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16 November 2015

Morgen und Abend is thoughtful and beautiful – but it does little for opera

English Nationa Opera's The Force of Destiny and The Royal Opera House's Morgen und Abend.

By Alexandra Coghlan

When the curtain rises on a Calixto Bieito production you instinctively brace. On previous form the Catalan director might serve up an orgy in which real-life sex workers simulate oral sex and masturbation (Die Entruhrung aus dem Serail), a homosexual gang-rape (Un Ballo in Maschera), or post-apocalyptic mutilation and more rape (Parsifal). But this new Force of Destiny – a co-production with the hyper-conservative Metropolitan Opera, which might explain things – is more horror than shock.

Drawing once again on the contemporary Spanish history that inspired his recent Carmen at English National Opera, Bieito here looks to the Spanish Civil War to make sense of Verdi’s bleakest and most hopeless of tragedies. Gone are the colourful folky touches and flashes of humour of the original. The gyspy Preziosilla (a storming Rinat Shaham, brittle and brutal) becomes a nationalist troupe-leader, her “Rataplan” aria the soundtrack to a series of executions, while the kindly Father Superior who takes pity on the maddened Leonora does so with the darkest of motives.

And if designer Rebecca Ringst’s grey-and-brown visuals were not clue enough to the production’s sober rewriting, music director Mark Wigglesworth shuns the spectacular 1869 Overture in favour of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it understatement of the revised 1862 Prelude. There will be no easy musical wins here – you have to earn your melodies.

Yet, while stripping back the Romantic excesses of Verdi’s plot, Bieito has supplemented it with his own visual fuss. Large pieces of set buck and rotate (did ENO get a package-deal with their new La bohème Act II sets?) to less effect than the director might like – seismic political metaphors that never quite hit their target. A giant façade down which corpses tumble (they actually wriggle, so gentle is the incline) never quite satisfies as a playing-surface, and forces singers to perform at some deeply unhelpful angles. Sarah Derendinger’s projections are busy, yet another force pulling focus from the stark emotion foreground here, and while a tumbling image of wild-eyed horse ties the production back to its visual source – Picasso’s “Guernica” – it shouts too loudly, a piece of undigested dramatic inspiration that simply isn’t necessary.

Once again the onus is on Mark Wigglesworth’s pit to elevate a production beyond its own limited reach. This ENO’s new music director does with his signature driving energy, carefully deploying Verdi’s brass to devastating effect, and supporting an outstanding cast of singers. Brutalised and traumatised from the start – unable to meet the gaze of her beloved Don Alvaro, let alone touch him  Tamara Wilson is a glorious paradox: physically passive, inward, but overwhelmingly articulate in phrases spun from raw emotion and thickly-spread tone.

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Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Alvaro is a lighter, brighter affair – a welcome shot of colour into Bieito’s dark world. When he pleads for forgiveness in Act IV it’s almost impossible to imagine a refusal. Andrew Shore finds unusual depth in conflicted priest Melitone, shining in debate with James Cresswell’s Father Superior. Only Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Don Carlo doesn’t fully chime – desperately nasty, but allowing this characterisation to corrupt and distend his vocal lines.

Sadly this Destiny won’t be the shot in the arm that ENO’s own precarious destiny currently needs, but as a musical showcase of what we can expect from a Wigglesworth Coliseum it’s another sign of exciting times ahead for the company.

“Don’t expect melodies, don’t expect harmonies, just expect soundscapes.” Composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s advice to those attending the world premiere of his Morgen und Abend at the Royal Opera House should not be taken lightly. His latest opera is a 90-minute meditation on life and death that opens with a battery of bass-drums, noise ricocheting from side-to-side across the stalls, and ends in a dizzy haze of high wind and a blaze of bright light. Between the two extremes, however, very little happens.

The large orchestra – amplified periodically by a wordless offstage chorus – arpeggiate gently, a soundworld somewhere between Ligeti and Philip Glass, supporting the singers’ lyrical, exploratory lines with soft-focus chord clusters that rarely stray far into tonal ambiguity. Graham Vick’s sets are scarcely more assertive: a minimalist fantasy in Farrow & Ball, featuring just a bed, a boat, a door and a chair, the thresholds and landmarks of a life.

With so much emphasis on stasis and anti-drama, it’s hard to see Haas’s Morgen as the obvious work to champion with a mainstage production. Would we have lost so much if the work had been imagined at chamber scale, freeing up this risky, high-profile slot for a composer keener to develop the genre rather than simply pass comment on it? There are also the issues of a work whose music insists on non-narrative stasis pivoting on a big narrative “reveal” – a climax all but imperceptible – and a rather Tristram Shandy-ish rendering of our hero’s birth by Klaus Maria Brandauer.

Baritone Christoph Pohl is our guide for the evening –  a warmly humane Johannes, vocally characterful and carefully understated. He’s supported by Sarah Wegener, a luminous source of hope both as daughter Signer and A Midwife, and contralto Helena Rasker, a fleeting presence as wife Erna. If their efforts alone could carry a show then they would. Haas’s Morgen und Abend is thoughtful and beautiful. Whether it’s an opera in any useful sense is, however, unclear.

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