You know the old joke: “what’s black and white and red all over?” with the answer “a newspaper,” because ‘read’ sounds the same as ‘red.’ Well this week I’ve been musing about opera which – on the two most recent examples I’ve seen – is like being black and white and dead all over….
I had better explain.
Last week in London there were two
new operatic openings:
Calixto Bieito’s production of Verdi’s
The Force of Destiny
at English National Opera and, a stone’s throw away across Covent
Garden, the Royal Opera’s new commission from
Georg Friedrich Haas: Morgen und Abend.
As it happened I saw the second performances of
both productions and was struck by a certain monochrome
similarity between both.
Morgen und Abend,
based by the author, Norwegian Jon Fosse,
on his own novel, Graham Vick’s production is
completely grey in colouring; so much so that
when conductor Michael Boder
came on to take his bow at the end both his black
tails and brilliant white shirt and tie were shockingly
piercing to the eye.
The story about the birth
(largely narrated in English by great German actor
Klaus Maria Brandauer)
and death of fisherman Johannes is played out on an
open stage of light-shaded hue, where the music – ebbing,
flowing and (a large percussion section to the side flaring up)
sometimes storming – carries the action, underpinning Haas’
largely lyrical vocal lines.
It’s like a meditation bleached of dark colours,
perhaps a state you fall into on the point of death.
In many senses it is not operatic at all,
but it has an understated staying power that keeps
it fresh in the mind.
It is the first of eight new commissions from the
Royal Opera due on stage before 2020, and this is
a co-commission and co-production with Deutsche Oper Berlin,
where it will be presented next year.
English National Opera’s new Verdi is also
a co-production, with regular partners New
It will mark Bieito’s Met debut in 2017/18 season
and it can’t be described as a typical, sumptuous Met production.
But it typifies the somewhat beleaguered
English National Opera at its considerable company best,
and I found it utterly thrilling.
It is monumental (so will sit on the Met’s stage very well),
but is extremely dark, with Bieito a master at illuminating
stunning tableaux with a shaft of piercing light.
So at the very beginning – with
music director Mark Wigglesworth opting for
Verdi’s (shorter) original prelude from the 1862 St.
Petersburg première (will James Levine make the same
decision at the Met, I wonder?) –
a back-lit platform edges forward so that details of the
opening scene of Leonora dithering about whether
to elope with Don Alvaro are only gradually revealed.
The scene (spoiler alert!) ends in the accidental death of
Leonora’s father, and – some three hours later –
Bieito uses a similar technique (the platform slowly
advancing from the back) to reveal Leonora’s hermit hovel,
leading this time to the triple death of her brother,
her lover and herself.
In the intervening scenes Bieito presses
home the horror of war and death,
with striking black-and-white images projected on to the
monumental white facades of the set.
Verdi’s rousing Act 3 Rataplan
sung by war-widow Preziosilla,
here becomes an ugly reminder of jingoism,
making us rethink the justification for war.
Bieito was influenced by his grandmother’s dark memories of
the Spanish Civil War, where he has set the production.
It is all very powerful indeed, and wonderfully sung,
particularly Tamara Wilson’s Leonora, not only making her
ENO debut, but her London debut as well.
Surely she will transfer with the production to the Met,
where she has already performed Aida.
So for those that think opera is largely sumptuously costumed and colourful diversion.
Think again. Opera is black and white.
We were lucky enough to recieve the following pictures;
151106_0106 Royal Opera - Haas Morgen und Abend Sarah Wegener as midwife, Klaus Maria Brandauer as Olai (c) ROH - PHOTO CLIVE BARDA
151110_1032 Royal Opera - Haas Morgen und Abend Helena Rasker as Erna, Christoph Pohl as Johannes (C) ROH - PHOTO CLIVE BARDA
Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as
a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music
editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years,
and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.