Since August, 2001. Surely it can’t last…
Sunday, August 18, 2002 ↓
STILL ON THE FESTIVAL THEME
I got home from Gothenburg yesterday in time to watch Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s new production of Carmen, televised on BBC2. On paper, it should have been an interesting production, with the cool, Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter playing the hot, Spanish zingara for the first time.
The verdict? A disappointment. Oh, von Otter was excellent; her acting ability as well as her singing afforded the necessary suspension of disbelief to overcome her very Scandinavian looks and the improbable choice of a red wig (to make her look more Spanish?). She made a feisty and rather sexy Carmen. Musically, it was all quite satisfactory — the orchestra played well and the other performers sang well. But the production was let down in several other departments…
First of all, acting. Opera (and particularly an opera like Carmen) is a dramatic as well as a musical presentation of a story. Although tolerated in the past, I don’t think it’s good enough any more for opera singers simply to stand and sing at the audience, however fine their voices. They need to have some acting talent, to make the whole endeavour remotely convincing. Unfortunately, the American tenor Marcus Haddock is a man who looks uncomfortable in his own skin, let alone that of Don José. The result is a chubby, ungainly soldier unlikely to fire the passions of a seductive gypsy like Carmen. No wonder she dropped him for Escamillo, the toreador (Laurent Naouri, who didn’t really swagger enough).
Then there’s the stage direction under the young Scot, David McVicar. He doesn’t seem to know how to get massed bodies on the stage to engage in any kind of convincing business, leaving them all standing about, each waiting for their turn to sing or do something specific — like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. And if you can’t direct a stage fight, then you should hire someone who can: the punch-up at Lillas Pastia’s, the switchblade fight between Don José and Escamillo, and even Don José’s stabbing of Carmen in the final scene (oops! did I give the plot away?) were risible.
The sets and lighting didn’t help. The opening scene, supposed to take place in a square in Seville with the gate to the cigarette factory on the right and the guardhouse on the left, was a claustrophobic confusion of ironmongery. Despite the fact that the scene takes place in daytime, it was played in Stygian darkness — the colour and sun of Spain were entirely absent. Pastia’s tavern in Act 2 lacked warmth, and the first scene of Act 3, the smugglers’ camp in the mountains, was played in a “black box” — an empty stage. The darkness this time is more excusable because the scene takes place at night, but I rather think the almost total darkness had more to do with hiding the fact that there was nothing to be seen.
At least the costumes brightened up the final scene somewhat, with the procession of the toreadors into the bullring in front of the people of Seville in all their finery on the way to the fight. But the setting looked cheap and unimaginative, and once again, it was all too dark.
Now there’s a school of thought that says its the singing that’s important; the other things are all secondary. “Let’s strip away the sets, the costumes, so that the audience can concentrate on the voice.”
That’s complete bollocks.
This is opera. If the stage direction is stilted, if the singers can’t act, if the sets are nondescript or nonexistent, if the costumes don’t dress it up, and if lighting doesn’t make the whole thing sparkle, then you might as well do a bloody concert performance — it’ll be a lot cheaper.
FUNERALS AND FESTIVALS
On Thursday I went to my Uncle John’s funeral, just before flying out to Sweden again. (The Swedes are more specific than us about uncles, having two words: farbror for “father’s brother”, and morbror for “mother’s brother”. John was my morbror.) My Uncle John was a gentle and generous man who had spent 35 years of his working life in the merchant navy. He was so keen to go to sea when he was young, that he lied about his age and signed up for a job at 15, when the minimum legal age was 16. He was very good to me when I was a kid, before he married and had a child of his own. In those days, he usually did long “deep sea” voyages, and I loved to see him when he came back from somewhere exotic like Japan. Thanks to him, I had a collection of unusual and wonderful toys from all around the world.
Some years before retiring, he gave up the sea — a necessary and practical act in the face of advancing age and declining health. But I never felt he was happy in a “shore job”. In recent years, chest problems made him effectively housebound, and following a few months illness, he died on Saturday, 10 August aged 74.
. . . . .
So I left Edinburgh with its own international arts festival in full swing, and arrived in Gothenburg towards the end of Göteborgskalaset, a fun, informal festival held each August where the events and performances are free. The beer isn’t, but that doesn’t stop vast quantities of it being quaffed in the many temporary eating and drinking venues erected for the nine days that the kalas runs. I finished work at about 1:00 p.m. on Friday, so I had the rest of the glorious day (about 30°C again — Gothenburg has had a superb summer) to follow the Swedish example of drinking and eating and drinking until, to paraphrase Dean Martin, you can’t lie on the ground without holding on.
It all becomes a bit more restrained later this week when the Göteborg Dance & Theatre Festival starts.
Older material is stashed away under Replays.