The Creation (Royal Albert Hall); Maria Stuarda (Covent Garden); Dalibor (Coliseum); Orpheus in the Underworld (Coliseum)
New Statesman, Jan. 1978
Twelfth Night seems a suitable time for some reflections on opera considered as a secular religion, combining such heady delights as drink and sport with the hushed reverence of worship. The crowds emerge bright-eyed and festive, trolling confused snatches of song; as if the opera house were a public house, with glasses just as stimulating. The roars for a Sutherland would easily drown those for any Argyle; there are louder cheers for a top note than for an equally well-struck home goal. Even more impressive are the ecstatic silences. A fortnight ago, as the soaring sopranos symbolised the hovering of eagles or angels, it was so quiet you could have heard a pinion droop. Most telling of all are the final moments of self-abasement, the standing ovations that tremble on the verge of kneeling; as if a real miracle had been performed, not just indifferent repertory in jaded revival.
The reason is that people crave for meaning and value in their lives, even at the price of abandoning all rational criteria. Fanatical opera-lovers, like regular churchgoers, are rarely disposed to complain about the services they get; their aim is simply that of celebration, by means of appropriate ritual. Let sterile intellectuals claim that God is missing, presumed dead, and that Nietzsche has been held for questioning. No matter, so long as we have opera to prove that men and women are all really lords and ladies, kings and queens, gods and goddesses, with truly significant parts to play on the cosmic stage. Many operas and all oratorios aim even higher, at being not merely larger than life, but stronger than death. Perhaps that traditional first-night excitement and dressing-up symbolises the pious hope that we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. On any assessment, the lit stage offers the darkened auditorium a glimpse of ideal beauty and order.
Like any heaven, this can easily seem remote and unbelievable; it can also prove a mere mirage. Yet the public's faith can be justified by works in which the word has been made music. As an example, let's begin with The Creation, and Haydn's “there was light” motif. The most natural and elemental of all keys, C major, is suddenly turned on with a great spreading blaze of sound. In performance by the St Bartholomew's Hospital Choral Society and the English Chamber Orchestra, under the skilled and sensitive direction of Robert Anderson, the effect was somewhat dimmed by a choral power-cut; but the main point was electrifying enough. Then Jill Gomez struck a long lustrous high C that clearly typified the lofty sky (or “th’ ethereal vaults”, as the stilted text has it - a revised version is surely long overdue). Such verbo-musical connections enabled later song-writers and opera-composers to illuminate the mind by direct currents of dramatic feeling and action.
One reason fur the modern success of Donizetti's long-neglected Maria Stuarda is its effective use of tonal and rhythmic contrast to embody the bitter conflict between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of England. Mary's character was perfectly drawn in Joan Sutherland's exquisite vocal portrayal, all effortless cantilena for natural emotions and shining top notes for high ideals. The part of Elizabeth sounded harder in every sense; her crowned head is all the more uneasy for being in two minds. Even her tessitura is torn between low harsh tyrannical tones and the womanly tenderness of its higher octave. Huguette Tourangeau had to force her fine voice somewhat in order to act out these royal tensions and their breaking-points, which were also graphically conveyed by sharp movements and gestures like the lash of a snapped string. I thought her performance worthy to stand beside Joan Sutherland's, whether on stage or at curtain-call. The Earl of Leicester was Stuart Burrows. His voice often shone, but his demeanour and delivery seemed to lack the cutting edge needed for effective impact. Richard Bonynge conducted with loving and expert care; the sets and staging were none the less convincing for being economical and unpretentious.
But it was essentially the two queens who won over a full house. At the Coliseum, even the King was played as if his opponent Dalibor (John Mitchinson) held all the trumps. On face value, Smetana's score may stand higher than Donizetti's; but the latter has all the tricks. Smetana's music is more programme than opera; it holds up the action even more than Wenzig's inept libretto, which itself is hardly more than a confused recollection of Trovatore and Fidelio. Tom Hammond's translation was no doubt as competent as usual; but for all that could be heard through the orchestral sound unleashed by Charles Mackerras most of it might just as well have been kept in Czech. The few audible words were nullified by the production; thus petitioners at court were made to turn their backs on their sovereign while singing such phrases as “I stand before you” and “behold my tears”.
I thought Orpheus in the Underworld, was equally unrealistic, in its very different way. Offenbach's gods end demi-gods, like his demi-vierges, have to be treated with proper respect; they are, after all, human beings. This adaptation takes an amusingly Latin text and butchers it to make a Coliseum holiday. One fatal blow was the translation. In the spoken dialogue, the joviality of the gods passed all mortal endurance. The sung verse was either inaudible or else weighed down with slack rhythms and complacent non-rhymes like “motion/emotion/commotion”. The very French tempi of Clive Timms were arguably too nimble for any English verses, let alone those with feet or lead. The production grove to outdo and embellish the original satire, and succeeded only in travestying a travesty, for example in the graceless clowning of the infant Orpheans. Some agreeable souvenirs of Offenbach were provided by the musicianship of Sally Durgess as Diana; but mainly the talented cast, in particular Terry Jenkins (Orpheus) and Joy Roberts (Cupid), are wasted in such a pantomime. The most living character, I thought, was the dead John Styx, because his haunting refrains were not sent up but sensitively sung, by Stuart Kale. It would be fair to, add that many of the ladies made a good case for the use of binoculars; and there is always keen pleasure to be had from the excellent design and lighting effects at the Coliseum.