If opera survives, it’ll be thanks to artists and curators, not opera houses

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

It was bucketing it down in Venice, yet the beach was heaving. Families, lovebirds, warring kids, a yappy mutt, all strewn across a sandy expanse, basking on beach towels. Balls were bounced, crosswords filled, timelines scrolled. Out of this idleness, songs would bubble up, light billowy airs — speaking now to suncream mundanities, now to geological anxieties — whisked up to our ears as if on a cooling breeze.

We were in the Lithuanian Pavilion inside a dilapidated former military storehouse in a corner of north Venice, being given a god’s-eye view on an extraordinary new opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), by a Lithuanian trio: composer Lina Lapelyte, director Rugile Barzdziukaite, and writer Vaiva Grainyte. Word had spread that the Pavilion was the favourite for the Biennale’s top gong, the Golden Lion, and the queue was now an hour long. Those of us already inside, however — peering over the bannisters on to this desert island on the floor below — were not shifting.

The libretto at times echoed the throwaway small talk of John Adams’s operas. The music bobbed around in the unnerving, almost chemically-clear waters of Philip Glass — though sometimes, harmonically, it drifted further this way into twangy West End territory, or further that way into more interesting scummier synthy drones. Dictating everything was the law of flotsam and jetsam, the work chucking up a variety of disposable musical forms, deliberately unsophisticated, pretty, plasticky, mesmerising. A ‘Sunscreen Bosanova’, for example, delivered in beautifully hushed tones by a large woman to her prostrate husband: ‘Hand it here, I need to rub my legs…’, her fellow bathers adding the soothing gust of a sleepy humming chorus.

Puncturing every one of these aerated lullabies was the undertow of something darker. Exhaustion, extinction, anxiety dreams, a ‘Chanson of Too Much Sun’; a woman sings of her drowned ex. In one nervy choral tutti the beach bums remember a volcanic eruption that downed a plane. ‘What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef has a restaurant and hotel!’ sings the Wealthy Mommy.

Rarely has an environmental message been so subtly, humorously, tellingly conveyed in an artwork. The genius lay in exploiting the paradox of the beach holiday. How the act of relaxation is not relaxing at all, and how we forget every time, only to be reminded, just as we close our eyes on the hot sand, that there is nothing like the vacuum of total tranquility to flood the brain with the noise of work, doubts, apocalyptic dread.

Elsewhere at the Biennale, the pace was more frenetic. In Laure Prouvost’s thrilling Gesamtkunstwerk Deep See Blue Surrounding You for the French Pavilion, you felt like a seed whooshed around by the winds. Prouvost’s fantasy road trip leaps around with tentacular curiosity, from the Paris banlieues to Venice via Marseille and a dip in the Med, spilling its watery contents — fags, trainers, squid, all crafted in Murano glass — on to the gallery floor. Entering through flappy gills, you watch the saga in a fishy belly of a cinema sat on a squidgy seabed floor. Buried within fold upon fold of playful cinematic poetry — edited as if alive, blinking and breathy — was one of the briefest but most moving elegies to the drowned migrants of the Med.

Oh, how depressing to have to return to an opera house, to Glyndebourne’s first offering of 2019, a new production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, after all this imagination, ambition, thoughtfulness.

I realise that opera directors think a scene is well choreographed if someone in vomity spandex wiggles their tush, but in London we have a place called Sadler’s Wells, and we know that choreography means something else. There’s a lot of ‘choreography’ in Richard Jones’s staging because there’s a lot of theatrical gaps to fill. Why? Because Berlioz’s Faust isn’t theatre. It’s a concert drama, in which the music stages itself. You can virtually smell the score, taste it, touch it, stroke its horns and tickle its chin. And conductor Robin Ticciati and the sulphurous and hot-tarmacy odours of the brass and winds of the LPO went some way to reminding us of the its multisensory power.

To think this lightning-bright music needs propping up with a laboriously worked-out plot is to think the Pantheon could be improved by some interior scaffolding. Worse still, so busy is Jones filling in the backstory he completely forgets to give mien or motivation to the main characters. Christopher Purves’s Méphistophélès has nothing to do but wheel scenery on and off stage. At one point Faust (Allan Clayton) murders someone, yet it’s not only impossible to care, it’s impossible to know who he’s killed or why.

It’s the kind of profoundly mediocre night that Berlioz the critic would have had great fun demolishing.

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