Friday, 11 January 2019

The fat lady's been doing a lot of singing, because I'm in the middle of an extended Operathon: Aida, Carmen, and Giulio Cesare

I was so wildly enthused by listening to the whole of the Ring Cycle at the end of November, I decided to seek out a few more - only, this times, ones I hadn't already seen or heard. Given my somewhat obsessive nature, this turned out be 32 more operas between the start of December and yesterday morning, despite two hospice stints. My main guide as to what to watch has been a Guardian article, Top 50 Operas, by the paper's classical music critic, Fiona Maddocks, backed up by Rupert Christiansen's Faber Pocket Guide to Opera, Opera by Alan Riding and Leslie Downer (part of DK's Eyewitness Companions series), and Michael Tanner's The Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner - every one a winner. I haven't had to buy any DVDs, because every opera I've seen has been available on Sky Arts catch-up, YouTube, or as part of my Amazon Prime Video membership. I've learned a thing or two during the process:

1. Either casting directors have become more adept at hiring singers who can act and who are physically suited to the roles they've been asked to play - or opera singers spend a lot of time taking acting lessons and working out in the gym these days. Wooden, tubby little heroes and blimpish sopranos seem to be rapidly becoming a thing of the past (whether this has led to a worsening of singing talent, I can't tell). It was a genuine shock to see a production of Aida on Sydney Harbour that featured a soprano, Latonia Moore, as a seriously short, black and overweight Aida. Given she's meant to be a captured Ethiopian princess (or something), I was expecting someone lighter-skinned, delicately beautiful and distinctly willowy (I met an Ethiopian princess on several occasions, so I'm definitely an expert) - instead, we got a pint-sized Hattie MacDaniel (whom I adore, but not as Aida), Not only that, but Aida's rival for the affections of the warrior Radames, the Egyptian Princess Amneris, is played by Milijana Nikolic, a pretty hot number - and we're meant to believe that Radames prefers Hattie? I somehow doubt it. Mind you, as Walter Fraccaro, the singer playing Radames is a bit of an unathletic-looking tubby, I suppose it's just possible.

2. I've now watched three Sydney Harbour productions - Turandot, Aida and Carmen - and what an extraordinary difference staging and direction can make. The first two were, frankly, a bit of a mess. The stage is enormous and amorphous, there seemed to be hundreds of extras milling around in the shadows, and the filming and the lighting meant there was nowhere for the TV audience's eyes to rest - no focal point. In fact, Aida was a ghastly, vulgar car-crash (yes, I know it's not meant to be overly tasteful, but this was going too far). Apart from a head of a sphinx seemingly bigger than the actual Sphinx's head, there were soldiers in Mussolini-syle costumes, a troupe of gay bikers, a camel, and Aida's kingly dad was dressed like the head of the South Side Crips - and that wasn't the half of it. It was as if the producers had hired every theatrical costume and prop in the whole of Australia and were determined to cram them all on stage at the same time. Perhaps it made sense to the live audience, but it just gave me a headache.

By way of complete contrast, the producers of Carmen not only hired two thoroughly convincing leads - the voluptuous and passionate Rinat Shaham as Carmen (very Nigella Lawson), and Ukrainian tenor, Dmytro Popov, looked perfect for their roles, and produced some serious sexual chemistry. As for the problem of the never-ending stage, director Gale Edwards solved it with two masterstrokes: she placed a HUGE red neon sign at the back of the stage which started by featuring the name of the opera, and then changed, when appropriate, into a dirty great bull, and, instead of trying to cram hundreds of pointless extras onto the stage, she created a virtual performance area by projecting a subtly-changing big red circle slap-bang in the centre. Genius!

3. A potentially boring opera can be transformed into a sparkling delight by staging, direction, and singers who can do comedy. You might be surprised to learn that I'm referring to a Glyndebourne production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. I'll admit to a blind spot when it comes to Handel operas, ever since I saw a production of Xerxes at Covent Garden nearly 30 years ago, which damn near reduced me to tears of boredom. It was the way the singers seemed to repeat everything 25 times, and the static, mannered acting, and... well, hell, me and Handel just didn't hit if off. So it was with a somewhat heavy heart and a few stifled yawns that I sat down earlier this week to watch Sir David McVicar's Glyndebourne production on YouTube.

However, I laughed a lot, and I don't mean those embarrassed-sounding titters opera-goers produce to show they've got the "joke" - I mean genuine belly-laughs: the live audience were in stitches (especially during the scene where Cleopatra, played by the hilariously sexy Joélle Harvey, uses an urn which, unbeknownst to her, contains the ashes of Pompey, recently murdered by the psychopathic Ptolemy, as an umbrella-stand, and then as a receptacle for her cigarette butt. Even the dance sequences are genuinely funny. There are Victorian frigates and battleships, zeppelins: every style of clothing imaginable - Edwardian ball-gowns, full Ancient Egyptian bling, slinky little dresses, Colonial military uniforms; counter-tenors, women singing male roles, ultra-queeny servants; cast members whose characters are dead come on stage for the final chorus, making everyone else feel queasy, and thereare even jokes about Handel heroes who need to go and do something very urgently (like defeat the enemy) banging on at inordinate length about what they're about to go and do... it's all as camp as a row of tent-pegs. And yet, when the many beautiful arias and duets begin, the mood switches instantly, and we're moved to tears: the rip-roaring comedy background highlights the endless glories of the music. I've no idea what purists felt about it, but, for me, at least, it brought the music fully alive. What a masterpiece. You can watch the whole glorious thing here, but, meanwhile, here's a taster:

Oh God, this is getting long. Let me post this and start with point 4 in the next post...

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