Operastagecoach BLOG

Why are British opera productions obsessed with the 1940s?

It's surely a weird choice to be making - but it seems popular.
 I can see why David Alden chose to place his recent English National Opera production of Peter Grimes (set designs by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) in the mid 1940s, even if the atmosphere owed little to Aldeburgh as it really is and was - and quite a lot more to the great German painter of 1920s Weimar decadence Otto Dix. I can see why Richard Jones chose to transfer Billy Budd to Dartmouth Naval College sometime around the 1940s for his Frankfurt production in 2008, though it really did not make much sense in the context of the story - which is about a time and place of real fighting, and immutably bound up with the British war against revolutionary France and the extraordinary fact that poorly paid press-ganged sailors could be led to resonate with a palpable sense of the national crusade. I can even see why Richard Jones’s wonderful new precision staging for Glyndebourne of Verdi’s Falstaff has been updated to 1945. At Glyndebourne, Windsor is naturally synonymous with Eton where John, Sir George, and Gus Christie - Glyndebourne's royal family - were educated. Designer Ultz has turned post-war austerity Britain into a conveniently (and amusingly) puritanical setting for the excesses of the fat knight living below his station in a local hostelry - though Rattigan’s Separate Tables film might have been a more challenging and interesting reference.
 But all these literal and lovingly detailed transpositions into equivalent narrative contexts raise the question of proportion and priority. What is the meaning of the opera? What is its real burden? Why did the composer choose originally to set the story at a particular time? Or is the story indelibly linked to a period, in such a way that shifting it and updating it (or back-dating it for that matter) interferes with the way the themes can register in the mind of the audience?
 Ultz’s designs and costumes for Glynbdebourne's Falstaff are wonderfully distilled, cleverly adjusted memories of post-war times: a dreary pub interior; Lutyens-like redbrick roofs and land-girls’ beds of cabbages and lettuces; a mock-Tudor Windsor shopping-street facade; an upstairs sitting-room in a dreary lodging house; and, finally, an artificial oak tree in the Windsor funfair. Hairstyle and clothes are caricature versions of post-war fashion: no chance to make a joke is missed. There are plenty of yankee servicemen over here - including Bülent Bezdüz’s Fenton. Perhaps that's why Tassis Christoyannis’s robust but rather Mediterranean Ford (more of a spiv than a local Windsor tradesman) doesn't want him to marry his baby Princess Nannetta. The front cloth before the start of the opera showed a genteel needlework Windsor view being stitched by Brownies (ie girl guides before they are old enough to wear older girls' blue uniforms). Later, in the first scene of the final act after Falstaff has been rescued from the Thames, a fat fluffy knitted swan gracefully crossed the front of the stage (Jones’s next assignment in Munich in July explained precisely when the next swan leaves... It was Lohengrin at the Bayerische Staatsoper). Three boys of various sizes in Eton uniform stare at the water suppressing giggles - as the fat knight is swept past. I never thought I would see a Jones production with mechanical marmalade and grey Persian cats indoors who respond to the stroking they get, and generally seem to be taking an interest in whatever happens. But why not? Let's add to the general mirth, even if laughter for its own sake is really contrary to Jones's religion - or has been in recent years. One aspect of this Falstaff was one's growing sense that Jones was giving class-conscious Glyndebourne just what it wanted - and thoroughly despising it for being so easy to satisfy with such cheap jokes.
 Falstaff, sung and acted with stunning brilliance by Christopher Purves,  apparently quite unfazed by the thick fat-suit in which he is covered, taps at a typewriter composing his love-letters for Meg and Alice. This is the first time in my experience, almost, that I have met a Falstaff who appreciates, nay adores, his own jokes. But actually Jones rescues Falstaff from the excessive vanity to which he is often reduced. Perhaps the games at Glyndebourne are all a bit too precise, arch and studied. This is a virtuoso production and everybody in it knows it. At the bar in the first scene, leaning over their beers, sit the bleary-eyed Pistol and Bardolph (Paolo Battaglia and Alasdair Elliott - and why oh why does Glyndebourne not give a role like Pistol to a British comprimario singer?) like a pair of stuffed dummies. We get the situation quickly enough, including the motherly female publican half in love with Sir John. Indeed without her in charge how could he possibly be surviving there?
 Vladimir Jurowski conducted with fabulous clarity and impact. This fruit of old age is a musical score with no flaws, every note just where the old man wanted it, more than any other Verdi opera a masterpiece of wit and unwithering imagination. Jurowski took it all a bit leisurely, the night I heard it. They were recording the performance for a DVD. Perhaps that made the singers polish their diction a tad extra. The beauty of the young lovers’ tunes is as adorable as a perfect Sussex sunset. Fenton and Adriana Kučerová’s Nannetta sang decently, but without quite the ideal mellifluousness. This opera can spin a magic web if the singing is truly beautiful - which on the whole Glyndebourne's cast were not. The tour in the autumn could be vocally better. Jones's incredibly precise, well-turned, enjoyable staging was a bit too self-conscious, cold and under-interpreted. Is this really all there is to say about such a sublime comic masterpiece? I think not.
 The wooing scene went well enough. Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice is a bit of a worthy dumpling, not inspiring enough - frankly - to catch the attention of such an interesting Falstaff as Purves. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Quickly in a Dad’s Army uniform costume was two-dimensional, forced in manner and almost entirely charmless - which again spoils one of the nice often neglected aspects of the piece, the fact that it's Quickly and Falstaff who really belong together. Peter Hoare as Dr Caius was very impressive - transformed by Ultz into a pompous Etonian form-master. One of the issues with this opera is how much romance gets into the final scene. Ultz’s wedding-dress and wig for Bardolph were wonderful. For once one could believe Caius might have mistaken himself. Yet the rest of the fun and games were strained. There seemed to be little going on at this dullish fun-fair, though Purves’s Falstaff brings the opera together in the end and makes sense of it in his way - not very penetrating. Jones was settling for less than his best, choosing to give Glyndebourne a show with enough heavily underlined jokes to guarantee satisfaction.
 ENO earned lots of praise for the Alden Grimes which is bound to be revived, and may even win some prizes - though opera productions with very modest qualities seem outstanding in an operatic desert like the UK. What I objected to in Alden’s eccentric production was the treatment of the character of Grimes himself in relation to the rest of the inhabitants of the Suffolk "Borough", and the age of the apprentice who was taller than Ellen Orford and in the 1940s would probably have left school and got a job. Alden seriously distorted the opera by pretending that everybody in the town was against Grimes.  In truth, Balstrode and Ellen are not the only ones who "live and let live". Auntie does too, so does the Rector, and so does the pharmacist Ned Keene. The chorus may indeed turn into a hostile posse tracking Grimes to his hut, and the abuse of the apprentices of which all believe Grimes guilty might just as well involve sex. It could scarcely be worse if it did. People believe he killed the boys wilfully or through neglect.
 But, really, how one believe in a Suffolk publican in the 1940s who dresses like the stylish lesbian one might conceivably have found running a Mayfair club for civil servants and black marketeers during the war? And would such a person say "For God’s sake someone start a song." None of this added up. In addition Stuart Skelton’s agreeable Grimes seemed lacking in danger or neurosis, even pleasant in many ways. It’s true all Grimes wants, at a certain level, is success - to "fish the sea dry... and... marry Ellen". It’s true he has poetic dreams, and that's what his aria about the Great Bear in the skies is telling us. It’s true these "Borough" inhabitants are wrong to want to drive him out. But the feelings and prejudices in the piece relate to a very different era in history from the mid-1940s - in those 18th- and 19th-century times children really were exploited and abused. And the abuse of children, the failures in parenting of those days of workhouses and the Poor Laws despite the existence of good people like Balstrode and Ellen, those are what Britten's opera is really concerned with.
 Whatever did Alden mean by suggesting Gerald Finley’s soft-toned one-armed Balstrode would be espousing Amanda Roocroft’s far too naive Ellen, a figure whose behaviour had little to do with the school-teacher of yore but seemed more like a lady of good breeding running a dame school by the seaside. Steinberg's designs offered just one seaside scene, all wet sands and no fishing boats, nor nets being mended. In the 1940s fishing from Aldeburgh was not big business; nobody could make a fortune that way. Updating the opera makes Methodism and Bob Boles equally bizarre. Only Mrs Sedley could survive more or less in tact as she would be in any age, brilliantly performed by Felicity Palmer. By contrast, how could anybody believe in Alden's version of Lawyer Swallow presiding over the inquest into the dead apprentice? Dropped trousers in public in the 1940s? I don't think so. Sadly the music was also deprived - in Edward rather raw, self-consciously jagged, modern-sounding interpretation - of all Britten's North Sea surge and flow that it ought to possess.
 Jones's approach to Billy Budd in Frankfurt - a blend of Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve - was much liked by the German critics and by some Brits. But to me it seemed similiarly a quite wrong-headed approach that distorted and diminished crucial aspects of the piece. Perhaps that is because I come from a naval background and mind about "mistakes" like allowing Claggart to sport a moustache (the Senior Service rule has always been either full beard or clean shaven). Budd was indeed in a way Britten’s revisiting of the dangerous year 1941 a decade later in the Festival of Britain year 1951. Regardless of his pacifism and American domicile at the time, he had a deep instinctive consciousness of the overwhelming sense of danger that motivated everybody at that low point of the war against Hitler. There is a triumphalism in Budd, I admit, but it is surely not offensive. Jones's staging did catch the slightly schoolboyish enthusiasm that generates the "Starry Vere" chorus. But, with designer Anthony McDonald, he turned it into the motif of his entire interpretation - which is transferred from a warship at sea to a training college on land, a sort of blend between Dartmouth and one of the establishments (usually in fact on an old sailing ship) where naval ratings used to be brought up to scratch.
