15 December, 2005Issue 5.1EuropeMusicThe ArtsTheatre

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Much Ado About Nothüng

Kristin Anderson

Siegfried by Richard Wagner
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Director: Keith Warner
Music Director: Antonio Pappano
2, 7, 10, 14, 18, 22 October 2005

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Gerald Barry
English National Opera
Director: Richard Jones
Conductor: Andre de Ridder
From 16 September 2005

Much has been made of Keith Warner’s new production of the Ring cycle, and justifiably so. His is a jejune retelling, abrasively gimmicky and filled with crass over-attention to detail commingled with blindness to the resulting silliness.

In fact, for a latter-day parable of frail gods and heroic men, Warner’s production is redolent with the frailties of man. Hubris and sycophantic populism collide in its design, mingling a futuristic minimalism—lots of steel and white, and oddities like a downed Messerschmitt whose propeller fuels the bellows of the forge—with an infantile insistence on actualizing every last symbol (hardly necessary given Wagner’s own proclivities). The Woodbird not only appears onstage but skips about (rather laboriously) dragging a bird-shaped kite; Mime’s final scene sees him clad in a rat’s head straight out of Toad Hall; leitmotifs drop with the delicacy of anvils. The absurdity climaxes in the dream sequence, when two children appear on stage covered in flour and wheeling a life-sized white plastic stag glued to the top of a gurney. Siegfried then clambers onto it and hugs it like a rich girl does her first pony. Overall, it is a condescendingly literal staging—except when it is not: Siegfried’s discovery of Brünnhilde occurs behind a stage-sized white panel with a small door, leaving his narration to come when he throws himself in vaudeville shock-horror back into the flood-lit portal. An odd device, given this moment’s dramatic potential.

With last spring’s Die Walküre, superb musicianship easily transcended such ridiculous staging. With Siegfried, however, we’ve no such luck. The role of Siegfried is physically exhausting, demanding that the singer be on-stage for the better part of four hours. Unfortunately John Treleaven as the eponymous hero had neither the vocal stamina nor the charisma to carry it off. Act One’s interminable forging scene is supposed to be a show-stopper, but for all of its accompanying pyrotechnics Siegfried’s triumphant cry of ‘Nothung!’ was feeble and noticeably flat. In fact, Treleaven’s tuning throughout was unreliable. More so his acting, which turned the na√Øve narcissism of Siegfried into loutish idiocy, leaving little sympathy for his exploits. And though the orchestra was serviceable, it was also a bit messy, imperfectly tuned and with the horns—important for all of those fanfares—often out of sync.

Fortunately, the other principals picked up some of the slack. Phillip Ens’ Fafner was darkly resonant and Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde was every inch the Valkyrie. And even his Gandalf costume couldn’t interfere with John Tomlinson’s interpretation of Wotan: he sung magnificently, bringing a disillusioned, decaying maturity to the role captured so energetically by Bryn Terfel earlier in the year. But that the slapstick Mime (a brilliant Gerhard Siegel) so easily stole the show hardly cemented the gravitas of Siegfried’s epic premise.

Although a Greek tragic mask occupies a prominent space on stage, the premise of the English National Opera’s recent The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is pointedly anything but epic. Usually celebrated/derided for its accessibility, this time the ENO has attempted a more adventurous tack by staging Gerald Barry’s dissonant score of Rainer Warner Fassbinder’s 1973 play. So text-dense that the Coliseum employed supertitles, Petra is a black comedy of the Abigail’s Party mold, stuffed to the breaking point with the banality of love, materialism, and middle-class pretensions.

