Wednesday, 29 May 2013

ROH La donna del lago - fuss and facts

What was all the fuss about the Royal Opera House Rossini La donna del lago? Before the premiere, John Fulljames made the statement "Turning Highlanders into savages is the clear choice of an author; that's what Rossini and Scott are saying. They are saying that these people cannot be taken into modernity." That is not at all the same as saying Highlanders "were" savages. And what's so bad about artists creating works of art?  But the comments unleashed a firestorm. But the whole point of the opera is that it's based on a work of fiction, Scott wrote for the purpose of legitimizing English rule. Walter Scott created a work of the imagination, as did Rossini. Since when did Scotsmen get called Rodrigo?

Authenticity was not an issue for 19th century intellectuals. Of course they admired "primitives". It wasn't just Scotland, but the whole of Europe. The whole concept of Romanticism was predicated on this fascination with wild, untamed places like islands and mountains, and the supposedly "pure" tribes that inhabited them. Think Rousseau, Marie-Antoinette and her shepherdesses, the Brothers Grimm collecting folk tales, Byron in Greece. Romanticism was a radical revolution away from the values of classical Antiquity and what that stood for. Without Romanticism, we might not revere individualism, the birth of psychology and even democratic government. But 19th century intellectuals weren't going to let it all hang out. They needed to sanitize things because they believed in the Idea of Progress and the superiority of western civilization. Scott and his friends loved the idea of Scotland's past but expected it to be colonized culturally.

Ironically, Fulljames's production is better informed and much more faithful to history than detractors realize.History is "made" by those who interpret it. Anyone seriously interested in the past would do well to pay attention to the Royal Opera House production for this very reason.

Towering above all else on stage is a landscape : mountain peaks, a mysterious lake, golden, burnished tones. Exactly like a 19th century painting, Caspar David Friedrich or Edwin Landseer. The idea is that nature is a panorama offering endless possibilities. Throughout this opera, Rossini writes music that evokes wide open spaces, extreme heights and depths, lyricism and a sense of foreboding sadness.

 The sides of the stage are framed with images of an opera house from Rossini's time, reminding us clearly that this is an opera, a work of art created by the imagination. We are looking at Scotland as theatre, interpreted by Scott and Rossini. Gentlemen in frock coats admire glass cases in which Elena, Malcom and Duglas float, suspended in time. That's exactly how 19th century people studied  exotic specimens.  At the end, Elena (the divine Joyce DiDonato) blissfully climbs back into her glass case, complete with heather and ferns. Now, perhaps, she's timeless, the Scotland she represents preserved flawlessly for the edification of 19th century civilization. In the first act, she wears a simple white dress. When she's immortalized, she swathes herself in gaudy tartan. Myth becames fact and the past becomes the future.

It's not a difficult idea to absorb.  As the head of the Sir Walter Scott Club said "(Scott's) great aim in life was the promotion of Scotland as a unity within the United Kingdom." If he and his friends had actually seen the production  they would realize that this is exactly what Fulljames is doing. They spoke before actually seeing the show. "Scott" appears like a Master of Ceremonies. He "is" the father of what we assume Scottish heritage is, and he gets full credit for that.

The Highlanders are, indeed, no more hairy or smelly than anyone else. They're just not like the refined gentlemen of the Celtic Society Scott was active in, with their top hats and watch fobs. Whether the 16th century Highlanders liked it or not, "the future is tartan". Not homespun, vegetable dyed that a hunter might wear so he blends into the landscape, but bright and gaudy that looks good when the hunter is on parade serving the new King. Or the tourist industry.  The gentlemen of the Celtic Society feast on haggis served on silver. Duglas and his men get their meat free range and unprocessed. Life was hard for the common folk. Duglas has to marry his daughter off to someone she doesn't love in order to survive. She's no different from the ordinary women who get pushed around because things are the way they are.  This production is more sympathetic to the real Highlanders than the Romantics were. At a time when some are thinking of Scottish independence, it's not a bad idea to reflect on a Scotland not dominated by Victorian values.

This production is also surprisngly attuned to the music. Rossini writes grandeur but not bluster. His instrumentation is spare : piccolos, small trumpets, a harp, small snare drums. This orchestration is fundamental to the meaning of the opera because it evokes the sense of Nature and freedom  that the Highlanders loved so well. The instruments are shown on stage several times, reminding us how art and meaning connect.  When we see the musicians in the boxes at the side of the stage, we can look closely at what they are playing and appreciate how "rustic" the music is. Later, they are playing for the conquerors and for the state. They're positioned on a raised platform on the main stage, but there's plenty of room between them and the ground: a vestige of the wide open spaces Duglas and the Highlanders once roamed?

The very form of Rossini's music evokes panoramic landscapes and free-ranging prospects. Extreme  ranges of pitch, dizzying flights up and down the register. The vocal lines are gloriously decorative and complex. True bravura stuff: trills and flourishes that burst with life and energy. I don't need to write in depth about the singing because everyone else can, it was that good. But I will write about the orchestra because it was so idiomatic. Rossini needs precision and clarity, and a conductor like Michele Mariotti who understands that bigger is not necessarily better in Rossini. This is very early Romantic music, with more in common with the baroque than with Verdi or Wagner. Besides, Rossini seems fascinated by the purity of Elena and what she represents. She's the lady of the lake, not a lady of the palace.

Then an aspect of the production almost completely overlooked in the controversy. Fulljames uses visual images that reflect images in the music, which themselves reflect the meaning of the opera. The wood panelled walls of the Celtic Society open out on a set depicting a castle on a mountain, lit by mysterious moonlight. Uprights that suggest dangerous crags and peaks, or the extreme ranges of pitch and timbre in the singing. Diagonals which reinforce the swooping, eliding vocal lines, though they serve a practical purpose, allowing singers to move quickly upwards and down without impeding the drama. Dark recesses from which Highlanders emerge like the creatures of the night they hunt: basses and baritones sound just right. Few directors, and even fewer members of the audience understand that abstract music can connect to physical form.  In this production you "hear" the music with your eyes as well as your ears.

Moreover, the singers move easily, so that they can concentrate on singing impressively instead of just looking good. A friend of mine saw the scrapped Paris production, hampered by stiff movement for the principals and "dorkiest dances I ever saw for three men and one woman as warriors, flailing arms and extending legs like Xena Meets The Matrix." (read more here)At least we in London had the Highlanders beat their staves and shields. This production was done in barely two years and in technical terms it's something to respect.

Thee film direction was less adept. Instead of showing the all-important framing device at the sides of the stage, too much attention was placed on closeups of the Gentlemen. Live on stage, you can see the interaction between the 17th and 19th century personnel. In the film, it's confusing to see a Highlander sing while a gentleman is quaffing whisky. We need to see Scott among the singers but Rossini is present in the music. On the other hand these are minor considerations, such as we get in any production.

The main thing is that we should go to an opera to hear how it's interpreted, not carrying preconceptions and hearsay impressions.  Opera is not history. It's not even reality. Why else would Rossini have created Malcom as a trouser role?  Or "not in this case" as Daniella Barcellona (wonderful !) quipped. Walter Scott created something new with The Lady of the Lake and Rossini created something new with La donna del lago, So it's no big deal that we go to a performance for a new perspective.

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