Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.



Andy said...

Productions like this seem to imply a criticism of the composer, that his original point is, from the perspective of a modern audience, so obscured by the trappings of traditional staging, that we need an "update" in order for things to become clear or relevant to us. I once heard Jonathan Miller defend his disastrously ugly and stiff production of Rossini's "Ermione" by saying today's audience can't "relate" to Trojan war he moved it to the American civil war. I'm not sure I relate to people who lived 140 years ago better than I relate to people who lived 3,000 years ago, but I'll let that slide. Unfortunately these directors, who don't trust audiences to "get" what is right in front of them, then go off on such a wild tangent that not only are we now unsure of the message, sometimes we can't even decipher the plot. I think the idea that "space" is the new "ocean" is a good one, but it sounds like it went horribly awry.

Mike Taylor said...

Wouldn't it be nice if the people responsible for productions such as this one would take on board the advice given to Alan Jay Lerner by Arthur Freed? "Don't try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough."

Andrew Rilstone said...

On the other hand, Miller's "godfather" setting of "Rigoletto" and his famous not-Japenese "Mikado" work very well. And I greatly enjoyed (as well as being puzzled by) the Freudian "Dutchman" (in which Daland and the Dutchman were the same character; and Mary, Senta and an invented non singing child appeared to be the same woman at three ages). So I wouldn't like to generalise too much: this was a bad non-traditional staging; but there are also bad traditional stagings.

Andrew Rilstone said...

So why has no one ever done this to, say, Oklahoma!?

1: Tradition. Opera goers have come to expect experimentation, and musical goers haven't.

2: Copyright. The descendants of Rogers and Hammerstien presumably still exert some control over what can and can't be done with their work.

3: Demographics and business models. When a theater stages a musical, it wants to create something that will run for several years in the West End, and then tour the provinces. The successful musicals, like "Lez Miz" and "Cats", are very much "brands": you don't expect anyone to change the production of "Phantom of the Opera" any more than you expect them to paint the Tower of London pink. (This means that "Cats" is by now a frightful 70s antique, almost a memorial to itself. And as for the "Mousetrap"...)An opera company stages a limited season consisting of ten or so performances of three or four different operas, two of which will be "revivals" and two of which will be "new productions". The next season will consist of four different operas. They simply aren't planning to show the same "Tosca" every night and twice on Tuesdays for the next ten years. A fan of musicals might go and see "Phantom" several times, like a movie; a fan of operas is more likely to book for all 4 operas in Covent Gardens new season (including the ones he's never heard of). So the one thing which productions of opera don't need to be is definitive. The audience is willing to say "That was an interesting take on the "Dutchman", but I didn't particularly like it; never mind, there'll be another one along in a minute."

4: HIdden depths. "The Flying Dutchman" has got some; "Oklahoma!" frankly hasn't. A complex open work is about many things, and can be read in many different ways. It encourages producers to think "If we performed it this way, with this kind of emphasis, then we might tease out this aspect of the work's meaning." I doubt that there is much sub-text to draw out from "Oklahoma!"

5: Specific time and place. The music, story and language makes it very clear where and when "Oklahoma!" is happening. Nothing in the "Dutchman" specifically ties it to Norway; and the "Ring" and "Parsifal" take place in a mythological never never land. When you say "Maybe the Grail Knights are futuristic and technological, and Parsifal is a sort of celtic warrior" you haven't done any great violence to the story; not compared to say having someone in kimono singing "Yeow! A-yip-i-o-ee-ay ". (Mr Shakespeare is sufficiently vague about time and place that "authentic" productions require you either to have people who talk, act and think like Elizabethans but dress in togas, or men in tights and ruffs saying "Hail Ceasar". But I think that producers are much less inclined to produce eccentric settings for "Henry V" or "Henry VIII" than for "Hamlet" or "Lear." We have some idea what the Henrys really looked like and really wore; "Hamlet" is pretty much "some prince in some kingdom at some time in the past.")

6: State subsidy. The opera companies get a certain amount of money from the arts council. This means that they can afford one or two flops, particularly if they are in the "criticial success but commercial failiure" category. Musical is staged by commercial companies who have to go for mass-market appeal every time.

I once heard Miller giving a lecture on Chekov and Ibsen. He argued that the copyright on Chekov had, for many years, been owned by the Moscow state theater, who did productions which were as close to those done in the playwright's lifetime as possible. The productions became, in Miller's words, "mummified": very dated styles of acting, very dated sets, and no possibility that this years "Three Sisters" could have anything new to say about the play. This, said Miller, was what gave Chekov his reputation as a stodgy and difficult playwright. The same thing, he said, was done by the D' Oyly Carte opera. Pause for effect "Although in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn't matter one way or the other."


I wonder if it is true that no-one has ever done it to a mainstream musical...

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Rilstone said...
On the other hand, Miller's "godfather" setting of "Rigoletto"...

Okay admit it!

How many of us thought of Frank Miller for a second there?