Monday, December 3, 2007

British Bangers

Recently, while in London, I was able to attend performances of two works (each considered to be an important operatic achievement by a famous British composer) which lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of opera as musical theatre. Even though some 230 years may have elapsed between their respective world premieres, each work deals with the standard ingredients which feed the operatic art form: lust, jealousy, infidelity, unrequited love and the power of one individual to determine another's destiny.

Although each opera has a musical style which is distinctly its own, these two particular works presented stiff challenges to the director and designers who attempted to put them on the stage. The problem? How to transform these very British operas into a theatrical experience which could become relevant to today's audiences. While each opera was given a superlative physical production, one obviously scored a stronger hit with London's audiences. Curiously enough, I don't think it was the period of music which made the difference so much as the fact that, in one opera (Handel's Xerxes) the audience could genuinely sympathize with the characters onstage. Despite its contemporaneity and the inclusion of an openly-gay relationship, in the other opera (Tippett's The Knot Garden), it was difficult to care for any of the characters at all.


While I enjoy the music of George Frederic Handel immensely, I often find that after 45 minutes of listening to this composer's music, it all begins to sound suspiciously the same. Therefore, when I entered London's Coliseum Theatre to attend the English National Opera's production of Xerxes (having just arrived on a red-eye flight from Houston with only enough time for a brief nap before curtain) I fully expected to nod out at some point during the performance. Much to my surprise and delight, that never happened. Instead, I was treated to one of the most delightfully droll productions I've witnessed in years; a highly theatrical interpretation of a baroque opera which not only proved to be extremely amusing to a modern audience but enabled the singers to utilize most of Handel's florid ornamentations as a solid source of dramatic motivation.

Much of the credit for this singular achievement goes to designer David Fielding and director Nicholas Hytner, who relocated the action in Handel's Xerxes to London's 18th-century Vauxhall Gardens while poking great fun at the stuffiness of British menservants and the foolishness of egotistic lovers. Fielding's set and costume designs cheekily mocked the sculptured greenery of traditional English gardens (at one point a gardener kept shearing an extremely tall hedge as someone threw tufts of Astroturf onto the stage). Kay Lawrence's stylized movements for the ghoulishly made-up, Charles Addams-like chorus added to the overall sense of fun and intrigue.

With Charles Mackerras on the podium, the cast of six principals delivered an evening of superb opera theatre in which most of the trills and roulades in the score were put to careful dramatic use by the director, Nicholas Hynter. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Ann Murray (singing another pants role in drag) was cruelly selfish: her Xerxes breathed coloratura fire while making life miserable for everyone around him. The object of Xerxes' desire, Romilda, was sung by soprano Valerie Masterson with a great sense of baroque style and personal involvement.

The role of Arsamenes (Romilda's true love) was sung with fantastic gusto by Christopher Robson, the countertenor who starred in Philip Glass's Akhnaten several years ago. Robson's performance -- which was not only beautifully acted but featured several bravura sections for a coloratura countertenor -- was one of those spectacular triumphs of baroque singing that leaves an audience begging for more. It was also one of the few times I've ever seen a countertenor cast as a truly aggressive and butch male lover -- an interesting switch with an enticing undercurrent of genderfuck sexuality.

The three leads received sturdy support from Lesley Garrett's Atalanta (Romilda's sister who would like to jump Arsamenes' bones); Rodney Macann's Ariodates (the pompously idiotic commander of Xerxes' army) and Christopher Booth-Jones's Elviro (Arsamenes' loyal servant). Together, these six artists delivered an evening of ensemble work whose musicianship and dramatic clarity was nothing less than exhilirating. If an American opera company is looking for a solid production of a baroque work to brighten its repertoire, this Xerxes is the one to start bidding for.


If I was less impressed by the Royal Opera's production of Tippett's The Knot Garden it was not for any lack of solid production values. Conducted by Sian Edwards (the first woman to assume the podium at Covent Garden) and, like ENO's Xerxes, directed by Nicholas Hytner, this opera just didn't grab me. Although I enjoyed The Midsummer Marriage when it was performed here in San Francisco several years ago, Tippett's music for The Knot Garden (which received its world premiere from the Royal Opera on December 2, 1970) left me stone cold (there are long periods when the composer's score makes Philip Glass sound like Beethoven).

Therefore, with so little music to remember, let's take a quick gander at the plot. During the course of the opera's three short acts, Faber, his wife Thea, their ward, Flora and Thea's sister, Denise, all square off and have at each other while Mel (a black writer) and his white male lover (Dov) thrash out their failing relationship under the watchful glance of an analyst named Mangus. Faber, who is sexually attracted to his under-aged ward, also finds himself curiously turned on by Dov (who occasionally howls like a wounded dog). Meanwhile, Denise (looking very much like a butch feminist peace marcher) and Mel (who is oppressed by his color) end up sympathizing with each other about their identities as members of oppressed minorities.

As one figure confronts another, Tippett asks his characters to indulge in some Shakespearean play-acting by mixing in roles from The Tempest so that Mangus becomes Prospero, Flora becomes Miranda, Mel becomes Caliban, Faber becomes Ferdinand and Dov becomes Ariel. In the end, Mel leaves with Denise and the other characters in the opera (who have really played out some kind of allegorical fantasy in Mangus' mind) drift off.

The most encouraging thing about this production was Bob Crowley's set, which rested atop a huge revolving turntable that had been positioned above a hydraulic lift. In the first act, the audience saw a seemingly innocuous maze of low-lying hedges but, in Act II, the hydraulic lift and turntable went into action, revealing the various characters as they groped their way through the plexiglass maze which rested under the hedges. Perhaps they were supposed to be exploring the tunnels of Mangus's mind beneath the fertile green waves of his hair. It beats the shit out of me.

Although Rodney Macann (Faber), Anne Howells (Thea), Anna Steiger (Denise), Arthur Thompson (Mel), Christopher Gillett (Dov) and Alan Opie (Mangus) all worked to make the evening an artistic success, the only performer I found interesting was Linda Kitchen (Flora) who brought more life and vitality to her character than anyone else onstage. Had it been humanly possible, I would have left the Royal Opera House whistling the music generated by Crowley's wonderful revolving set.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 8, 1988.

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