Kiss Me, Katie? (or maybe not …)
Please bear with me while I quote from an earlier posting in these pages: “Known for imposing a strong personal vision on everything she does, [Katie Mitchell] creates intensely emotional productions……heavily influenced by Eastern European theatrical traditions….Whatever After Dido turns out to be, I predict it will be fascinating—and possibly infuriating.”
Though I hate to say “I told you so,” and would much rather have loved the newest Katie Mitchell production, my caveats about her work seemed to me (but not most critics) to have come true in her latest foray into opera, this time Mozart’s Idomeneo at the English National Opera. I do not dispute her originality or her courage—just, increasingly, the point of it.
Let it be said first off that my daughter and I still had a very, very good time at the opera. We loved the music. We were very impressed by the conducting — I think Edward Gardner is amazingly good and never gives a dud performance. For that reason alone I am giving the new production four stars.
The production, however, worries me; not only in itself, but for the trend it seems to imply. I have no problems with updates. I thought Jonathan Miller did a truly outstanding job on The Elixir of Love by setting it in Nevada in the States in the 1950s, and all the references to Marilyn Monroe, the army at that time, etc, were really witty and brilliant and totally apt. You got a kind of double vision: first its 19th-century operatic romanticism, and then its 20th-century icons or cultural objects that made sense and provided genuine parallels. Playing Nemorino as Jerry Lewis really worked! (Ed.: Miller also did a terrific job of updating Cosi fan tutte, setting it during the Bosnian war, with the men wearing modern “Albanian” army fatigues.) And then there was his 1950s Mafia Rigoletto; his 1930s La Bohème; and even a fin-de-siècle Rosenkavalier, all exciting hits at the ENO. it is saying; he lets it work through him and he responds. He also has a fine sense of drama and knows when to let the singers just get on with it and be the focus.
But clearly Miller actually trusts the work; he has a really witty mind, and not only loves Donizetti, but understands the opera for its own sake and is working to illuminate it. He starts from the music and what it is saying; he lets it work through him and he responds. He also has a fine sense of drama and knows when to let the singers just get on with it and be the focus.
But, after seeing her work at the ENO, I think Katie Mitchell has no faith in Mozart (or Purcell or Handel or …), or any interest in the opera seria form at all. To my mind, her production of Idomeneo does not trust the audiences; and when singers were performing wonderful passionate and character-revealing arias about how they felt,music that deserved to be savoured, she had servants wandering around the stage giving out drinks or being seduced by the poor diva trying to express her emotions, or playing with computers. It’s a way to impose a vision, rather than to elucidate a work. It also betrays contempt for the audience’s ability to accept the idiom. It wasn’t even bad enough as a production for me to be angry―efficiently done, if you accept the “given” of her approach. But the music is wonderful, and you can trust Edward Gardner and the cast and the chorus completely. The good news is that it does give work, in these hard times, to a lot of actors who get to run across the set purposefully and often.
Idomeneo ended the ENO season at the Coliseum, along with a really excellent Tosca directed by Catherine Malfitano, who does know and trust the work and hence gets slated by the critics for being too old-fashioned and conventional. Ignore the crits. It’s a really excellent Tosca with a fine cast and good ensemble work. It tells the story without unnecessary distractions, which in these times is quite an achievement, and it grabs your attention for all the right reasons. There is also Bizet’s Pearl Fishers that I have not seen (although it has already gotten attention because, for the opening, all three principals and even the understudy were ill!). The opera has that duet made famous for a whole new generation by Jussi Bjőrling and Robert Merrill. Do you have the CD? Get it, if not. And look out for the revivals next season.
Without harping too much on a theme, Katie Mitchell’s intolerably pointless and tedious production of James Macmillan’s Sacrifice was another example of how not to put an opera on stage. All she was able to imagine in order to convey big drama and emotion at the world-shattering wedding was for the guests, and the unfortunately rather large prima donna, to climb up and stand on chairs, and then down, and up again at least five or six times. And they had been three years planning it! Concocting a production that is at odds with either libretto or music (preferably both) seems to be the starting premise at the moment for many directors.
The Alden brothers, David and Christopher, also do this. They seem preternaturally drawn to chairs. Maybe Mitchell was influenced by David Alden, whose famous obsession with chairs had actors slowly dragging them across the scenery in operas like Handel’s Ariodante, while poor Ann Murray was singing her heart out. Or Christopher Alden’s recent version of Don Giovanni, with exactly the same trope (including the climbing up and down part). I guess it impresses people because it’s post-Modern, surrealistic and revisionist, whatever they are supposed to mean. My advice is: leave the chairs where they are, let singers sit on them once in a while, and get on with the music! Indeed, start interpreting the music that is actually on the page and not dream visions in the style of Salvador Dali?
THE BEAUTY QUEENS OF LONDON
Martin McDonagh recently reached the point of writing and directing his own film, In Bruges. For those who were taken with his grim and darkly comic vision of the world, it will be interesting to see the first play he ever got produced — The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The new production at the Young Vic, directed by the young and very talented Joe Hill-Gibbins, does great justice to the text, pivoting around a fulcrum of off-beat comedy to reveal the inky, dangerous and bleak damage that lurks beneath.
