Saturday 2 July 2011

The old shock of the new

Two Boys, ENO, Coliseum, London / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne Festival

‘Were we this bad?’ sings Detective Inspector Anne Strawson, ‘Were we this bored?’ Yes, her ageing mother replies, when Anne was a teenager she too had a private language largely used to hurt and exclude others. But the internet has changed the way we mediate our relationships, and it’s this ambiguous territory that’s the setting for Nico Mulhy’s tremendous opera, Two Boys.

The structure is pure thriller, the lone detective faced with a stabbing, the victim unconscious and the teenage suspect, Brian, insisting there was a third party wielding the knife. And Brian is Detective Strawson’s guide into the world of online relationships, of which she seems implausibly ignorant until now. Commissioning a piece on the dark and dangerous underbelly of our hyperconnected world may raise suspicions of an opera company making a crude attempt to woo a younger audience. But opera is the perfect medium for this story, set largely in the virtual world. The internet is, as Brian sings passionately, a real world to him, ‘There are people in there. My parents can’t see, teachers can’t see’.

In fact, it’s his only private life; in his bedroom with his laptop open, launching his powerful 16-year-old emotions into an endlessly receding sea of strangers. And the chorus, voices overlapping, echoing, cutting across each other so the music floats half-concealed in the noise, are that world, each of their faces lit by the glow of a screen. There’s a quick pleasure in hearing a line like ‘age, sex, location?’ or ‘laughing my ass off’ sung so beautifully, while the netspeak scrolls up the set – [asl], [lmao]. And jarring shock to realise some of these anonymous voices are singing about cannibalism and brutal sexual fantasies among the innocuous chatter. But this is no throwaway piece of zeitgeist cashing-in.

For a start, the music is stunning. The range of Mulhy’s talent as a composer is apparent, from lyrical vocal solos to revealing exchanges in the conversational rhythms of hesitant teenage confession, from the layered choral passages that echo John Adams and Philip Glass to the church music bringing his chorister experience to fruit. The colours of the orchestra are deftly deployed – a sinuous woodwind counterpoint to Rebecca’s schoolgirl flirting, threatening brass to prefigure danger. And all the music serves the drama, driving the mystery forward as the twists of deception unravel. The layers of Craig Lucas’ libretto build a nuanced look at a generation that’s grown up spending its social life onscreen as much as face to face, and at how they’re regarded, often with bafflement and fear, by what Mulhy’s called ‘the analogue generation’.

Detective Strawson’s mother, a lovely comic performance by Valerie Reid, is a stoic foil for her daughter’s psychological torments, telling her if she made more of an effort with her appearance she’d stand a better chance of getting a man, and missing her great outpouring of loneliness and despair, ‘I’ll die unsung, unknown and unloved!’ because she hasn’t put her hearing aid in. At its heart, Two Boys is as dark as a Jacobean tragedy. But though the shifting realities of the internet made the tragedy possible, the human emotions underlying it – the need for intimacy, love, to be known by another – are not new or unique to our age, or to the digital generation.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – the mastersingers of Nuremberg – also hinges on a middle-aged character trying to make sense of a changing world. Shoemaker Hans Sachs is a respected member of the guild of Mastersingers, an organisation of craftsmen in 16th century Nuremberg who learn to create and perform songs the same way they learn their own trades, by studying their heritage and honing their skills until they can produce an original piece of work of high enough quality. Ostensibly, the opera is structured around a classic storyline that could have come straight from commedia dell’arte – two pairs of young lovers – one noble, one servants - a dirty older man and some comic deception to ensure that true love gets its way. But the presence of Sachs tilts the emotional centre to more ambiguous territory, and the theme towards the role and nature of Art.

Young Walther bursts into the Mastersingers’ world full of natural talent, youthful inspiration and complete ignorance of the rules. But if he’s to win the hand of Eva and inherit from her father, Mastersinger Pogner, he must win the song competition. His rival for Eva’s love, stick-in-the-mud Beckmesser, uses his position as Marker to deride and dismiss his unschooled efforts, ruthlessly scraping chalk against slate to mark down the song’s many faults. Sachs, however, sees in Walther’s nature-inspired outpourings a valuable challenge to tradition. No wonder the other Mastersingers are threatened, he explains to Walther – he’s forcing them to reassess the value of their own rules. In fact, Sachs proposes that the people should be allowed to join in judging the contest, provoking fierce debate on the value of having expert judgement instead of populist appeal. Does an artistic tradition need to be held up to outside scrutiny sometimes, or should it guard the discipline of its expertise?

