Royal Opera House, Winter/Spring 2017
Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Giuseppe Verdi, Il trovatore, Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur
Kasper Holten was appointed Covent Garden’s Director of Opera in 2011, having previously been boss of Denmark’s Royal Opera whose ultra-modern home Operaen by the docks in Copenhagen was paid for in 2005 to the tune of well over US$500 million by Mærsk McKinney Møller of the huge shipping company. Holten’s mother is Bodil Nyboe Andersen, governor of the Danish National Bank from 1991 until 2005. Holten followed Elaine Padmore at Covent Garden who had been his predecessor at the Royal Danish Opera. Born 1973, he got an unusually early start in his theatrical career and is a competent director in his own right, though his success away from stages he has run is not remarkable. His best production at Covent Garden was Szymanowski’s King Roger. His farewell staging of Wagner’s Meistersinger was perversely transposed to a gentleman’s club circa 1930, with apprentices turned into zero-hours contract waiters and waitresses, and minimal evidence of Hans Sachs’s cobbling profession. The goldsmith’s daughter Eva in the age of Hollywood was scarcely going to be a willing bride for prize-song winner Sir Walther von Stolzing. So Sir Kasper Holten (as he is in Denmark) has her depart alone at the end, even more disruptive than Stolzing’s attempted rejection of the “Meistersinger” status for which he has been competing.
It is current German fashion (called Regietheater – or “directors’ theatre”) to perform operas in period productions where they do not really fit. Holten’s synopsis of the opera in the Covent Garden programme describes Hans Sachs as an amateur composer – like Martin Luther. In fact Sachs, a “professional” cobbler, was also a historic very famous poet – whose ability with words and music is what grabbed Wagner’s interest in him. Nuremberg was an imperial town in the age of Albrecht Durer when Wagner’s opera is set. Because Hitler loved Wagner’s music-dramas and used Nuremberg for his gothic-revival parades and bullying does not make Sachs’s sense of pride in local German culture suspect. Wagner’s truths are universal, and much of Holten’s detailed staging and directing does not add up. I disliked David Bösch’s Munich production of the work last summer, with Walther as a guitar-playing drop-out and Sachs running his shoe repair business from a van parked in a suburban slum. It seems Holten’s motive for setting it all in a sort of gentleman’s club was his discovery that clubs like the Gar- rick and Travellers’ do not have women members. On Newsnight Holten suggested that should be made illegal here. Hmmm.
Wagner understood class and localism very well. The opera is meant to start in a church – but Holten presents the hymn-singing then as a chorus rehearsal in the gents’ club. Really nothing in this grandiose Danish staging designed by Mia Stensgaard, Anja Vang Kragh and Jesper Kongshaug makes the opera genuinely live. It’s just another would-be clever commen- tary on a masterwork, rather than proper flesh and blood re-enactment. Sadly it was not well-sung except by the beefy American Eva (Rachel Willis-Sørensen), Sebastian Holecek’s robust Kothner, and Johannes Martin Kränzle’s self-regarding Beckmesser. Both Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and Allan Clayton as Sachs’s prentice David have fine voices but neither fitted their roles convincingly. And Bryn Terfel’s voice had gone scratchy and almost missing, while Antonio Pappano took the overture and much of the first two acts at a strangely bland complacent speed – though in act 3 he began to calm down and relish this luxurious wonderfully energised score.
I don’t think Holten will be missed at Covent Garden. I did not enormous- ly enjoy the revival of David Bösch’s Trovatore new last season, but it was firmly and stylishly conducted by Richard Farnes (now no longer in charge at Opera North after much distinguished work there), and it made sense as theatre. The fact that Gregory Kunde’s Manrico, Lianna Haroutounian’s Leonore, and Anita Rachvelishvili’s Azucena were not the best I have heard no doubt reflects the fact that my first Trovatore in Salzburg in 1962 gave me an unforgettable taste of Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Giulietta Simionato (the latter was seven days short of 100 when she died in 2010). The Covent Garden performance of this Verdi on 6 February was the three-hundred-and forty-ninth there! Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea in David McVicar’s effective 2010 production of this intriguing but not well known piece was very well revived thanks among others to Gerald Finley immaculately registering the supporting role of Comédie Française stage manager Michonnet. But Angela Gheorghiu’s return to the title role was also compelling, and Brian Jagde as her beloved Maurizio and Kesnia Dudnikova as the evil Princesse de Bouillon were equally thrilling. The international-quality line-ups for these two revivals was fully up to the Royal Opera’s best standards.
