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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Prince’s wife ate other people’s room service (and other Paisley Park tales)

She couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

 I’m on the phone to Prince’s first wife and I’m trying to picture the wrestling. He had a very strong upper body, Mayte Garcia says brightly – but she had very powerful legs.

“When he knocked me down, I would take my legs around his body and squeeze really hard. So he stopped tackling me down to the floor.” She doesn’t know why they wrestled – couples do weird things, don’t they? Like the hypnosis. In her new book, she says she loved the hypnosis because it was the only time he’d let her talk without interrupting her.

Garcia could not have imagined at 16 – shortly before her parents gave Prince legal guardianship over her, and three years before he put her on birth control – that they would scale such philosophical heights together: the Third Eye, the migration of souls. Seventeen years after their marriage ended, she still sometimes hears the click click click of his spurs down the hall.

What was in Prince’s bathroom? Oil of Olay, fancy soaps and distinctly feminine perfumes. His kitchen? Tostitos, teas by Celestial Seasonings, and honey that comes in those little plastic bears.

They met after her “Puerto Rican supermom” insisted that Garcia get a videotape of herself bellydancing to him backstage. Her note said, PS: I am 16 years old.

During their getting-to-know you sessions, he liked to get a bowl of popcorn and tip a whole bag of Goobers (chocolate peanuts) into it. Once Garcia had joined the New Power Generation as his dancer, her relationship with food became less enjoyable. She couldn’t go to the gym because she was indoors most of the day waiting for his phone calls (Prince’s girlfriends didn’t have his number) – so, in order to keep her dancer’s body, she would eat salad standing up, while he ate fettuccine Alfredo.

She took leftover bread and Thousand Island dressing from other people’s room service trolleys in hotel corridors, because she couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

Then one day, he saw her standing next to a bowl of whipped cream; so he docked her wages. “He could be mean,” she writes. “But it made him human, and he seemed to like and respect me more when I checked him on it.”

Prince rarely touched people (germs), so when you saw him shaking another girl’s hand you knew you were on the way out. He wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for Garcia but she knows three other women who think it’s about them. She says she wants every girl to think it’s about them. She quotes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, I go high.” She calls him her dear friend.

The couple broke up a while after their child died. Prince didn’t allow an amniocentesis test and the baby was born severely disabled. Garcia says they decided together to let him die. He invited Oprah into their house and showed her the nursery, as though the baby was alive. Mayte was taken from the bed where she slept with his ashes, made up, put on camera and told not to mention the nasty business.

“Oprah was planned months ahead of time,” she tells me now, breezily. “He had this album coming out. He was like, ‘It’s Oprah.’ I’m like, ‘I get it!’”

There’s the facts, and then there’s the way she chooses to talk about them. Who is to say how you should deal with memories of years of abuse?

“People say that forgiving is my flaw, but I really believe that holding grudges and anger is a waste of energy,” she says. “We are all going to die. We are all evolving, trying to become better people, so let it go.”

Prince died a year ago. With The Passing, as she calls it, her desire to write a book increased. “I wanted to honour him,” she tells me. “He was a great friend. He listened, he cared, and he always treated me like a princess. Yes, he was a tyrant. We all knew that.”

I ask her what she would do if she could have him back for one night. She says she’d tackle him again. She misses the popcorn. “They don’t make Goobers any more.” 

“The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince” by Mayte Garcia is published by Trapeze
 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496