Thursday, 1 July 2010

ENO Idomeneo - don't shoot the director - yet

Up pops an email offering orchestra stall seats at £30 (about 66% discount) for ENO's  Idomeneo. It's good because it means people who can't normally afford seats will go. It's NOT necessarily a judgement on the production, though some reports (not all)  are dire. I don't go til next week, so no prejudgement from me.

Director Katie Mitchell's been getting a lot of flak for the hosts of supernumeraries who crowd the stage, but it's not entirely her fault.  And in any case, overcrowded, busy stagings seem to be an ENO trademark. Remember The Turn of the ScrewMessiah, Elegy For Young Lovers and many further back.. Someone's got to boost the employment statistics, so in principle it's a good thing.. But if it distracts from the inherent drama in an opera, it's not so good..Please click on links in bold type to get to reviews.

Earlier this year I read Katie Mitchell's book The Director's Craft: a Handbook for  the Theatre. It's a very concise bullet points and all guide to creating a production, though it's very much geared towards non-music theatre.  A good read and useful hints like "think about backstories". So she knows what she's doing. But why this fascination with crowds and distraction?  Read what Claire Seymour says about this production in Opera Today.

Sometimes crowds are an important part of an opera. I loved the crowds of villagers in the ENO Pearl Fishers (Penny Woolcock) because they fleshed out the rather thin narrative, and made the opera, notoriously hard to stage, come alive. What the principals do in that opera means little unless the context means something.Looking carefully at the crowd here makes the drama.
Crowds are part of Death in Venice, too, because they emphasize Aschenbach's isolation. The ENO version (Deborah Warner) looked beautiful, like a glamour fashion shoot - billowing curtains evoking breeze, waiters and staff scurrying everywhere, hotel guests elaborately dressed. Of course all this is in the librettto, but essentially, the opera exists in Aschenbach's mind. Strictly speaking, the crowds exist only in opposition to Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio.It means a lot that Britten sets multiple parts for a single singer : He's Aschenbach's Doppelgänger. Obscuring him with busy crowds negates a huge part of the opera. "What Doppelgänger?" someone said after the ENO production.

The same year ENO did Death in Venice, there was another production, at Aldeburgh  (Yoshi Oida, joint commission with Aix) The set designer, Tom Schenk, used the rough-hewn walls behind the stage because they resemble the weather-beaten walls of Venice rising straight out of the canals. Only a little clever lighting was needed to convey the impression that we were trapped in an endless Venetian canal, an image that intensifies the claustrophobia that is so much a part of  this opera. Aschenbach longs for "a rectangular hole in the ground". Across the stage there was just such a hole, barely visible until the beach scene when it's filled with water, which Tadzio and his friends splash as they play. Beach, hole, River Styx.

No crowds in Yoshi Oida's Death in Venice, only the essential parts, yet it was devastatingly powerful. . Perhaps the difference was that Oida was taking his cue from the music,  and a much deeper understanding of the opera. It doesn't matter whether we see bellhops carrying antique suitcases, it doesn't even particularly matter what the women wear. Essentially they are background, not foreground.  Significantly, at the ENO, the crowds occupied the stage, Aschenbach marginalized, relegated to a small corner where he could have been overlooked. That's the crowd's view of Aschenbach. For Mann and for Britten, it was the other way round.

But audiences were seduced by the glamour, and swarms of white tulle and chiffon, so the ENO Death in Venice was a hit.  Similarly, most Londoners think Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers is cute comedy, thanks to the production at the Young Vic, full of visual gags and jokey clichés, Of course it was fun, but the opera itself was ignored. It became a prop for a new invention which had little to do with Henze's original. That was the kind of regietheater that people claim to hate but can't recognize when it really happens. PLEASE SEE my analysis of ENO Idomeneo HERE asnd of the Drottingholm period Idomeneo from 1991.

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