Unlike Abigail’s Party, however, there’s no dramatic progression—no massive fall, and certainly no transformation or redemption. It’s merely a snapshot of middle-aged haute couture designer Petra von Kant (think Eva Peron meets Norma Desmond) and her love for vacuous redneck-cum-model Karen. They flirt, Petra breaks down, they shag a lot, Petra obsesses, Karen leaves, Petra remains drunk. Fassbinder’s script is appropriately colloquial and everyday. The two biggest laughs, for instance, come from an apathetic ‘Go fuck yourself’ (amusing, I suppose, simply for the venue in which it was sung?) and Petra’s bored inquiry into her daughter’s latest crush: ‘Let me guess: tall, thin, blonde and looks a little like Mick Jagger?’ Of its much-vaunted lesbianism, Petra doesn’t say much—as the playwright said about a former film of his, it could as easily have revolved around heterosexual love affair. In fact, the script doesn’t say much about anything: its point is the mere chronicle of bathetic hysteria, the tedium of a diva doing the diva thing.

The nominal lesbianism does, of course, permit an entirely female cast, which in turn allows for a registration that glibly slips into the intended shrillness. The score must be a challenging one for musicians: because it is so verbose, there is lots of recitative; because it is histrionic, there are no grand themes and many subtly-changing dissonances. Overall, it’s brassy and frantic, full of chromatics and jagged vocal lines. There’s no relief, either, no moments of contrasting gentleness: the poor, bored strings are practically non-existent; the orchestra’s dynamic remains at a rather distant, reedy forte; and there are certainly no arias. Petra’s blustery personality dominates throughout—the only other character with a noticeable theme is her secretary/slave Marlene, whose oboes, clarinet and flute peer out occasionally and then are squashed by the horns of her mistress. There are a few laughs in the music: after Karen emotionally relates her parents’ darkly comic deaths, the score camps it up, ascending chromatically into squeaky breathiness long after she’s finished. Mostly, though, the music operates by contrast. Dramatic and jarring, its operatic clichés—marching music during quarrels, fanfare during toothbrushing—reminds us again that this ain’t exactly the stuff of myth.

For the most part, the production itself was superb. Stephanie Friede as Petra stumbled across the stage with conviction, and managed to add nuance and pathos to a vocal line lacking any. Rebecca von Lipinski as Karen was a better actress than she was singer—even from a few rows back it was difficult to hear her, and while she excelled at capturing Karen’s listlessness, some of her more impassioned musical moments fell a bit flat. The other highlight was Linda Kitchen as Marlene, Petra’s personal assistant, whose perpetual silence (infuriating for a trained opera singer, surely) and deadpan expression inspired more sympathy than all of Petra’s frenzies. Director Richard Jones’ staging was entertaining: calling in a man named Ultz as set-designer, it featured a television and record player used, respectively, for comedic non sequitur (flashes of adverts, a documentary on the Masai’s tribal dance) and for a kind of meta-tedium (orchestra echoing LP echoing orchestra). The aesthetic was fun as well—the stage was meticulously mod (bare wood, bubbled patterns with space-age aspirations, greens and browns and oranges predominant), and the costumes were empire-waisted and, appropriately, none too flattering.

However, the unfortunate problem of the score, as with the play itself, is that the depiction of banality is, ultimately, banal. Appreciating its ironies and wry cultural critique only diverts for so long. In the end, the monotony of both plot (another fight, another shag, another hangover) and score (chromatic, jagged, loud—yeah, we get it) made it easy to loose attention: after a few measures of ‘Fetch me another gin and tonic’ jumping between the first and the fifth repeatedly (har.), you start thinking about Christmas shopping. And while there is something kind of charming about a desultory ‘Yeah’ sung by a resonant mezzo at full concert-hall volume, the joke wears thin rather quickly. Unlike with Siegfried, the company and the director do as best they can with a limited subject matter, but at the end of a long two hours, there’s little worth remembering. Whether Barry and Fassbinder’s invocations of Wagner (Karin’s stay at the down-at-heel Hotel Rheingold, Wotan’s hunting call during sips of tepid coffee) are employed to trivialize Wagner or to trivialize their heroine (I suspect both), Petra is very much the flip side of Covent Garden’s rusty coin.

Kristin Anderson is a DPhil student in English Literature at Exeter College, Oxford.