Staging the classics: the radical, and the unintelligent

As You Like It ends with multiple marriages, and the god of marriage, Hymen himself, comes down to officiate. It is an ending permeated with joy. Now, let us imagine that in a production of this play under the auspices of a respected body – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, say – the director decides that marriage, far from being joyful and something worth celebrating, is essentially dark and tragic; and, because Shakespeare does not depict it as such in this play, he interpolates at this point some of the darkest passages from Othello.

It doesn’t really work, does it? I don’t mean the interpolation of lines from Othello into As You Like It (although I don’t think that works either): I mean my rather ham-fisted attempt at parody in the opening paragraph above. For to parody something, you have to exaggerate, and sadly, what I am attempting to parody cannot be exaggerated. For in the current production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at the English National Opera, director Calixto Bieito, believing that the reunion between Leonore and Florestan should not be joyful (although Beethoven’s music at this point unambiguously tells us that is is), has interpolated at this point ten or so minutes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. And I am left racking my brains trying to think of a parody that could exaggerate the sheer stupidity of this.

However, in talking about “sheer stupidity”, I am going very much against the grain: to object to a production such as this is to brand oneself a hopeless conservative who wants mere cosiness rather than a drama that challenges and stimulates. In this context, any argument beginning with “I’m no conservative, but…” is self-defeating: nothing one says afterwards is likely to be taken seriously. Now, I don’t think I’m particularly conservative in these matters: if I may be so immodest as to quote myself from my previous post:

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Other than the clumsy repetition of “merely” (one only notices these things once one has hit the “post” button!), I stand by that. I went on later in that post to say that what matters is not so much whether a staging is “conservative” or “radical”, but, rather, whether it is intelligent. And interpolating a passage from the slow movement of a late quartet – a passage that communicates a profound introspection and inwardness – at the very point where the music (composed by Ludwig himself specifically for this point) communicates boundless joy, strikes me as supremely unintelligent.

However, the production has been receiving good reviews: here is a typical one. In the course of this review, we are directed to an interview with Bieito in which, we are told, he “gives his reasons”. Except that he doesn’t give his reasons. He doesn’t explain why the reunion between Leonore and Florestan is not presented as joyful when Beethoven composed music at this point that very definitely expresses joy.

There are many other idiocies also in that interview – a lot of stuff about office buildings of glass and mirrors, Borgesian labyrinths, questioning who is really making decisions in our society, and so on – all tremendously fascinating, no doubt; but, sadly, there’s not a single word explaining what any of this has to do with Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Of course, it can be said, quite rightly, that it is foolish, and, indeed, somewhat glib, to speak of the “true meaning” of any major work of art: meanings of major works of art are rarely obvious, and good productions, both conservative and radical, can bring to light elements of the work that one had previously not considered. I agree enthusiastically. But if an alleged insight cannot be related to any part of the text of the original – and also, in the case of opera, to any part of the music – then I can’t for the life of me see how such an insight can be considered an insight into the work. If that makes me a hidebound conservative, then I’m afraid I have no option but to accept the title, albeit unwillingly: for I do agree with Pierre Boulez (in a quote so famous that I can’t seem to find it on Google Search!) that when one sets oneself to be the guardian of a pure tradition, one ends up as a guardian merely of a mausoleum.

However, it will be objected that I am criticising a production I haven’t seen. This is true. Neither have I seen Calixto Bieito’s earlier production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which opened with a lot of people sitting on toilets having a crap. Neither, indeed, have I seen a great many other instances of similar “re-interpretation”, where the very fact of people taking exception is seen as evidence of success. I don’t, as it happens, fully subscribe to the contention that one must experience something before one is entitled to criticise it, if only because one does not need to eat a turd to know it tastes like shit; but nonetheless, let me focus now on a production by Bieito that I have actually seen: Don Giovanni at the English National Opera, some twelve years ago.

Here, the drama of Mozart and of da Ponte was presented as a bunch of lads and laddettes having a wild night out. Donna Elvira is here a drunken floozie, staggering around a bar, gulping down all the unfinished drinks she can find – not, perhaps, what we might expect given how she is perceived by Donna Anna and by Don Ottavio (“Cieli! Che aspetto nobile! Che dolce maesta!”) She, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio, are, like Don Giovanni, mere lads and laddettes on a wild night out, thus eliminating any moral distinction that might have existed in Mozart’s opera.

