Recent opera productions in London made me think about what makes a successful realization of a classic piece of musical theater. The tendency in Europe is to "revise" opera -- to assume that an audience knows a work well and the director can set it anywhere or present it as a more abstract theater piece. Christof Loy's LULU at the Royal Opera last spring was such a work. Loy so stripped the work of any decor or narrative that it was little more than a concert.
Rufus Goold's recent TURANDOT at the English National Opera certainly wasn't minimalist, but it filled the stage with so many peripheral details that audience members were so busy trying to figure out what was going on that the opera got lost in the shuffle. No storybook ancient Peking here. Instead we were in a contemporary London Chinese restaurant, the "Imperial Palace", where there seemed to be a costume party going on. Chorus members were dressed as Elvis impersonators, drag queens, Margaret Thatcher lookalikes. In he midst of this, a hyperactive writer seemed to be imagining the story of Turandot and turning partygoers into the characters in the opera. The opera had more to do with Rupert Goold than Puccini or his librettists and I defy anyone to tell me what three Elvis impersonators had to do with anything. There were some good moments; for instance, Ping, Pang and Pong, the chefs, sitting on a fire escape in the first scene of the second act.
In the midst of all this, the singing was mediocre. Turandot was loud, period. Liu could not sing softly -- a requirement for that role. Only the tenor singing Calaf seemed appropriately cast. The orchestra was -- loud.
Earlier that week, I saw Deborah Warner's staging of THE MESSIAH at the English National Opera. In one sense, Warner was doing the impossible -- THE MESSIAH is not inherently theatrical -- but I found Warner's attempt at giving the work contemporary relevance deeply moving and the most religious presentation of the work in or out of a church I have seen. Warner took the words seriously and make one think about what they meant. I am not a believer in the resurrection of the body, but Warner's production made me want to believe.
This was a contemporary setting with solists and chorus looking like they just walked in from the street. The Christmas section centered on children, the passion on Christ and the final section on the citizenry dying and being reborn as the trumpet sounded. The chorus sang and moved brilliantly and the soloists were excellent singers and actors. At the performance I saw, ailing tenor John Mark Ainsley was replaced by a young Irish tenor, Eamonn Mulwell. He had a lovely voice, good looks and superb stage presence. Lawrence Cummings directed the ENO orchestra as if they were an original instrument group -- virtually no vibrato.
The Royal Opera revived its decades old production of DER ROSENKAVALIER originally directed by the late film director John Schlesinger. To contemporary eyes, this is an old fashioned production that reminded me of the Met production of the fifties and sixties. However old the production is, it tells the story effectively (the first thing I ask of any production). This production boasted the best Marschalin I have ever seen or heard, the Finnish soprano Soile Iskowski. What a great singing actress she is -- I couldn't take my eyes off her expressive face during Act I. The other leads were fine, though the conducting (Kiril Petrenko) was coarse and the horns, so crucial to this score, having an off night.