 The centre of Melville’s story and of Britten’s opera is the need for control in time of war, the fear of subversion because of "The Rights of Man", Wilkes’s revolutionary pamphlet, and the fact that only naval law applies on board a ship in the middle of the ocean. So it really was perverse of Jones to set the story on land - and create a sort of public school ethos presided over by a vicious version of Mr Chips, disregarding the fact that Claggart’s power was entirely over pressed men who were ordinary seamen, but who in Nelson’s navy were able to be astonishingly enthused by his charismatic leadership and that of his fellow admirals and captains. Rum and buggery were also ingredients in the navy and the abuses of the time - as portrayed by John Masefield. But the heroism was also real. This opera has a seriously good libretto to which E M Forster contributed. So it did jar dreadfully that Clive Bailey’s urbane Claggart anachronistically sported a moustache - almost as if to say the production team did not want us to think this was really the navy, that it was just another chapter in Jones's understandable criticism of the British system. In the 1940s a drumhead court would not have been the way to deal with a death at an on-shore training establishment (such as HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth). Jones’s carefully studied "naval" world no doubt appeared realistic and "English" to the Frankfurt audience, But it was actually just nonsense, unrealistic and meaningless. As he often does, Jones here set up an Aunt Sally to knock down and pour scorn on - but his whole project was only marginally relevant to the proper themes of this work - which matter and which concern the exercise and abuse of authority and responsibility, big concerns in German culture as much as in our own. Billy Budd’s experiences at sea, and his relationship with Claggart and the intelligent, charming but weak Captain Vere have nothing to do with education, or with the abuse of power by a pathetic schoolmaster.
 But does it matter in the theatre that everything is not what it is supposed to be? In the theatre and cinema it seldom is. It clearly did not offend the Germans for whom knowledge of such details from British history, ancient and recent, would be arcane. All they were aware of was a brilliantly assembled piece of theatre craft, gutes handwerk - as Jones’s staging certainly was. Jones and McDonald as usual devised a production that was theatrically totally aware of what it was doing. And their sense of tone and style were unwaveringly secure, especially with John Mark Ainsley’s smartly uniformed Captain Vere - in his immaculate uniform, a very well-sung performance. But to me it seemed that Jones’s conscious or unconscious anachronisms and misrepresentation of reality destroyed the fundamental and crucial motive that caused Britten, with his profound anti-war feelings, to write such a piece.
 The war against Napoleon, like the war against Hitler, was a war of national survival - it was not a game within school rules. Captain Vere’s conscience, and all the sexual undertow of his and Claggart’s interest in "the men" is part of an arduous weighing-up of established regulations and motivations. The man "starry Vere" is meant by Britten to be seen and felt as an admirable Nelson-like figure, a hero even if a rather passive and intellectual one. Vere lacked Nelson’s extraordinary ability to break the rules - in life and in his naval strategies when leading his ships into sea battle. The story of Billy Budd is part of our national history. It is not ironical, nor is it parody or satire. Masefield’s depiction of the cruelty of the navy at the time is no general rule - Britten shows Claggart taking pleasure in his sadistic manipulation of those he wants to use. But the Master at Arms is scarcely a housemaster at a public school. The material of Britten’s opera is serious if not tragic, and it should move us with mixed emotions - not make us rather tritely indignant about systemic bad behaviour. Claggart, even with his unsavoury approach to security, did not deserve to be killed by Budd - and the death is an accident more than the hand of heaven. It is Vere’s failure to exercise mercy and save Billy that is the crucial issue. And somehow in Jones’s production the balance between Vere’s "goodness" and Claggart’s "evil" got very unhelpfully distorted. It may have been a brilliant staging in its way. It was actually a travesty.
 It may be that each of these slightly pointed but still coherent narrative frames can appeal much more to British audiences, be acceptable to them, than some of the transpositions that have become almost like cliches in current German operatic productions - where there often seems to be an insistence on everything happening in a modern world of towering anonymous office blocks and housing estates. Both Jones and Alden have always been drawn to anecdotal settings that give the audience pleasure and are recognisable - but also historic. Both directors smuggle in - alongside their transpositions - attitudes towards the material which can impose various value judgments upon what is shown, without being serious enough in thoroughly exploring the dramaturgy of their interpretative approach. In a way these productions are rather old-fashioned. They do not really come face to face with the subject matter. Yet they both are the work of masters, indeed the best we have got here in Britain, and very well achieved. One must not look gift horses in the mouth. Jones and Alden have dominated British opera staging for a long time now - almost 30 years. There is not going to be a new wave of directors any time soon - considering how little properly funded opportunities there currently are here for unknown names or newcomers. More's the shame.

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