It is almost twenty years now since the Royal Opera House was largely rebuilt, a process begun in the early 1980s. The theatre got a substantially altered auditorium, large additional workshops, the Linbury studio theatre below ground, studios for ballet rehearsals, and a huge side stage from which entire sets could be mechanically fetched. The Royal Ballet was moved in en bloc from Barons Court. The whole rebuilding was premised on the notion that, like the Bolshoi in Moscow, the historic Covent Garden 1859 gold and plush auditorium with its striking medallion over the proscenium arch of Queen Victoria was worth preserving. What was needed was not more seats with good sightlines but state of the art new tech backstage, so the theatre could be worked at full tilt, and new bar and restaurant facilities (and escalator) so the public could be stylishly fed as part of their evening out. I did not really appreciate in 1997 when the opera house closed and the old stage was demolished just how radically different the institution was going to become. The old bars and cloak-store were small, well- distributed around the public spaces, and efficient. What is now a leisurely dinner room above the entrance foyer was then accurately known as the Crush Bar. Everything about the place was human, the focus on live opera and ballet and those performers on stage.
Sightlines in the stalls are better now. But I preferred it when the Stalls Circle was on the same level as the Stalls, and its central section was not a lighting control box. The foyers are cold and impersonal. I miss the bars either side of the entrance to the stalls, and the steps in the crush bar linking the Grand Tier with the Balcony. But performances are still the jewel in the crown, and there are more of them. And the institution pays its way and no longer wobbles towards deficits and bail-outs, as it did. London, since the reopening in 1999, has embraced the world’s mega-rich. Covent Garden audiences are really cosmopolitan. You hear as many foreign languages spoken there as on south London buses. The Royal Opera House now spends over £4 million annually on fund-raising, a bit less than the cut by Arts Council England to English National Opera’s subsidy. Just a quarter of ROH costs are met by subsidy – far less than most European houses. Both ballet and opera make money from streaming performances or putting them in the cinemas of the world.
That is not the same as the live experience – with the focus controlled by the cameraman and the emphasis on close-ups or mid-shots of singers and dancers. Not much sense of a readable location either. As German director Götz Friedrich said to me: ‘The stage is the world’. However you look at it, opera on screen does not give you a feeling about where the scene is happening. It is all about stars singing. You get a lot of teeth and eyes. But sitting in the amphitheatre at the Garden you can scarcely see faces of performers without opera glasses. Good acoustics for sure, though you are little more in there with the actual performance than you would be in a cinema relay.
Open Up, the rebuilding of some parts for which “philanthropists” are paying, will do little to get ordinary people without serious money into real live opera performances at the Royal Opera House. What will happen for the business of opera in London after the ACE has squeezed ENO to the point where it might as well shut down? What will the Royal Opera House, now a huge institution employing over a thousand and thus far more people than it ever did in the past, do about its implicit vital duty to the masses if it becomes the only regular fairly fulltime operatic game in town?
The UK (and in particular London) led a charmed and remarkable operatic life between 1945 and the 1990s. For most of those fifty years the Queen’s cousin Lord Harewood played a crucial role by being associated with (and an effective professional, in managing or helping to supervise) one or other of London’s opera companies. I think a number of dubious appointments at Covent Garden and English National Opera since, respectively, John Tooley and Peter Jonas retired reflect our abandonment in the UK of German-style ensemble-based opera and theatre companies. As we do not have such companies in the 0UK, we also now have nobody with ex- perience of running permanent functioning institutions making theatre and opera, nobody who understands their full benefit in terms of marketing and potentially improved productivity at a reasonable price. The wider ordinary public needs access to understand what live performing arts are about and why they are necessary and good for all. If Covent Garden’s opera were ensemble-based its performances would be cheaper. Also the Royal Opera could present work in more than one theatre – and supply opera to ordinary people at more affordable prices in locations nearer where they lived. That should be the aim for our premier British opera institution and perhaps for Holten’s successor Oliver Mears.
Tom Sutcliffe wrote about the arts, especially opera, in The Guardian for many years, was opera critic of the Evening Standard from 1996 to 2002, and writes now for Opern Welt in Berlin and Opera Now in London. He was president of the Critics’ Circle from 2010 to 2012. He wrote Believing in Opera (Faber, 1996) and edited the Faber Book of Opera. He has served on the General Synod for 24 years.