Friday, 9 March 2018

A Carmen foundering in a sea of confusion

It’s sometimes easy to forget, when theatrical productions cause outrage and shock, that such outrage has a long history. It’s also easy to make the mistake of imagining that a present-day audience is probably beyond shock.

Just taking London’s Royal Opera House as a single example, the last three years have seen outrage and upset at Rossini’s William Tell (a rape scene in a 2015 production), while Katie Mitchell’s 2016 production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor included a miscarriage on stage and was booed enough to be reported by a faux-scandalised general media.

Since the latter is, of it’s very nature, a dark and violent story, one wonders whether some of this outrage is not because some in an audience do not expect art to challenge them, but to perform a service of being comfortable.

Back in November, The Other Half and I saw Salome at the Staatsoper in Vienna. Written by Richard Strauss, it premiered in 1905 in Dresden, since the Vienna censor would not allow Gustav Mahler to stage it there (in London, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain and only produced at Covent Garden in 1910 – on condition it did not show the Baptist’s severed head). For all that it relates a Biblical story, this psychologically dark work is completely a product of fin de siècle Vienna, where the art of the likes of Klimt and Schiele mixed with the beginnings of Freudian psychoanalysis and the late Romantic music of Strauss, Mahler and others to create a cauldron of revolutionary intellectual and cultural activity.

The Vienna production of this one-act work opens on a set that glows with a palette straight from Klimt, but is essentially a very traditional one. We thoroughly enjoyed it (Lise Lindstrom in the title role was particularly wonderful). And indeed, we enjoyed the piece itself so much that we leapt at the opportunity to see it again, at the Royal Opera House in late January.

Directed by David McVicar, with the excellent Malin Byström in the lead, this production originally saw the light of day in 2008. Influenced by Pasolini’s Saló – itself a version of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom – it is set in the basement of a 1930s house, with evidence of debauchery and hints toward violence always evident and a design that clearly nods toward a pre-war Nazi Germany.

It has some really radical departures from tradition – not least in the Dance of the Seven Veils, which doesn’t see Salome’s flesh revealed, but moves through a series of rooms to reveal the sexual longings for her of Herod, her step father. 

And all of this against Strauss’s wonderful music. The entire London production is filled with danger: it is very, very clever, but it works and is very, very satisfying.

About a year ago, The Other Half and I made our first visit to an opera house outside the UK – to La Fenice in Venice, where we saw Carmen. This was Calixto Bieito’s 1999 version of Bizet’s work. The Catalan’s work is considered so shocking that, according to the LA Times, his “scandalous productions are regularly seen in Europe's major opera houses but are generally thought too risqué for American audiences”.

From our perspective, it was not difficult to see why it was controversial, but finding some YouTube footage from last year’s La Fenice run and watching it again today, we have found our conclusion remains the same: it was very good.

Yes, there are changes from Bizet’s original; yes, it has been set in the second half of the 20th century; yes, there’s a tiny bit of (male) nudity and there’s violence (how do you imagine Carmen without violence?) and yes, there’s lots of on-stage business.

But let’s fast forward to this year and the first staging at the Royal Opera House of Barrie Kosky’s 2016 Carmen.

Kosky has decided to stage it on a towering staircase that could be anything from sporting bleachers to a Ziegfeldian theatre set to an amphitheatre to a bull ring – whatever takes off in your own mind, really.

There’s potential here, but also the core of the problem: instead of directing for the audience, the director is directing only for himself and his own vision. Everything is open to whatever interpretation that each member of the audience puts on it, based on their individual responses, ideologies, prejudices, experiences and so forth.

The programme essays – ROH programmes are expensive by West End standards, but contain more serious content than any other programmes I’ve ever bought – reveal the influences behind the production as ranging from Brechtian alienation, through Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys.

Into that mix, add in ‘bricolage’ – the incorporation of themes, references and ideas from popular culture. Or ‘cultural mash up’, as we might say if we were not so eager to make it sound intellectually posher than it might be. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! did this well … in an original, deliberately playful work. T-shirts in my wardrobe that combine the minions with Doctor Who or The Big Bang Theory do it well too. Such mash-ups can be enormous fun. Indeed, the current TV incarnation of Doctor Who uses such an approach a lot – in something that is an ongoing original work that has been evolving down the decades.

In other words, these are not attempting to foist a new approach onto an established work. Or to be even more specific: are not attempting to foist a search for meaning onto a work that was never created with such a thing in mind.

Bieito’s Carmen maintained the heart of the piece: whatever he did with it, he did not try to make it something that it is not.

McVicar’s Salome does throw ideas into the mix – but this is a work that has always had philosophical and psychological depths to it, thus offering a greater opportunity for serious consideration.

Carmen is essentially a potboiler. What makes it so special is the music – but that’s true of a great deal of opera. As someone once commented to me, it’s the music that gives opera it’s great sense of emotional truth.

There are operas that offer a more philosophical and intellectually challenging basis for productions: perhaps exactly why Wagner has been subjected to some really barking interpretations.

But in some ways, rather that – and even rather this Kosky production – than lazy repetition and stagnation. Coming away from Covent Garden last night, the OH and I discussed at length why we didn’t like it and have continued the same dialogue today.

It’s important to note that Kosky is hardly alone in such a postmodern approach – and that the OH and I thoroughly enjoyed his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the ROH a couple of years ago; evidence that this approach can work … in the right circumstances.

Here, there are elements that do work: some of the pre-recorded voiceovers really add to the story (but other do not). Some of the costuming of Carmen is excellent – the initial matador costume manages to see her fully covered in clothing that traditionally male, yet utterly sexual. Think Dietrich making a top hat and tails look fabulously sexy.

French mezzo Gaëlle Arquez, as the eponymous femme fatale on the night we saw it, is a fabulous talent of whom I very much want to hear more.

The parameters set out by her opening recorded dialogue about Spanish words and ideas to describe the physically perfect woman make it clear why the make-up of much of the female chorus is the way it is.

Yet there is far, far too much ‘business’. In Bieito’s take, there is stage business – yet it all helps to establish what’s going on. Here, some of it simply business for the sake of business – and it distracts from the whole, while that set adds nothing obvious.

The choruses in Bizet’s work are important, but if they’re on stage so much, as here, it diminishes their impact.

What particular irked me – by the interval, it had become actively annoying – is the small troupe of dancers, who gurn and cavort, with stylistic nods to Bob Fosse, but add absolutely nothing that I can discern to the story or my ability to understand or interpret it.

Of course, I could suggest that life is a cabaret, old chum, and that their mugging simply emphasis that, but if the viewer has to search for any old reason to explain something, even when it adds nothing to the whole, then that is part of the problem. This production also blends the episodes in the three acts into something far less distinct than usual, with a result that is, in terms of the story, more confusing than one would wish for.

Radical and controversial can be inspired. But radical and controversial for the sake of see only disappointment and frustration looming large. And it is impossible to think that this production is anything but the latter.

ENOs Tristan strikes the wrong chord (June 2016)

A Catalan Carmen casts off any staleness (March 2017)

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