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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood