Opera past and present in guises old and new.
Or are we supposed to learn that local customs are right in a local context, when the laws of the gods have been transgressed? Or that it’s always the little people who suffer, and somebody should feel bad about that? The ending is deliberately unsettling, but I was left unsure what, exactly, I was being asked to be unsettled about.
The sparseness of the libretto, too, gives the music a sense of purpose and clarity. There’s no singing for the sake of singing, here. Like a well-written play, every line tells, works for that character at that moment. Old Frau Mack has folkish strings to accompany her, but virtuoso melodic lines for her mystical flights of vision and, later, emotion.
If nature in Katya Kabanova is sweet freedom, always out of reach, in The Cunning Little Vixen it is everywhere in all its amoral power. The eponymous little Vixen, caught by the sleepy Forester and taken home as a plaything for his children, never yields to domestication. Even when tied up for biting a tormenting child, her spirit is swinging on a trapeze beneath the moon.
Alexei starts with unrequited love and a social situation that leaves him few options. Babulenka starts with gambling for (whisper it) sheer fun and then loses her fortune almost wilfully to spite her callous relatives. Are these stories not more interesting and more believable than broad-brush comparisons with zoo animals?
Between Mozartian recitative – complete with harpsichord – and lyrical duets and trios, passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir score (or an atonal chamber concert) place the opera firmly in the 20th century. The folktale storyline is echoed by folksong-like tunes and lyrics, and at times the singers address the audience directly, somewhere between Brecht and music hall.
The performances are astonishingly physical, the singers making real contact with each other and performing both comedy and sensuality with confidence. Susanna Andersson, who sings both Venus and Gepopo, chief of the secret police, is outstanding in combining acrobatic movement, masterful comic timing and two coloratura soprano roles.
Getting on for a century old, this piece feels very modern. Partly because the music is neither dusty nor ostentatiously avant-garde, so it hasn’t dated. Partly, too, because it is a classically naturalistic work, in which the details of character and setting show a specific world which is not timeless, but of its time.
This is less the story of a relationship than an exploration of why two people choose it instead of a real relationship. When Rudel’s actual poems are sung in the medieval French, the music takes a turn that evokes the music of that period, full of harsh, primitive harmonies, archaic scales and a note of loss and sadness. These songs are what bind Jaufré and his Countess together.
Flocks of paper birds on long sticks rise and wheel over the garden, and the menacing entrance of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is accompanied by twirling black ribbons wielded by the black-veiled puppeteer chorus. At times, their ninja-like presence is distracting. Using Bunraku-style puppets can feel pointless. What does it add that a real child could not do?
Paul Steinberg’s sets manage to capture the fishing-town feel, at once bleak and claustrophobic. But the visual style of the production is almost expressionist, with its high, slanting blocks of architecture and stylised movement.
The music continues to be glorious. The staging is evocative, the visuals epic. But there is no suspense. We know the end of this story, after all. We know it will detonate, there will not be a chain reaction that ignites the atmosphere, Oppenheimer will live to doubt his decisions.
Are we not the very ones who will be ‘falling asleep after dinner’, as Zerbinetta predicts? If art is being prostituted to please a philistine appetite, don’t they mean us, with our pre-theatre dinners and post-theatre drinks?
Is it far-fetched to imagine that any piece of music can be staged and shown in a theatre? These performances outlined three different visions of love and desire, where music is both the starting and final point of a human adventure… the adventure of musical composition itself.