Magazine article The Spectator

Drama at the Opera

Magazine article The Spectator

Drama at the Opera

Article excerpt

Samuel Johnson famously defined opera in his A Dictionary of the English Language as 'an exotic and irrational entertainment'.

It's possibly the most overquoted quotation concerning the subject, but in 1755, when the dictionary was published, he probably had a point. Opera, which for some time had not exactly been all the rage in London anyway, was still dominated by the Italians and was still centred around the singing. The leading sopranos and castrati were every bit as much the idols of audiences as the Callases and Domingos. Yet there were signs of hope, however, for those who liked their opera to be real, engaging, concentrated drama. Composers like Niccolò Jommelli were beginning to push opera towards the principles shortly to be adopted by Gluck, in his first 'reform' opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, in 1762. In reform opera, drama ruled the stage, as had been the intention of opera's inventors back in the late 16th century. The exotic and irrational were replaced by direct engagement.

Gluck, though, by no means settled the issue for good. The age of coloratura, of Bellini and Donizetti, was yet to come, and a repertoire that concentrates on spectacular singing at the expense of dramatic cogency still has a very large say on many a great opera stage. Listening to such music can be breathtaking and highly pleasurable, but it's something of its own moment. How does she do that? we ask, before toddling off for dinner at Bertorelli's as happy as Larry.

Yet we need think only of Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, later Verdi, Debussy, Berg and a host of 20thcentury composers -- Bartok, Szymanowski, Janacek, Britten, Henze, Berio -- to realise that Dr Johnson's definition is wide of the mark for today's opera, that a vast amount of opera does have a lasting value which defines it as something beyond mere entertainment, exotic or not, and isn't simply about the singers. And there's every sign that most living composers are concerned to keep opera substantial. For proof, just take a look at the rather impressive list of contemporary opera that London has seen in the past two or three months. The most notable event was surely the staging of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's latest opera, The Minotaur, at Covent Garden.

Although some reviews were less enthusiastic than others, the opera, a characteristically individual take on the myth in which Birtwistle suggests that behind every monster lies a reason for monstrosity, was attended by full and enthusiastic houses.They had reason, for despite a slight surfeit, perhaps, of gory killing down there in the labyrinth, this was a piece of deeply involving, beautifully paced theatre, the music characteristically grinding its way to the work's tragi-triumphant climax, Birtwistle succeeding brilliantly in making us feel compassion for the poor, frustrated, isolated Minotaur.

At around the same time English National Opera took to the stage of the Young Vic -- an association that one hopes will prove permanent -- with Daniel Kramer's brilliant new production of Birtwistle's first opera, the chilling Punch and Judy. Amazingly, the same opera was seen at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre at the beginning of March in Music Theatre Wales's acclaimed production. Punch takes on a sinister, bizarre reality, his ritualistic killing spree rewarded not by justice and execution but by the hand of Pretty Polly, his lust-object. A disturbing thought to mull over at Bertorelli's: evil does sometimes pay.

Birtwistle's problem in gaining widespread recognition in the past has been that his language has been thought of as modernist, whatever that might mean today. …

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