Opera in Black and White

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.

In 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 York’s Metropolitan. 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.

More anon.

Nick Breckenfield

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.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
Comments [1]
Anne Wieben - 2015-11-23 12:01
"It is the first of eight new commissions from the Royal Opera due on stage before 2020"--how wonderful is that?! Bring on the new operas!
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