts:

The Fwooper is an African bird with extremely vivid plumage; Fwoopers may be orange, pink, lime green, or yellow. The Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity8 and the Fwooper is consequently sold with a Silencing Charm upon it, which will need monthly reinforcement. Fwooper owners require licences, as the creatures must be handled responsibly.

Bowtruckle

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XX (Harmless / may be domesticated)

A fan favourite, maybe because one attacks Harry in a Care of Magical Creatures class, before it “set off at full tilt toward the forest, a little, moving stickman soon swallowed up by the tree roots.” Aw, cute and feisty! Tree guardians that usually live in trees that produce wand wood, they are pretty damn adorable. We know they like to eat fairy eggs, and we can assume they particularly favour doxy eggs: Aberforth once said, “they’ll be onto you like bowtruckles on doxy eggs”.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Bowtruckle is a tree-guardian creature found mainly in the west of England, southern Germany, and certain Scandinavian forests. It is immensely difficult to spot, being small (maximum eight inches in height) and apparently made of bark and twigs with two small brown eyes. The Bowtruckle, which eats insects, is a peaceable and intensely shy creature but if the tree in which it lives is threatened, it has been known to leap down upon the woodcutter or tree-surgeon attempting to harm its home and gouge at their eyes with its long, sharp fingers. An offering of woodlice will placate the Bowtruckle long enough to let a witch or wizard remove wand-wood from its tree.

Nundu

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but pretty damn high we’d assume

Not in the books; not in Fantastic Beasts, definitely fucking weird. Pottermore have invented a Fantastic Beasts entry for it that did not appear in the 2001 book, so I guess we have to go from there.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (on Pottermore):

This east African beast is arguably the most dangerous in the world. A gigantic leopard that moves silently despite its size and whose breath causes disease virulent enough to eliminate entire villages, it has never yet been subdued by fewer than a hundred skilled wizards working together.

Thunderbird

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but, again, we’d guess high

Again, this is seemingly a new creation invented for this film. It apparently “senses danger and creates storms as it flies”, and a house of the American Wizarding school Ilvermoney takes its name from this bird, and Pottermore gives a bit of extra detail, supposedly from History of Magic in North America, 1920s Wizarding America:

Shikoba Wolfe, who was of Choctaw descent, was primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.

Occamy

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

A horrific bird-snake, it seems as though Occamys start tiny and cute and end up huge and dangerous. I am intrigued. Again, not one from the books.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Occamy is found in the Far East and India. A plumed, twolegged winged creature with a serpentine body, the Occamy may reach a length of fifteen feet. It feeds mainly on rats and birds, though has been known to carry off monkeys. The Occamy is aggressive to all who approach it, particularly in defence of its eggs, whose shells are made of the purest, softest silver.

Erumpent

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

We never see an Erumpent in the Harry Potter series, but who could forget the exploding Erumpent horn – “an enormous, gray spiral horn, not unlike that of a unicorn” – at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house? Hermione spots it as “a Class B Tradeable Material and it’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have in a house!” We can therefore assume the Erumpent is a risky animal to be around. Also fucking ugly.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Erumpent is a large grey African beast of great power. Weighing up to a tonne, the Erumpent may be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. It has a thick hide that repels most charms and curses, a large, sharp horn upon its nose and a long, rope-like tail. Erumpents give birth to only one calf at a time. The Erumpent will not attack unless sorely provoked, but should it charge, the results are usually catastrophic. The Erumpent’s horn can pierce everything from skin to metal, and contains a deadly fluid which will cause whatever is injected with it to explode. Erumpent numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season. They are treated with great caution by African wizards. Erumpent horns, tails, and the Exploding Fluid are all used in potions, though classified as Class B Tradeable Materials (Dangerous and Subject to Strict Control).

I’m sure there are loads more creatures to be discovered in the new film – but getting to know this small handful has exhausted me for now!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.