Part of the pleasure of the McDonagh approach is the pay-offs. Over and over again he sets up a situation or a line, and ten minutes or even an hour later it suddenly makes sense, producing a sharp outburst of laughter around the sudden recognition; or a sharp intake of breath when you realize the full impact of what you’re witnessing. Billy Wilder used to do the same sort of thing, albeit more gently. It’s impossible to tell much of the story of this play without giving away the remarkable double helix into which it unfolds. Yes, I think that both The Cripple of Inishman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore are even stronger plays — or so my memory tells me. And I never saw the original, quite famous production of Beauty Queen at the National Theatre 14 years ago. But if you want to discover “early” McDonagh, reacquaint yourself with this play, or just have a memorable and stimulating evening out in the theatre, I strongly recommend this production. The team work brilliantly as an ensemble. Some people see it, like Playboy of the Western World, as a slur on Ireland, but that’s like saying Long Day’s Journey into Night is a slur on American values or people of the theatre. This dysfunctional family is no different from Lizzie Borden’s or, perhaps, Catherine Sloper’s in Washington Square, and it could be New England, Ireland, Belgium, Austria or anywhere else. The tyranny of a selfishly weak parent over a pliable, duty-bound and somewhat terrified-of-life child is a universal that happens all the time; it’s the specifics of this tale, and how grossly awful the parent can be, that make it a beauty of a play. There are, of course, other elements that I simply don’t want to give away. Go and be surprised! The performances of Susan Lynch, David Ganly, Terence Keeley and the horrific, yet hysterically funny, mother of Rosaleen Linehan are all idiomatically perfect. And it’s almost impossible not to wish to throttle mom and free daughter! You can catch this gem until the 21st of August at the Young Vic. Into the Woods in Regent’s Park and Danton’s Death at the National Theatre. The same team that did a lustrous Hello, Dolly! last year is celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a new production of one of his most witty musicals — the wit being in both score and book. Timothy Sheader is an experienced and sympathetic director of musicals, and he has the inestimable Gareth Valentine as his music director for the summer run in the open air. In this Into the Woods, the glorious Hannah Waddingham will play the ugly wicked witch who transforms into a beauty, Mark Hadfield and Jenna Russell are the baker and his wife; and the princes are Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas. It’s a consistently strong cast and a strong creative team, from August 6 to September 11 at Open Air in Regent’s Park. Hope the (currently) fine summer weather continues, and your enjoy the drought to the lyrics and music of Stephen Sondheim.
And don’t miss Toby Stephens is in rep as Danton in Buechner’s beauty of a play at the National Theatre, directed by Michael Grandage. Or, perhaps, Whoopi Goldberg playing the same part that his mother, Maggie Smith, played in the original film of Sister Act, from 10 to 31 August at the London Palladium.
Finally, if you’re in London for a bit, try to get to a BBC Prom, in residence at the Royal Albert Hall nightly until the second week of September. It really is the very best music festival in the world, and a beauty in its own right. There’s something there for every taste, the standard is consistently high, and you can always get standing-room tickets in the promenade area if you’re willing to queue, even when every other tickets is gone. Remember, there’s also a gallery where you can stand. It’s far, far away, but the sound mixes gorgeously up there and the views are fascinating. That said, in the hot weather, the Albert Hall usually gets stuffy. But if you’ve never been there, you have to experience this fascinating venue at least once. It’s where Alfred Hitchcock set his climax for both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Once you’ve been there, it will give a whole new dimension to watching Doris Day scream her head off at the propitious moment! Every Prom is broadcast on the radio and quite a few on television too. Check out the programme at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2010/
The Passing of Charles Mackerras
The passing of Charles Mackerras saddens me more than I can say. I knew him a little in my days as a broadcaster. He spoke to me on air several times about how to get “authentic” performances of Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Janacek and Wagner and taught me things about the score of Tristan und Isolde and Wagner’s performing practices that were revelations. He was also not only a decent human being but one who took on the role of mentor for younger musicians with terrific warmth and generosity. I will remember his ready smile, his ease of communication and his energetic enthusiasm for everything to do with his music. He was a great conductor whose work was informed by brilliant and often original musicological research and thinking.
For me, as a conductor, he was right up there with Solti or Bruno Walter or Furtwangler or the other biggest names but he was always much less wilful.When I heard Klemperer, Solti, Bernstein, Giulini, I was also amazed at the interpretations and found them illuminating; and with Mackerras, too, I always felt that he really was letting the composer’s intention work through him in a way only the greatest can. There was a kind of rightness and centrality of feeling to all his performances – from Gilbert and Sullivan to Martinu – with an amazing technical control and a sure sense of the idiom that made you feel only total confidence in everything he was doing. Riveting hardly covers the impact he had when conducting. He was under-recorded, really; but hopefully somewhere someone captured live broadcasts of his Meistersinger, Boheme, Rosenkavalier and Tristan. Fortunately we have his Janacek in studio recordings, both in Czech and English, his Mozart operas in stunning performances, even some of his Mahler. He was a man for all composers and he always managed to convey both the agony and the ecstasy without in any way being swamped by these and losing control over sheer technical mastery. He was also a meticulous, enthusiastic and accomplished musicologist and a great teacher. His passing represents a significant loss to the world of music.
Mackerras also had a great taste for “lighter” music and a terrific knowledge of it, too. Pineapple Poll was his; and you can check out some operetta performances on disc. I remember once discussing with him how much he liked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and thinking he really ought to conduct it.
He was the first conductor ever to ask me to visit him in the intervals when, otherwise, he might be alone and bored. “Everything is prepared in the rehearsals — I don’t need to be studying or worrying or sitting quietly in a contemplative state at half time! By the time we do the first performance they should, more or less, be able to do it without me! If that’s not the case, then I’ve failed.”
I never heard Mackerras give the same performance exactly the same twice — and I did hear his Tristan und Isolde three time in the run he did for the WNO.
I was quite shocked by his death, even though everyone knew he was ill for a couple of years. I guess I expected him to overcome it and go on for at least another decade the way he had done in the past. And now I regret not getting to his last Handel opera at the Royal Academy last Autumn because I thought I would get to hear him do Handel again!
See the tribute to Mackerras from the Philharmonia Orchestra: sir_charles_mackerras_1925_2010