What’s Opera, Doc? For Stefan Herheim, it’s clearly not a comfortable evening’s entertainment – this first London showing of Herheim’s brilliant 2016 production for Dutch National Opera was rapturously received last night, although for some the reaction was a pseudo-world-weary “I hated it. But then, I knew I would.” Well, some do like to suffer – but some are enthralled by such a display of stagecraft and understanding of the nature of the creative artist as we saw last night.
It’s not a cliché to look at an opera with one eye on the process of inspiration, although it certainly is to condemn such interpretation as one. The Romantic concept of the artist, continually composing and imagining his work under the influence of his characters, who are created from his own life as well as his imagination, is well expressed in one of Keats’ letters, where he says that “A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity – he is continually in for and filling some other body.” The same is true of composers, and in this production we see the two sides of the ‘Romantic hero’ – the idealistic, noble Yeletsky paired with the person of the composer himself, and the wild-eyed obsessive Gherman.
The singing of this heroic pair is of very contrasting standard. The Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov makes an impressive house debut as Prince Yeletsky / Tchaikovsky, giving his one aria the poetic fervour it demands, phrasing with elegance and filling out the long lines with power to spare, but Aleksandrs Antonenko disappoints as Gherman – he has the right swivel-eyed anguish for the part, but on this occasion he seemed awkward on stage and his singing was often over-loud and uncertain in pitch. Pushkin’s emphasis is thus doubly reversed on this stage, but perhaps it is natural in this context for the artist to prevail over his creation.
John Lundgren shared the vocal honours with Stoyanov – Tomsky is always a gift of a part for a confident bass-baritone, and this was an outstanding assumption of the swaggering Count, singing his ‘set piece’ with show-stopping panache. Anna Goryachova was a similarly remarkable Paulina, her stage presence engaging and her singing rich with clarity and definition.
The two leading ladies were as contrasting as the men; Felicity Palmer’s wonderfully evocative singing about the glittering past she lived, her curmudgeonly grumbling about the youth of today and her sheer presence in whatever she wore, reminded us that she is unequalled in this role. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Wagnerian voice seemed a little out of condition on this occasion, and her Liza, whilst acted with her customary commitment, was at times a disappointment.
The ‘Pastorale’ was conceived as an interlude of rococo serenity and poise, contrasting with the surrounding madness, and Herheim staged it persuasively, using Tchaikovsky’s loving homage to Mozart in a presentation evocative of Papageno and Papagena. Beautifully and quite movingly sung by Anna Goryachova and Jacquelyn Stucker, it might not exactly have the delicacy and elegance of Stuart Hopps’ choreography in the ‘old’ ENO production by David Pountney, but it certainly made more sense than the insulting one in that house’s more recent presentation of the work. As for its concluding moments, what do those shocked by them imagine all those ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa-pas’ in Die Zäuberflöte are about?
The casting of lesser parts was solid, most notably in Louise Winter’s Governess and Harry Nicoll’s Major-Domo, and Alexander Kravets and Tigran Martirossian made strong impressions as Chekalinsky and Surin respectively.
Philipp Fürhofer’s design was splendidly evocative of the gloomy atmosphere of the society being depicted, and Bernd Purkrabek’s lighting lent either lambent glow or oppressive shadow, as required. The stage picture is a rather grey one, with all those incarnations of the composer in muted battleship and the ladies in governessy gowns, but it does fit the production well.
The chorus, under William Spaulding, was on absolutely top form, the tenors and sopranos sounding particularly lusty, and all with crisp diction and committed characterization. The members of Tiffin Children’s Chorus and Tiffin Boys’ Choir were both disciplined and seemingly natural in their contributions. The spectacular close of the first half was much embellished by members of the chorus singing from the aisles of the stalls – some of us were handed song sheets to allow participation, but not many of us are fluent in Russian so it was mostly a chorus number – but very fine at that.
Sir Antonio Pappano conducted a wonderful performance of the score, the orchestra playing for him as if their lives depended upon it, and bringing out every nuance of despair and drama in the music. It was remarkable to watch him as he almost became part of the production, so alive to the singers’ needs and so much involved in the phrasing of the woodwind and brass. Even if you don’t especially care for the production or the singers, it would still be worth going for the playing.
Herheim’s concept of Tchaikovsky and Yeletsky as one entity makes perfect sense, as does the notion that when a poet or composer is at work, his characters tend to ‘take over’ and influence his music as he commits it to paper. This sometimes has a distancing effect, but more often it reminds us of the part which his own life played in Tchaikovsky’s works, both in the sense of his wish to satisfy the demands of familial and general Russian society in his time, and his conflicted personal dilemmas. He wrote to his brother Modest (the opera’s librettist) that he had been “overcome by such intense pity for Hermann that I burst out crying” – the closing scene here is quite muted in that it conceals the inevitable suicide, but such is the magnificence of the playing that we are swept away by it nevertheless. Well, what did you expect in an opera – a happy ending?