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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Property programmes are torture for millennials - so why do we keep watching?

Once aspirational, property TV shows now carry a whiff of sadism. 

I watch property programmes because I like inflicting pain on myself.

That’s the only conclusion I, as a millennial, can come to. I must be a masochist, because I enjoy seeing people with more money than I’ll ever have buying homes I’ll never be able to afford.

There was a time when, for me at least, watching property shows was an act of dissent. In the mid 2000s, catching Homes Under the Hammer during its 10am timeslot as a teenager was the ultimate sign of rebellion, because you should, by rights, be in school. Ditto with Location Location Location, Escape to the Country or any of the litany of property programmes which have been going strong since the turn of the century.

Now, though, I realise that these property shows are not simply designed for adolescents pulling sickies. In fact, I’m not the prime target audience for these shows at all. The people who actually appear on these shows are whiter than white, comfortably middle-class and able to splash the cash from years of good jobs. They couldn’t be further away from a working class, white-passing millennial in an age defined by the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial crash.  

It wasn't always this way. When Location, Location, Location began in 2000, 20 per cent of young people and 80 per cent of middle-aged people owned their own home. Rewind a decade, to 1991, and just north of 35 per cent of 16-24 year olds owned their own home. By 2013-2014, that figure had fallen to under 10 per cent. On average, house prices have risen 7 per cent each year since 1980. Job security is hugely decreased. The average deposit needed to buy a property in London, where jobs are most plentiful, has risen by £76,000 in the last decade. 

In short, in 2017, watching a property programme as a millennial is simply a reminder that the ladders have all been pulled up. 

To add insult to injury, political attempts to help young renters, like that of Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto, face a backlash from Britain's well-organised and vocal landlord class. It's a small comfort that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have proposed reforms, since this parliament looks likely to be dominated by Brexit. On the plus side, as far as sofa bums are concerned, appalling renting conditions has spawned a new genre of gritty reality TV typified by When the Landlords Moved In. 

So why do I keep watching programmes about people I do not resemble buying houses I cannot afford? Simply because property programmes make undeniably good viewing. Teenagers argue on Twitter about which of them would be the better replacement for Grand Designs’ iconic presenter Kevin McCloud. One friend I spoke to about the show called it "daydream material".

"It's really satisfying to watch", she said. "There's something about seeing people be able to build their dream houses that's interesting. I like thinking about what my house would look like." Another said that "it's a nosiness thing combined with seeing how the other half live". Another friend I spoke to, a couple of years younger than me, couldn’t describe the allure specifically, simply saying “I just like houses”. 

Twitter hosts a number of young fans who also like houses:

Why indeed, Ally. Why indeed.

Other millennial users are brokenhearted that Kirstie and Phil, the pair who host Location Location Location, are not, in fact, a real couple:

There’s something else here though, aside from on-screen sexual tension. It goes back to that idea of "daydream material". It’s an image of what could be – of what should be. You can’t help but be excited for the homeowners featured on the programme, especially if they’re buying their first home or expanding to a home for life. It’s an infectious feeling of what we’d like to have. It’s hope.

Granted, it might be futile. Despite Brexit, a shortgage of homes means house prices don't look set to plummet any time soon. And millennials don't seem likely to afford them - figures released yesterday make clear that though employment has gone up, wages remain stagnant.

There doesn't appear to be any real way out, except for a permanent sojourn in the letting market. As a result, property TV is actually perfect "reality" TV. Like living in the Big Brother house, or finding "love" on an island, or winning £1,000,000 through being a nerd, property TV has ascended from its roots as programming designed to inform and entertain, to the realm of unantainable, glossy wish-fulfilment, as removed from real life as that Total Wipeout assault course.

And yet, the hope lives on. It might not be yet – it might not even be soon - but Phil and Kirstie, when you come for me, I’ll be ready.