As for the plot itself, there are some significant changes: as in Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni kills Dona Anna’s father in the opening scene; but, as not in Mozart’s version, he first rogers the not unwilling Donna Anna; and at the end of the opera, where, in Mozart’s version, the dead spirit of the murdered man appears as a statue to drag Don Giovanni into Hell, here, the dead man appears merely as a drug-induced hallucination: Don Giovanni’s downfall comes afterwards, as the other characters tie him to a chair and, in the manner of Murder on the Orient Express,  queue up in orderly fashion to stab him to death. New insight into the opera? Admirers of this production, and there are many, say so. But once again, I can’t see what there is either in da Ponte’s libretto or in Mozart’s music that can justify any of this. In the opera (as opposed to Bieito’s production), we are never sure whether or not Don Giovanni has had his way with Donna Anna before killing her father, and neither are we sure, assuming he had, whether she had a been willing partner; this ambiguity gives the drama an uncertain edge, and I really can’t see what is gained by removing this ambiguity – although I can see that much is lost. In the course of the opera (once again, as opposed to the production), various people try, with singular lack of success, to revenge themselves on Don Giovanni, but it is eventually only a supernatural force that achieves what mere mortals can’t. There are many legitimate ways of interpreting this, but changing it to its opposite so there is nothing to interpret surely isn’t amongst them.

One may, of course, have one’s own opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-writing: my opinion happens to be that it is trite and unimaginative: a lot of bad boys and girls boozing and copulating and tripping on drugs is not in itself likely material for compelling drama. But that’s just my opinion: I don’t insist upon it. But whatever one’s opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-write, why anyone should go to see a work advertised as being by Mozart and da Ponte, and see instead something entirely different, I really can’t imagine.

And what does Bieto himself have to say about all this? He talks about it here:

That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe…

Yes, I know, I know. But once again, he is remarkably quiet on how these typical Friday night happenings relate to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Lads and laddettes having a wild time of it on a Friday night really is pretty boring stuff: Don Giovanni isn’t.

So why does Bieito do this? Here he explains, in his own words:

And this is all done to provoke my audience, to make them think.

So now, thanks to Bieito, I’ve thunk. And, having thunk, I find I have no problem with Bieito taking a radical approach to these great works: I really have no desire to see safe, conventional stagings that put these works reverentially behind glass, as if they were museum pieces. No – I’m fine with radical reinterpretations. But I do, I must admit, have a problem with radical re-writing, and, especially, with Bieito (and other directors of similar inclination) re-writing these works in such a dull, trite, and supremely unintelligent manner: that seems to me unforgivable. Whatever Bieito’s vision may be, when I pay good money to see operas by Mozart or by Beethoven, or, indeed, by anyone else, it is not Bieito’s vision I’m interested in.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. How interesting. The whole post is interesting, but I want to focus on one small but crucial point.

    I was surprised to read that Bielto had messed with the music of Fidelio, but not what he left untouched – the singing. These supposedly radical directors do not so much as breathe on the singing.

    If they were truly radical, that is exactly where they would go. They would rearrange parts, use unconventional or even ugly voices, add and subtract instruments, change the lyrics. They don’t dare.

    I understand this would destroy the economic basis of opera performance. The poor opera fans, so desperate to hear that music delivered intact that they put up with any other kind of abuse.

    Reply

    • Indeed – if one is truly radical, then why not have non-operatic singers? Or even people who can’t sing? There is a limit to how radical one can be, and that, as you say, is determined by box office!

      I must admit I’m not comfortable with nailing my colours to the conservative mast in this matter, as I have honestly been bored by many conservative performances as well: opera is drama, after all, and not merely a medley of well-known tunes put across by singers wearing pretty costumes. Any prformance has to be an interpretation. But an interpretation has to be able to justify itself with reference to the text (and, in opera, with reference to the music), and Bieito’s “justification” for his approach is essentially that what he depicts on stage are reflections of the real world. To which my response can only be “So what?”

      If he has the nerve to put people on stage who aren’t trained opera singers, then I’ll admit that he is, indeed, radical.

      Reply

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