Magazine article The Spectator

Dancing to Monteverdi

Magazine article The Spectator

Dancing to Monteverdi

Article excerpt

Dancing to Monteverdi Stephen Pettitt wonders whether we are becoming incapable of listening to music without visual help

Let me take you hack three years. At the English National Opera press conference for the season of 2000/01, it was announced hat the company would be staging Verdi's Requiem, in a production to be directed by Phyllida Lloyd. When question-time came round I put up my hand and asked the company's then general manager, Nicholas Payne, why ENO had decided to turn a mass for the dead - albeit one that's really an oratorio rather than a liturgical piece - into an opera when any number of good, or at least interesting, real operas remain unstaged.

I cannot remember Payne's exact answer - maybe he offered Handel's oratorios Semele and Theodora as noble precedents - though in retrospect I'd have to concede that the Verdi Requiem was quite a good choice of work. Its flavour of doomladen gothic horror is far more operatic than liturgical, and it's at least good music, unlike much of that in some of Verdi's hastily penned earlier operas. Even so, the zealot in me would have preferred to see something by, say, Rameau, or Meyerbeer or ...

The staging of sacred works not intended for staging does seem to have become fashionable in recent years. Those massive pillars of the baroque repertoire, Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions, have both been subjected to the opera director's creative skills. The St John was directed by Deborah Warner at English National Opera early in 2000, the St Matthew by Jonathan Miller in 1997. Both were successes. Perhaps such stagings help to make more universally relevant - through a process of what amounts to secularisation - the story of the Passion. But both raise an important question: if a producer feels the need to express visually a piece of great music written simply for listening to, is he saying that music can no longer do its job by itself? Have we reached a position where our attention-spans have been so seriously compromised that we cannot focus upon the sound alone but need the visual crutch?

Such thoughts worried me deeply as, last month, I approached the venerable Handel and Haydn Society of Boston's new version of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, staged - which in this case means choreographed - by the Chinese-born American resident Chen Shi-Zheng, conducted by that personable and gifted Welshman Grant Llewellyn, and destined to visit Sadler's Wells next September. This, again, is music which says all it has to say in the sounds it makes. Chen surely had no business interpreting it visually - moreover using dancers from three different Asian traditions - thereby distracting our ears and confusing our aesthetic sensitivities. Or so I thought. But in the event I was utterly overwhelmed by Chen's hypnotic, moving achievement.

Chen's biography is a remarkable one. As a child of intellectuals, he witnessed at first hand the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. His father was sent to the countryside for 're-education'. His mother, a teacher in a Catholic school, was killed by a stray bullet as he stood beside her, aged only four. Thereafter he was taken in by a troupe of travelling Hunan funeral singers and learned traditional dancing and theatre skills with them. …

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