Tuesday 1 January 2019

Two Operas

How to make it new? I saw two operas in Frankfurt last week, and each sought to reinterpret or repackage canonical works. You almost never get a 'straight' reading nowadays, and certainly you don't in Frankfurt, a quietly radical venue.

Bellini's Il Puritani tells a story set in England in the 1650s. It's a tuneful if gloomy work. There's a suggestion that Sir Walter Scott was an influence, though there's no exact original in his work.

The Frankfurt production, played and sung well, is ruined by creative decisions outside the singers' and musicians' control. The costumes, for one thing: they're a bizarre mix of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century styles, and there's no differentiation between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Sometimes the puritans are in black, at other times in bright silks. It's very confusing.

The biggest disaster is with the visual effects. Why do we need visual effects? At the start of the show a gauze net screen descends over the entire front of the stage. The gauze is transparent, but not completely. On to the screen are projected arty images: fluttering butterflies, falling petals, scudding clouds. More, the screen seems to muffle or deflect some of the sound from the voices. So you can't see properly, and you can't quite hear. But the butterflies were very pretty.

Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel is a seasonal children's favourite - though here suitable for children only of ten years old and over, as the publicity states, and so, I suppose, we have been warned. We open not in the familiar fairytale cottage but in the ward of a rundown children's hospital or asylum. Hänsel and Gretel's 'parents' are a brutal and drunken doctor and nurse. The forest, later, is textual: made of text. And the witch's house - not a trace of gingerbread in sight - is an horrific psychopath's murder lair, with blood-spattered walls and a chest-freezer full of dead children. When the 'witch', a baritone, abandons 'her' female drag and appears in male clothes it's truly disturbing. Children were being ushered in tears from the auditorium. The production ends uncertainly, with Hänsel and Gretel grown up and the father and mother doctor/nurse figures from Act 1 younger than before - why, I'm not quite sure. It's a troubling but rather brilliant production.

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