The protagonist had a large artificial nose. Another singer stood on a chair to deliver a pompous monologue. Yet another drifted on to the platform as if in a drunken stupor. It was a performance of high drama, visual panache and brilliant timing. And it was all done in formal evening attire, in a recent concert version of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at London’s Barbican Centre.
Such strong characterisation and vivid scene-playing, in this case by St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre ensemble, raised the question of whether staging the opera would have made any greater impact. Are sets and costumes really necessary - and is the expense justified? The music, full of grotesque smirks and ironic slides, told its own story. The singers, all without a score, created their own theatre.
Staged opera is such a gamble - so many things can go wrong and usually do. Should everyone give up and simply leave it to the imagination? Opera in concert throws a spotlight on the music in a way it surely deserves, revealing which composers are the true musical dramatists. It’s far cheaper - and we get to hear a wider repertoire than usual, often with quality casting that might not be possible for an extended run in the opera house. Think of the Italian rarities championed by Eve Queler in her series at New York’s Carnegie Hall, or the Royal Opera’s recent concert performances of La Gioconda, or the Salzburg festival’s championing of “degenerate” operas, such as Egon Wellesz’s Die Bakchantinnen. Such events are rarely less than illuminating.
Some operas are not, at heart, a theatrical experience. Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin are good examples. The first is more an oratorio, the second a sophisticated intellectual riddle. And listening to a concert version of Tristan und Isolde by the BBC Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago, I committed Wagnerian apostasy: I actually found it possible to believe in Wagner’s opera as a drama of the mind, the ear and the heart, but not the theatre. The performance uncovered themes and details of orchestration I had never heard in an opera house, where musical connections are often grasped subconsciously while attention focuses on stage and spectacle. In concert, those connections suddenly became wonderfully apparent.
The one argument for concert performance I do not support is this: that it allows you to hear “what the composer really wanted”, unadulterated by the wicked abuses of modern stage directors. That, I believe, is escapism - the sort of argument put forward by people who have an idealised vision of what opera is. They like to digest their opera in an interpretative never-never land; they don’t want to be confronted by the complexity of ideas behind the composer’s pen-marks. They would rather stay in their own dream world - a world predicated on the sentimental notion that anything representing a “modern” interpretation distorts the composer’s pure, unadulterated conception.
Such thinking involves a funny contradiction. The idea that you are getting the composer’s pure vision is ridiculous - no composer wrote an opera without intending it to be staged. Opera is a pluralist art form; the idea that there is a definitive way of doing it is mistaken. No single interpretation will encompass every aspect of a work or its composer’s intentions.
The best concert performances are those where the cast has already sung the work in the theatre. That’s why The Nose came across so vividly; the performance seemed to have winged its way direct from the Mariinsky’s stage. The worst concert-operas are those, exemplified by Elektra at the 2003 Proms, where singers bury their noses in the score. That’s as bad as the staging - common in Italy and the US - that amounts to a concert in costume. Opera does not need spectacle, but it does need a theatrical element, whether the singers are in black leather or black tie.
The other aspect of opera-in-concert that’s a turn-off is when promoters advertise their wares as a semi-staging. Semi-staged performances are rarely more than a glorified concert. If the singers appear in full costume, act their roles in character and make entrances and exits across a clear strip of the platform, then that is semi-staging. But the only time I’ve seen that was when English National Opera did warm-up performances for The Ring. Otherwise, if the orchestra is on stage, it’s a concert, no matter how convincingly the singers gesticulate and interact.
There are occasions when opera works better unstaged: the concert of Prokofiev’s little-known Semyon Kotko that I heard at St Petersburg in 1998 communicated far more than the staging that followed two years later by the same forces. And if I had to make a tally of effective opera productions I have seen, the figure would probably lie below 25 per cent. Does that make the case for opera in concert? No, because the 25 per cent makes all the duds worthwhile. Even if my dream staging might look like a pot of gold on the horizon, it’s worth hoping for. And if it falls short, at least it’s still the real thing.
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