Beware of operas bearing traditional gifts
Several opera companies are keen to play up the tradition in their productions. It’s inaccurate and unnecessary
It was Gustav Mahler who famously inveighed against tradition with the aphoristic put-down “ Tradition ist Schlamperei ”, or “Tradition is sloppiness” . The composer’s biographer Henri-Louis de La Grange queries the accuracy of the wording, although he doesn’t doubt the sentiment. He’s traced Mahler saying “What you theatre people call your tradition is nothing but your inertia and sloppiness”, and a range of variations on the idea, including “There is no such thing as tradition. There is only genius or stupidity.”
But tradition or the idea of traditional opera production is alive and well in Dublin, at least in the publicity for opera productions at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The Tchaikovsky Perm State Opera’s Traviata in 2011 was heralded as “the most spectacular traditional staging to ever visit these shores”, which it wasn’t. And the Moscow State Opera’s new Carmen , which opens on Wednesday, is to be “a traditional production with traditional costumes”, in spite of the fact that it’s also being claimed as the first opera production presented in co-operation with the Picasso Foundation, as the set designs incorporate some of Picasso’s paintings. What tradition this is part of is not specified.
Opera North from Leeds were at the Grand Opera House in Belfast last week, bringing productions of Verdi ’s Otello and Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, both in their original languages, and an English-language double-bill of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas .
Director John Fulljames has updated the work commissioned from Mozart to mark the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia, to a clinically fashionable present. The sets and costumes by Conor Murphy are stylish enough to feature in a magazine photo-shoot, and the credits also include Finn Ross as projection designer. His contribution includes trompe l’oeil stone wall imagery, which re-configures itself to represent destruction as well as order, and also gives the impression of turning in tandem with the set’s main presence, a transparent central flatscreen (also available for projections), which rotates on a revolve.
In Aletta Collins ’s production of La Voix humaine, an opera with a single character handling a broken relationship on a less-than-reliable phone connection, the setting (left in the 1950s by the set and costumes of Giles Cadle and Gabrielle Dolton ) has been broadened so that the first sight of the nameles s Elle is through the far side of her bulb-surrounded mirror – a frame suspended in a sea of black at the front of the stage.
A scene change effectively flips the perspective, opening up the room, with the mirror now on the far wall. That mirror is used to let us catch a few glimpses of the indifference of the man in the relationship, and at the end Elle disappears behind a shower curtain and re-emerges (by the use of a double) on both sides of the mirror.
The production of Dido and Aeneas takes the mirroring even further. At the start the movements of an emotional Dido contorting on her bed are taken over and amplified by a similarly-clad dancer on the floor. And before you know it, the red-haired Dido is being stalked, haunted and mimicked by the similarly clad red-haired sorceress, witches and dancers of this production. She is a woman haunted by her demons.
Tim Albery ’s production of Otello updates the setting to a US Marine base in the 1940s, with Leslie Travers ’s set presenting grimy walls, passageways and railings. The physical solidity at the opening catches and focuses the voices of the chorus to powerful effect.