|Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as The King, Gyula Orendt as Gaveston|
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
There has been a great deal of fuss this week, courtesy of questionable decisions at the Philadelphia Orchestra, about 'respecting the sanctity of the concert hall' (Read Philip Gentry's piece here.) Just the tired old standard defence against anyone objecting to decisions made by performers/managers that are...questionable – designed simply to silence those who disagree. It's saddening to see Yannick say 'Musicians are not men and women of words', as most of the ones I know bloody well are.
My latest evening at the Royal Opera House has left me wondering why anyone would consider there's anything resembling 'sanctity' in any performance house – I won't say 'any more' because it probably was never there.
Last night I went with a friend to see the new George Benjamin opera Lessons in Love and Violence. We sat in the amphitheatre - clear overview, great sound. It's also rather hot and airless and the seats, though 20th-century, are designed for 19th rather than 21st-century people, so you're very up-close-and-personal with your neighbours. None of this encourages an atmosphere of 'sanctity'.
Five minutes before curtain up, we were reading Martin Crimp's synopsis, wondering how far the opera relates to Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, when the couple to my right started having a massive row, fighting over some conversation that must have taken place just beforehand. When one voice was raised, the other shushed, which was a pity because it was getting interesting. He was demanding that she take something back and that they never discuss it again. She wasn't having any. Eventually he said, "We should just go". She didn't want to just go. She wanted to hear the opera. Then the lights went down, at which point the man shoved the woman's cardigan - which he'd gallantly been holding - back onto her lap, then went clambering over everyone's knees to the exit, just as the music began. What followed on stage was not exactly the thing to see or hear when you're having a bust-up of this magnitude, so one could hardly blame her for following suit at the halfway pause. At such moments, one can well understand, a house of performance is not a place of sanctity. It's a trap.
Then, about half an hour in, the couple on my companion's left started having a massive row too. She was checking her phone. He was telling her she shouldn't. He was right. She responded by becoming awfully upset. Tissues were produced. Maybe she didn't realise the performance house was a place of sanctity where you shouldn't get out your mobile. Did you know: If your light goes on, the whole theatre can see you and point, including the people performing, if they're so minded? This, of course, is nothing new. Most performances these days are liberally sprinkled with the tears of those who can't stay off their phones for two minutes, let alone 85.
What of the opera? It is wonderfully written: imaginative, concise, focused, clear. You could hear every word. The orchestration is magical, lit with fresh and inventive percussive effects and flickers of woodwind and brass. The pacing is varied, surprising, masterly: the most memorable section possibly the death scene, in which the King "experiences death" in absolute stillness and rapt quiet. There is no red-hot poker. The performers - Stéphane Degout as The King, Barbara Hannigan as Isabel and a magnificent line-up supporting - could not have been better. And yet there was startlingly little about the action that could make us begin to be interested in what was going on, and the staging, directed by Katie Mitchell (whom I usually admire) with designs by Vicki Mortimer, seemed stylised and confusing: a giant bed faced by rows of empty chairs, people trooping in and out even without much to do, and some soothing tanks of tropical fish.
If someone decides to create an opera out of Marlowe's Edward II, fine - but this adaptation fell somewhat short. Isabel becomes a one-dimensional figure despite Hannigan's best efforts: pure opera-woman cliché, a devious being with frustrated sexual appetite and characterless children. Contemporary sideswipes - issues over playing music while the country falls apart, or Trumpy-style references to "Dead Man Mortimer" which called to mind "Crooked Hillary" - feel slightly incongruous and unnecessary, especially as there wasn't one lead character anyone could reasonably relate to. Except I do want to know what happened to Felicity the Cat (brought in in a scarily familiar-looking carrier-box), whose deluded owner is brutally murdered: perhaps she got to eat some of the fish later... On the whole, admirable though the score is, I regret to say I'm with the critic who remarked that he was quite pleased to exit at the end in search of a burrito.
The true drama was in the audience – along with the real lessons in love and violence. All the world's a stage.