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".

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis