A ‘statement production’ transfers to Opera Bastille and suffers

La Fanciulla del West

G. Puccini

Opera Bastille, Feb 1st 2014 19.30

Nina Stemme – Minnie
Claudio Sgura – Jack Rance
Marco Berti – Dick Johnson

Carlo Rizzi – Conductor
Nikolaus Lehnhoff – Director

Cognitive dissonance is described as the conflict arising when two conflicting concepts are entertained in the mind simultaneously. The February 1st performance of Fanciulla del West I had the good fortune to attend could well be a textbook case of what happens when directorial control outstrips restraint. Concepts clash and, as here, the end product invariably suffers.
At first interval the girl sat next to me and her father basically said the equivalent of “I haven’t much idea what is going on” not because the action onstage was unintelligible, but because treatments collided. Where else but in this bizarre production do cowboys face bandits, both of the moustachioed and armed “andale! andale!” kind – the frontiersman’s bogeyman of choice – but also square up to the electronic gambling type of one arm bandit? Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’’s West is like some kind of parallel world where TV-watching maids and trailer trash cowpokes coexist in a society still living within the tropes of “The Wild West”. The result is rather jarring. (It doesn’t help that every man in the show wore basically the same outfit, either.)

Audience receptivity is a precious commodity, in limited supply. (One might rightly argue that opera audiences have an especially limited supply.) A capacity to be patient in the face of re-interpretation (and indeed, even outright travesty/re-writing/editing) exists in most opera-going hearts, but I think audiences would rather have their directors understand that this merely the obverse to a very healthy respect for tradition. For, at what cost making the old, new? Many of us genuinely enjoy innovation, whilst rejecting some productions not because they try new things but because they are artistically inert, misguided – or as here, confusing (and by the end of the show, almost insulting to text and audience.) Innovation treads a line perilously close to mere novelty, vapid attention seeking, empty showboating.
The night started quite well.

A traditional bar, a pretty well-sung chorus for the men longing for their homes, girl likes boy, boy is a no-good hobo/bandit, boy also likes girl. Stemme and Sgura acquitted themselves well, though the chorus seemed a little out of sync with each other, some members a little quick off the mark, which one could attribute to first night eagerness. (I am however spoiled by recent memories of the ENO’s magnificent chorus) Of greater concern is the habit of jerky background movement in time to the music, one I don’t enjoy too much but so it goes.) As an aside, I felt Stemme was holding back a little in places, but then it was opening night and she probably didn’t want to blow her voice out.

After first interval, Act two opened to applause and laughter, as were revealed the probably by now famous “mobile home”wherein Minnie resides, framed by two very large Bambi statues lodged, with a lighting scheme suggestive of aurora borealis. The interior or said cabin was all done up in grotesque pink, bed bedecked with teddy bears, suggestive of what we’ll charitably call Minnie’s status as a singleton. Nothing too crazy, I suppose. However, for some reason when the back wall of the home dropped away, just before Rance and Minnie play cards to determine Johnson’s fate, this was too much for some audience members, and I think booing and laughter broke out even then. By the time Johnson had been found, and the second interval begun, the audience were fairly amiable, perhaps we had been deliberately lulled to expect nothing further out of the ordinary. How wrong we were.

Thus at the opening of Act Three we blithely, earnestly clapped (with a smattering of gasps and boos) as the curtain revealed a heap of cars, a mountain of scrap metal teetering above the stage. But alas, our eagerness was too keenly given, as what followed was one of the most bizarre single hours in my opera-going career, an hour where the Lehnhoff squandered goodwill, polarising his audience utterly, baffling those not offended, and offending those not bemused.

Thus no sooner had their ziggurat of scrap been revealed than the lynch mob of the last act pop out of the car windows, hood and trunks (bonnets and boots, for my countrymen – and not the bonnets of Austen or Brontë either) like singing Stig-of-the-Dumps, these scrap-loving Niebelungs clambering over the hulks, as they find out Johnson has been caught. Here I was particularly impressed with one brave soul leaping from car to car very high up, with no safety equipment in evidence. (Try doing that in “’elf and Safety” conscious England…ENO take note!)

After much baying for bandito blood, we hear Minnie in the distance, coming to rescue her man. The lynching and general angst changes on a dime: the hillbillyscrapheap parts in half to reveal, what? nothing less than a…“Diamonds-are-a-Girls-Best-Friend” stairway, to where else? some kind of Heaven, cloudy and fluffy, (kindly provided by video backdrop. I was here reminded of the Met’s lights-and-moving-doodad Ring staging.)

Previously Minnie asks intercession from God, but here is a total ex cathedra, dues-ex-machina slap in the face to we audience-goers: God doesn’t descend (he is, as ever firmly silent on all matters Earthly.) Instead, well, Minnie herself does, and not just the familiar leather jerkined Minnie of our Act One, the brassy bargirl of the title, nor the Minnie in faintly Butterflyesque sleeping gear from Act Two, all nervous and guileful. No sir. Instead (and oh, such glee from Lehnhoff, one imagines,) it is a Minnie/Stemme in full Jessica Rabbit sequins and cleavage sashaying down the stairway with nary a wobble, a megawatt grin on face as she confronts her adoring public. The girl firing her gun into the air in the promo pics becomes transformed, Swan-like, into some glossy stereotype of womanhood. Stemme’s dazzling smile here was not just fine acting – of which Stemme is more than capable – but true joy in playing a screen siren: who wouldn’t want to look like a million dollars and win back her man like this, cowing a whole heap of angry gun totting rooting-tooting dudes, singing her heart out for us all? Thus does Minnie stop the slaying of Johnson, Stemme/Minnie stealing the show in process through pure out of the blue shock value.

Happily for us though, the fun and games didn’t end there: there was more.

After gliding like some serene Tarzan away from scaffold of death (a car plonked on another car) to the desert floor on the rope due to hang him by the neck, Johnson disappears in the chaos of Minnie’s appearance only to reappear moments later on top of the same staircase, but by now be-decked in a tuxedo. This sharp-suiter milks the dazed applause and laughter building from his entrance. As the music crescendos for his closing Aria he has become like someone in full gameshow host mode, he descends, rills the gilded staircase, and then (how I wish I was making this up) and then, in the background nothing less than Leo the MGM lion comes roaring his way onto the video backdrop, accelerating from the horizon to foreground – whizzing into prominence like the Loony tune idents of old – only this time it is not Porky Pig a- ge-a-ge-ing his way onto the screen, but that famous lion. As Johnson/Berti gleefully bounds down the staircase, the lion begins, as was his wont, to roar, but in silence – which declamation in a hilarious and probably fully intentional coup de théâtre begins to synchronise with Berti’s singing – both mouths open, the noise from one very fine indeed but, and one suspects this is the keyword for the whole production – “subverted” by the happenings in the video projection. When Leo came roaring to life, madly edited to roar almost three times faster than normal, and on a loop too, my head was in my hands, shaking side-to-side, my goodwill expended. I uttered a quiet “oh no”, which is truly rare for me, as my fund of goodwill in the face of tripe is usually bottomless. The boos at the end were probably fully justified.

Granted, one cannot subsist on tradition forever, but effort to mine Pucinni’s vein for innovative gold here falls somewhat short. Clearly the Bastille audience didn’t favour this production. I am quite sure that the loud boos ringing out only quieted when their owners tired of trying to sustain their outrage. The booers are self-satisfied enough to realise their noises are absurd, offensive, almost “barbarian” – that they are noises of effrontery lacking any subtle expression beyond volume, from which booing gains its force. Yet when at last the applause began to drown out those inarticulate and boorish cries, it was a victory for (high) art. Still, were the booers as gifted in voice as Stemme or Leo, or less quick to make for the exits in a huff, they probably would have gone on all night.

Conductor Carlo Rizzi was booed as he came on stage – sad, as I think the Opera Orchestra did ok under his slightly wayward baton. Someone I presume was Lehnhoff was booed as he came onstage with whom I presume was Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes) or perhaps she was some Opera Bastille official. (I was right at the back of the parterre.) Thank God the guns in the show weren’t real, else we’d have had dead audience members..

