London's newest venue for opera: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Getty
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Tiny, candlelit and intimate: L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Live opera is as physical as art gets, though you would never know that from sitting in any major opera house.

L'Ormindo
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London SE1

 

Shakespeare’s Globe missed a trick when it launched the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in January with a tragedy, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Tiny, candlelit and almost indecently intimate (any stranger you sit next to at the start of the show certainly won’t be a stranger by the end), this is a space made for comedy. Cavalli’s erotic, anarchic opera L’Ormindo, first performed in 1644, sets the candles dancing with laughter, shimmying around pillars, scrambling through trapdoors, sprawling over benches, and it even has the audience proclaiming this London’s newest, finest venue for early opera.

Live opera is as physical as art gets, though you would never know that from sitting in any major opera house. In the Sam Wana­maker Playhouse, you can feel singers’ breath on your face; you can hear their inhalations as well as their sung exhalations, the scratch as well as the sustained tone of the violins. Some illusions are lost but with them goes a certain artifice that holds you at arm’s length. And unlike London’s many pub-opera venues, this immediacy doesn’t come at the cost of quality or spectacle.

Anja Vang Kragh’s designs set the tone for a show that is witty, gorgeous and just a little over the top. Vivienne Westwood would be proud of Queen Erisbe’s gown – an asymmetrical silk fantasy complete with brocade cushions and a cheeky surprise at the back – while the backdrop for Act II’s cave is all “Here be dragons” excess. There’s an irreverence here that will calm anyone dreading earnest, academic authenticity.

Though it was one of the first operas composed for Venice’s new public theatres in the 1640s, it is unlikely that L’Ormindo ever made it to a Jacobean venue such as this. The director, Kasper Holten, opts to capture a mood rather than slavishly recreate an original performance and the result is joyous and wilfully anachronistic. Having the opera sung in English – easily accommodated by Cavalli’s flexible vocal lines – does away with the pesky issues of surtitles and allows the comedy to flow more naturally. Christopher Cowell’s new translation is a delight; it is witty but not so self-consciously as to intrude.

Set in North Africa, L’Ormindo is a tale of infidelity (Erisbe entangles herself with two lovers, in addition to her elderly husband), revenge and redemption. Cavalli’s original audience would have seen it as a satire on Venice’s indiscretions; 370 years later the tale of a bored young wife, a foolish old husband and a town rife with secrets and temptations still has plenty to say.

It is helped by a young cast, most making their Royal Opera debuts. Susanna Hurrell pouts and poses as the winsome Erisbe, bringing just enough humanity to her to carry the opera’s late sidestep into near-tragedy. She is wooed by two fine tenors – Ed Lyon’s muscular Amidas and Samuel Boden’s lyrical Ormindo. Boden is a high tenor in the true English tradition and a rare talent; facing off against Lyon vocally and winning takes quite some doing. Joélle Harvey (the spurned Sicle) conjures exquisite lines. Her first aria, “Chi mi toglie al die”, was unequalled by anything else all night, though Erisbe’s and Ormindo’s duet in the face of death came close.

More a band than an orchestra, the eight musicians from the Early Opera Company squeezed on to the balcony above the stage, led from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn. After the astonishingly unidiom­atic playing of his orchestra in the English National Opera’s recent Rodelinda – the articulation romantic-smooth and lacking rhythmic bite – it was wonderful to hear Curnyn’s players finding the percussive energy and drive that characterise all his recordings.

It’s impossible to perform this repertoire with a band of authentic size in an opera house. The Royal Opera House’s last attempt at Cavalli (La Calisto in 2008) could barely be heard from the amphitheatre, so to have these exceptional performers – soloists, all – filling the space was an authentic gesture that wasn’t lost.

Cavalli’s music is somewhere between the formal categories of aria and recitative that corset later operas by Handel or even Mozart. Unexpected, endlessly flexible and quick to adapt to sudden shifts of mood or action, it is contemporary opera in all but age. Kasper Holten’s L’Ormindo discovers and celebrates this, transforming a historical production into something strangely and wonderfully new.

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

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism