ENO's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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Topped in translation: two new London operas make a case for English-language productions

The English National Opera’s  The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo show that translated music-theatre can be exceptional.

Death and taxes may be life’s inevitables, but in opera it’s the embattled question of English-language productions. Every year the issue returns, provoking heated debate for a few weeks before some more pressing matter pushes it to the bottom of the pile again. Does opera sell itself short in translation? Do we lose more than we gain? What’s interesting this time round is the new scope of the discussion: English National Opera’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg may be in the frame, but so too is the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo. Both are exceptional pieces of music-theatre – joyous, giddy comedies that touch as well as tease. This is an argument that has never been closer to a victory.

It’s curious that the Royal Opera’s new venture into smaller spaces has coincided with an unprecedented new approach to translation. No attention has been drawn to this shift in policy, which has slipped through as part of a wider attempt at accessibility, at reinventing opera for the youthful audience of the Camden Roundhouse (with the recent Orfeo, also in English) and the more theatrically-inclined audience at the Globe. If experience teaches us anything though, it’s that comedy is always a more natural fit in translation; the immediacy you gain usually outweighs what you lose in linguistic colour. Tragedy (especially if it’s by Verdi or Donizetti) tends to lose gravitas, teetering dangerously close to Gilbert and Sullivan in an Italian accent.

But a piece like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo – a sparkling piece of baroque frippery – works wonderfully well, as the Royal Opera proved in 2014 when they premiered Kasper Holten’s production. Less than a year later and the show is back, the jewel in the gilded jewel-box that is the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There’s a reason that an obscure opera by a minor composer is selling out every night: drama. The audience is rarely closer, more embraced in theatrical action (sometimes literally) than in this space, where the ‘stage’ extends up into the balconies and out into, and onto, the crowd. It’s irreverent, naughty, and entirely charming.

The original young cast all return to romp their way through Christopher Cowell’s witty translation, keeping tongue firmly in cheek for a story that’s more lust than love, following the endless romantic complications of Susanna Hurrell’s coquettish Erisbe and her various men. Ed Lyon and Samuel Boden reprise their roles as rival lovers – two young tenors with personality to match fine voices – and soprano Joelle Harvey stills the theatre once again with her ravishing lament “Chi mi toglie al die”. Anja Vang Kragh’s period-costumes-with-a-twist ensure we take nothing too seriously, gilding period comedy with contemporary wit. This is as much fun as you can have at the opera – a miniature miracle of a show.

Over at the Coliseum opera is happening at a rather larger scale this month with over 100 singers and almost as many orchestral musicians involved in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Richard Jones’ production debuted at Welsh National Opera in 2010 and is now seen in London for the first time at ENO – a spectacular way to celebrate the director’s 25-year relationship with the company.

Spreading out across the full scope of the Coliseum’s vast stage, filling London’s largest theatre with Jones’ trademark colours and patterns, this is as generous and wise a comedy as we’ve seen in a long time – an ensemble show that makes a case more persuasive than any number of op-ed articles for the necessity of ENO as a company. Meistersinger can be an awkward beast, with its long running time and bizarre Fatherland-exalting epilogue, but here it flourishes thanks to direction sensitive to every detail of this vivid score, and big, characterful performances from an almost entirely British cast. At the heart of it all is Iain Paterson’s Hans Sachs – a singer who fills the cobbler’s shoes with almost unbearable humanity. He masterminds not only the comedy but the near-miss tragedy of Wagner’s opera, aided by some wonderful interplay with Andrew Shore’s Malvolio-esque Beckmesser, and some unexpected tenderness in his dealings with Rachel Nicholls’ glowing Eva. It helps that his voice – at the lighter end for this role – finds unusual lyricism at the top of the range, balancing out a lack of beef at the bottom.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones makes an ardent Walter – older and more grizzled than many, which only adds to the pathos of failed lovers Sachs and Beckmesser – crooning his way through the Prize Song as easily as a three-minute pop song. He gets some serious competition however from Nicky Spence’s David – new power amplifying his trademark purity – and add James Cresswell’s Pogner to the mix (not to mention Jonathan Lemalu in the tiny role of Hans Schwartz) and you have an embarrassment of riches.

Holding together the action in the pit is Edward Gardner, directing ENO’s orchestra in a performance that’s high on energy and matches Jones’ visuals for colour. The brass are radiant in the spotlight of the Act III opening and the strings catch their burnish, mellowing it with new warmth. A chorus bursting with extras brings the show to its climax with heart-tugging beauty, and a final dramatic gesture from Jones that threatens to turn brimming into gushing. A singular achievement, and one of so many reasons why ENO must survive.

L’Ormindo runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until March 5th. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg runs at the London Coliseum until March 10th.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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