In sum, this was for me an artistically brave production (let’s salute the guts it took to mount something this nuts) but it was a production spoiled by its own aspiration to subversion. Originally conceived for Opera Amsterdam, the piece had a talent in mind: Eva Maria Westbroek, and as with other productions conceived as a vehicle for specific talent, some things do not quite translate. (As an aside, the recent production of Manon by Royal Opera House in London suffered from this same transplant rejection, Ermonela Jaho had difficulty navigating the sexual dimensions of Laurent Pelly’s demands and as Rupert Christensen in his review, the thing never caught light. Netrebko was more than comfortable throughout. From naïf to cocotte to death’s door dier, she was more Manon than Jaho ever was.) But, back to our Golden Girl, Stemme. Her “Love Duet” (Un bacio, bacio solo) with Marco Berti’s Johnson was wonderfully shaded and paced, but throughout, one got the impression that this Minnie was rather more smitten of her Johnson than he was of her. Chemistry is, excuse the reference, like gold-dust: some dancing/singing pairings have it, some may fake it and fail or succeed accordingly, and some do not even try. I would venture to say that Stemme and Johnson tried very well indeed, but I was not witnessing besottedness unfold. But then with a story as batty as this, could it ever be believable? Still, the gentleman in front of me conducted and emoted his way through the duet with aplomb – to the great annoyance of the lady beside him.

Thus at the close, the crowd were still clapping in defence of the music and the singers, but the house drew the curtain even as the cast tried for another call. A sad affair to see their eagerness to appreciate appreciation stopped in its tracks.

The conflict here was not just text versus interpretation, but stronger: directorial vision versus audience tolerance. I’d take the machinations of someone like Calixto Bieito over Lehnhoff’s attention seeking choices as Bieito has an intelligent eye for drama, and an abiding care for artistic integrity. However shocking and novel his stagings are, one feels throughout that they are undergirt by conviction and genuine respect for the music and libretto. One feels that Lehnoff doesn’t treat the piece with respect, but as I am sure he would argue, he has no need to. We live in the age where everything is a “text” and “texts” are commodities, fungible, disposable. Bieito for one understands that any piece is malleable: Lehnoff approaches Puccini as if it the man were his servant. There will ever thus be an essential tension between piece and director composer and the lure of “artistic vision”.

I’d favour more of the same, but with a greater eye for making scene serve text. If nothing else, this was a refreshing look at what opera can and cannot tolerate. It throws into review the fact that Puccini’s talents can survive even the most bizarre interpretive excursions. Lucky cinema-goers in France get to experience this on the 10th February. Prepare to be bemused.

Obligatory cellphone pic

Obligatory cellphone pic

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4 comments

  1. Very detailed and thought provoking account indeed. I’m fond of innovative production as the next intelligent opera goer (loved the ROH Parsifal for instance) but when a director simply uses a composers work to shock and not to tell the story, it does annoy me – especially when you consider newcomers to the opera who might have no idea what is going on – at least experienced opera goers might be able to piece together the plot.
    Spot on about your Manon comments also. It is very difficult to revive the more personality led productions with a different cast – less rehearsal time and very different personalities contribute certainly. Sometimes it works and sometimes not – Ailyn Perez who took over for the last two performances of Manon just about made it her own.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Karen. Apologies for the delay in replying! I think you hit the nail on the head. Really this piece only set out to surprise and discombobulate. I had never seen the piece before, so some parts were a little bizarre once the froth and Regie were added in! I am glad you saw what I meant about Personality led opera performances too. (Has it ever been thus?? I don’t know!) I wish I could have seen perez as Manon. I can see her as a more gamine and then more sexually freed woman than Jaho managed. Thankfully I think I am seeing her in summer opposite her husband in La traviata. Now there’s an interesting pairing. A marketing department’s dream!

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  2. Its a litttle bit sad, to read so much missunderstanding. I was today in the performance: No Buuuhs at all, wonderful applaus,… the audience loves it, scool classes next to me, loved it , they had great fun, little children too; with the kitschy, funny, but lively ideas. To see old fashion stuff,- watch old movies.
    The article is well described, but a big lack of looking behind ( Wallstreet- Money in the Bank- In God we trust- American Dream of Life in Rosa…. – Happy End alla America….just some ideas…). I saw some singers from other operas there, they seemed to like it, they left with a big smile on their face. Me too. Thinking of a realistic staging, I would vomit. Would not come to see that bullshit. The story is not the best, so this ideas, were realy working. YOU have to see it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Giardino. I fully agree that sometimes a brave direction helps. Here I really thought the piece was almost “disrespectful” though. However, if the kids liked it, and the audience liked it, then everyone has done the right thing! I agree too that my review missed out the big banks idea, the In God We Trust idea, and the symbol of the banknote. I can see what the director was aiming at, but these ideas did not come together into a full picture for me. I wonder if the best way might be to keep the piece of music and libretto sacred, and to respect it, but to look at being innovative too.

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