Opera zeitgeist – industrial market garden, gas station or the kitchen?

Not sure what the zeitgeist is here.

Last week we saw L’Elisir d’Amore set in the distribution area of a market garden (Holland Park Opera). This looked good and was a very jolly production, but musically a little pedestrian? less elastic than it should be?

In Bayreuth they have set Das Rheingold in a gas station. This, plus other violations of the audiences expectations, seems to have lit the blue touch-paper and caused fury. I am not a Wagner enthusiast, so not sure what the big beef is here as musically it was apparently great.

Last night we saw Glyndebourne’s Baroque opera, Hippolyte and Aricie (Rameau) set, at least for some of the time, inside a commercial fridge. As the director Jonathan Kent said in an interview: ‘Just think of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics – that was a Baroque event.’ I just wish I had read this interview before watching the opera.

For me, new to the Baroque genre, this was a baffling mixture – every part of which gave me something – from the exquisite sounds of the ancient instruments, to a farcical sailor dance routine from the vaudeville stage. At the heart of it was a moving, classical forbidden-love story.

I admired the way the stage designer had observed The Fridge and put all the details of it on stage. Cupid breaking cockerel-like out of an egg, on the upper shelves, in orange-yolk colours against the crystalline white of the ice-flakes (hand-maids of Diana) in fur coats, was a delight. Hell was depicted in amongst the working entrails at the back of a (gigantic) fridge – great detail.

I could just about follow the main story as the characters were dressed in modernish clothes. There was a really moving scene in which both upstairs and downstairs rooms of a 1950-60s house were seen. Each room had a singer stuck in their own dilemma within.  BUT, the mayhem of styles among the gods and chorus that surrounded them, the killing of stags and distributing of blood onstage and the costumes of the denizens of the underworld distracted me from the singing and the story.

Dancing – and there was masses of it (essential in French Baroque opera) – was beautifully executed but randomly choreographed. I don’t mean it was unskilful, it wasn’t, but the sense of going in whatever direction the whim took you was extreme.

Having, too late, read the interview between the director Jonathan Kent and Cori Ellison, I think they achieved exactly what they intended and that this was a clever modern update of the composers wish ‘to astonish and delight’ and to appeal to all the senses. I also think that a trad opera goer probably needs to read this elucidation in order to sit back and enjoy.

Highlight for me the long and sweet aria (from the upper chamber of a giant morgue fridge) by, I think, a shepherdess. This must be the Nightingale aria, but I don’t know the opera well enough to be sure.

Sorry, long post, but a weird and wonderful experience for me, though of limited interest to non-opera goer.

Below is an intro video from Glyndebourne, including part of the opera and below that a couple of good reviews.




2 thoughts on “Opera zeitgeist – industrial market garden, gas station or the kitchen?

  1. Yes, I am no opera buff but do like Wagner. It is all the rage to make opera more accessible with modern sets and unusual takes on the story. Sometimes it works but at other times it can be a bit troublesome seeing a singer on a skateboard or dressed in mini skirt set in 18th century opera..

  2. Yes, it can work very well. I forgot in my list the Ballo in Maschera we saw set in an IKEA style venue. Clearly royal courts are out of fashion. I am trying to imagine which opera could feature your mini-skirted skateboarder. The mind boggles.

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