Opera past and present in guises old and new.
It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study.
In spite of being based broadly on Euripides’ character, Charpentier’s Medea is curiously modern, and at times her modernity emerges into the music, with harsh discords that strain against baroque formality.
Peter Konwitschny has cut the piece back to its simple lines: boy meets dying girl; they fall in love but society tears them apart; he comes back to her but she dies. Played straight through, with no interval, it runs under two hours.
Sometimes the dancers function as symbols or sylphs, for example appearing as birds to comfort the lonely Queen or as fawning girls to dote and climb adoringly all over Caesar. At other times they serve to paint a character’s emotion more vividly or convey a sense of overall musical mood.
Martinu’s vocal lines have a lightness of touch that makes room for comedy as well as romance and jeopardy. The vocal echo is a recurring motif, adding to the sense of unreality and disorientation. Beauty runs through, among the witty instrumentation and dramatic crescendo
The music takes its temper and tempo from the sea, with its growling timpani thunder and the swirling chromatic whirlpools of strings. The sea also represents both the site of the Dutchman’s fateful aspiration and his current prison and jailer.
There are, though, moments of directorial wit as well, and their characterisation of Rusalka – adorably played by Camilla Nylund – is delightful, as she struggles in her high-heels and gets her wedding outfit wrong. Up until the rape bit, the giant cat’s a laugh too.
As a contemporary work, it expresses a dilemma of our time. Do I take sides, or do I invite everyone in to have their say? Do I tell the story my way, or present the audience with fragments and let them make up their own narrative?
If you wanted to take Rosenkavalier at face value as a tale of young love you could, just about, with eyes half shut. But with eyes wide open the tragedy of the Marschallin, engineering the very abandonment she foretold, adds depth to the story.
The line ‘What did you expect: the Spanish Inquisition?’ is little more flippant than much of the original text by Da Ponte, who, in adapting his text from the play by Beaumarchais, deliberately expunged all references to politics. The Marriage of Figaro is absolutely not a commentary on the banking crisis, and is all the better for it.
Purcell’s music in particular stands out from its contemporaries and even later composers in its exuberant, life-affirming quality, its assuredness in handling mood, from unabated joy to harrowed emotional longing and despair.
Overall though, it is the texture of Weinberg’s music that’s most arresting, the loose tonality and regular use of drums and bells, the often bare and brittle melodies and wide open bits of chord, odd bits of jazz and tugging dissonances. Musically, it is at once easy to listen to but difficult to get lost in, giving way to a state of sort of resigned semi-alertness.
The commitment of Burstein and Edwards to their piece is never in doubt, and good for them. Furthermore, the creators’ zealousness has attracted the support of a hugely talented young theatre company. It’s just a pity that this company’s faith hasn’t been better rewarded.