Saturday, 12 April 2008

Mickey Mask

I see that Verdi’s A Masked Ball is being traduced again.

In ENO’s infamous 1990s' ‘flying pizza’ production, Gustavus III of Sweden’s impending death was subtly underlined by the appearance of a skeletal grim reaper on horseback and a giant clock whizzing across the stage. Not content with that, their 2002 production opened with a line of men reading newspapers, whilst… errr… relaxing.

Actually neither of these productions was as bad as the press would have you believe, but never mind.

However, as German producer Johann Kresnik, whose production will be seen in Erfurt, points out: “One has to introduce new elements – otherwise it is difficult to attract new theatregoers.”

Before considering the ‘new elements’ he has introduced, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is an opera about King Gustavus III of Sweden and how he was assassinated at the titular celebration in 1792.

Given that, it’s entirely understandable that Kresnik has chosen to see the opera as a Marxist attack on post-911 capitalist America. He makes this abundantly clear by having a chorus of naked pensioners sporting Mickey Mouse masks (“a very beautiful, poetic scene”, according to the theatre’s general manager), a woman sporting a Hitler moustache consorting with Uncle Sam and giving a Nazi salute, and – beloved in America, but a tedious symbol of vapidity elsewhere else - an Elvis impersonator.

If we hadn’t already spotted it, the theatre manager helpfully points out that the production is “a little critical of America”.

But let’s not be too harsh: Verdi hit lots of political problems with this and other works and he himself was a symbol of Italian unification. The slogan ‘Viva Verdi’ wasn’t just an acclamation of the greatest Italian composer (ever?) but a coded political rallying call: Vittorio Emmanuele, re dItalia.

Written in 1859 just 67 years after the assassination, Un ballo in maschera was incendiary stuff and it was clear that the censor in Austrian-dominated Naples would have something to say about it. But Verdi wasn’t a documentarist and his story is no closer to the truth than Scribe and Auber’s 1833 operatic version. However, Verdi and his librettist balked at the censor’s suggestions and took the opera to Rome, where they had to acquiesce to moving the action from Sweden to Boston and demoting the hero from king to governor.

So, should a modern producer try to draw parallels between events (set it in Dallas in 1963?) or try to find some sort of objective correlative that will stir in us the same emotions that the original audience had?

Whichever path is taken, reducing it to a bit bourgeoisie épater-ing does it no favours.

In fact, both paths are equally bogus: history doesn’t repeat itself (either as comedy or tragedy) and in any case what's bang up to date now is out of date all too quickly - it'll be interesting to see how ENO's Candide, transferring from Milan and Paris, deals with the fact that four-fifths of the kings (Blair, Chirac, Putin and Berlusconi) are no longer in power. Bush will still be there (just) and Putin obviously retains power in some way. Ironically it's possible that the production may be saved one change - by the return of Silvio Berlusconi. Jonathan Miller's 1988 production is a good example of the benefits and disadvantages of updating: a brilliant satire on (Panglossian) Thatcherite laissez-faire economics, it would mean less today. Wouldn't it?

Meanwhile shocking the audience entails out-jumping all the shocks between the original and the present: The Rite of Spring, Look Back in Anger – whatever else you want to add to the list – leading inevitably to our current worship at the church of latterday producers.

Why not just trust the audience to know that this is a fictionalised portrayal of historical events that, as far as modern parallels are concerned, fits where it touches? This may of course lead to productions where the hero of A Masked Ball is an 18th-century Swedish monarch who is assassinated, or Henry V has a sword rather than a submachine-gun that he, for some reason, fails to employ against his enemies, but if that’s the case, we’ll just have to put up with it.

Audiences and critics of that persuasion will be accused of hopeless conservatism, but that’s not the point: the best production of Rigoletto that I’ve ever seen is still Jonathan Miller’s 1950s New York Mafiosa one (the words occasionally subtly altered to accommodate the conception) and Peter Sellars’ Middle-East Giulio Cesare had some interesting things to say. Sadly, updating is in danger of being a first base for producers who fear that otherwise their work will be seen as stale or irrelevant or, even worse, ignorable.

Essentially Kresnik is peddling ‘Ostalgia’ – East Germans’ affection for the days when the Stasi had files on a good proportion of the population but the trains ran on time – in the form of an anti-Capitalist rant. Ostalgia was mocked with touching ambiguity in Goodbye Lenin! But if Kresnik thinks he's being serious, he's a long was short of Patrice Chéreau’s then-controversial-but-now-classic centenary Ring at Bayreuth.

Verdi’s original had the neat irony of being set in the opera-house, but in some kind of ironic meta-comment, rounding up 35 pensioners willing to spend five evenings in Kresnik’s dystopia proved alarmingly simple: Germany’s famous tradition of nude sunbathing proved the means; the opera was the opportunity, and post-unification poverty the motive. In such circumstances, persuading them to dance around the ruins of the World Trade Center was akin to getting seals to jump through hoops for herring.

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