And of course we’re always aware that the story is being told through song, that a master composer has written all the music, from the rowdy folk tunes to the over-decorated competition songs. Walther’s spontaneous voicing of his dream is no less crafted than Beckmesser’s ludicrous serenade. And all the singers are using more expressive control than any normal person is capable of, thanks to their years of training and practice. So we can’t really share Sach’s early infatuation with the unschooled romanticism of Walther’s song, not literally. And the opera’s ambiguous ending, with Sachs’s unsettling outburst about German art, reasserts the importance of craft, of work. Walther, having won the prize and the woman, thinks he doesn’t need to be a Mastersinger. Sachs rebukes him. This Guild with its infighting, parochial rivalry and comical proliferation of regulations and classifications, is in Wagner’s – and Sachs’s - eyes the guardian of a tradition of art that is central to German freedom, let alone identity.

I saw the production not in Glyndebourne’s idyllic and exclusive country estate setting, but streamed live on the Science Museum’s big screen. Instead of picnicking on the Sussex lawns, we dined beneath the wing of a biplane in the Flight gallery. This was my first experience of opera-on-screen, my own encounter with a familiar art form through a new technological medium. The sound, in spite of the Science Museum’s finest surround-sound attention to detail, in no way matched being at a performance. The mixture of microphones made for an inconsistent acoustic, and the extremes of dynamic range were attenuated. And the thrill of being present with the performers was missing.

There are compensations, however. The cameras could get closer than any audience, no matter how intimate the venue. So even before the curtain lifted, an orchestra’s-eye view of the conductor and close up shots of the players gave a new dimension to listening to the music. And the performers’ faces were visible as never before. So the buried, contradictory emotions of Gerald Finley’s Hans Sachs could be seen as intimately as in any lingering Hollywood close up. The whole overture of Act 3 became the underscoring for his emotional turmoil as he examines his life, his unpursued love, and his work as poet as well as cobbler. Even the texture of his clothes and the ingrained dirt in his workman’s hands testify on the big screen.

It’s a risky undertaking. Acting subtle enough for the camera but big enough to read across a large auditorium is a tough call for any actor, not just for opera singers, and at times the camera revealed the limits of a performer’s range of expression. But when it works – gloriously, for example, in Beckmesser’s extended slapstick scene, a comic tour de force by Johannes Martin Kränzle with Wagner’s scoring as precise as any Tom and Jerry cartoon – it ensures that nothing is lost or wasted. Though the camera’s ability to direct our attention, whether to reactions or to elements of the artfully choreographed staging, also takes away the enjoyable moments of discovery. In a theatre, your eye can take in a whole stageful of scrapping townsfolk but also catch a small detail that your companions have probably missed. On screen, we all see the same selection.

But opera on screen doesn’t pretend to be the same animal as the live event. Glyndebourne festival sells out fast, and seeing a production with a live audience, if not live, is surely better than missing it altogether. Not because it’s an art form that need to justify itself by seeking approval from a mass audience that wouldn’t don black ties and fork out hundreds of pounds to go to Glyndebourne in person. In fact, if you book swiftly it’s possible to see productions like this in Glyndebourne for less than the price of an Arcade Fire concert in Hyde Park. And with better toilet facilities. No, because it’s an art form that benefits from centuries of craft in a panoply of performing and visual arts, at the service of inspired writing and composition that speaks to our time as well as the 19th century. And just as Wagner’s grappling with how Art should continue to grow and evolve still speaks to us today, I suspect that in 150 years’ time, Two Boys will still be valued for how it speaks to the enduring human experience, as well as its portrayal of a moment in our history.

Two Boys is at the ENO till 8 July 2011
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne Festival Opera is available to watch free online till 3 July 2011. Other Glyndebourne productions will later be streamed to the Science Museum and other screens.


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