Theatre directors wrestle with opera at their peril - and vice versa, apparently, too. Just last week Rupert Goold made his English National Opera debut with a new production of Turandot at the London Coliseum - and was roundly booed by some of the opera critics for his efforts.
In The Guardian, Andrew Clements opened his one-star review by declaring, “English National Opera’s obsession with persuading theatre directors to confront the very different challenges of staging opera, and then watching them fall flat on their faces, continues. The latest ingenue is Rupert Goold, who, fresh from his Royal Court success with Enron, finds himself entirely out of his depth with Turandot. He went on to call it “one of the most dismal evenings at the Coliseum in a long time”.
But on Monday, the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington offered a very different take in a blog posting.
He says, “Without wishing to get into a dispute with my critical colleagues, what startles me is the assumption behind some of the reviews: that this is yet another example of these pesky, tin-eared theatre directors invading the world of opera. Admittedly, not all directors are known for their musical sensitivity. There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal story of John Gielgud rushing on the stage in the midst of rehearsals for Don Giovanni at the Coliseum, crying ‘Oh do stop that dreadful music!’ But if opera has enjoyed a boom in postwar Britain, it is partly because of the influx of directors (and designers) from the non-lyric theatre.”
Michael goes on to say that “opera and theatre no longer exist in separate boxes,” and cites Jonathan Miller, Peter Hall, Katie Mitchell, Tim Albery and Richard Jones from Britain and Peter Stein, Luc Bondy and Robert Lepage amongst those who “commute easily between the two forms”. Both Daniel Kramer, currently represented in the West End by his production of Prick Up Your Ears, and Fiona Shaw (currently starring in the National’s Mother Courage), have ENO directing assignments ahead: Kramer with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle next month, Shaw with Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic next April.
Indeed, opera has long provided a rich training ground for young directors - Nick Hytner and Matthew Warchus are two more who served a large part of their early directorial apprenticeships on the operatic stages - and it is hardly as if Goold is a complete novice to opera, either: as Billington also points out, “In the past he’s done Rossini at Garsington and worked at the Batignano festival with some success.”
But never mind the past: a chef is only as good as the last meal he cooked, though it always helps to put the taste in context to know something of his prior form. Michael feels here that Good “has been excessively abused” and goes on to say, “Few people have asked what he is actually trying to do in his innovative Turandot. Just as in his current Headlong production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, Goold is clearly exploring the tension between art and reality; what you see in the opera are Calaf and Turandot finally destroying the on-stage figure of the writer as if achieving creative autonomy. This exactly mirrors Pirandello’s play where the six ‘characters’ demand that their story be told without mediation from the modern media.”
He does accept “that Goold’s production is over-layered with ideas” (an accusation that is frequently levied at his theatre work, too); but goes on to say, “But it captures the element of barbaric fantasy in Puccini’s opera, ingeniously addresses the problem of its incompletion and, for all its excesses, is theatrically alive. Far from seeking Goold’s operatic banishment, I think we should be finding ways to harness his formidable energies. Opera, just like straight theatre, thrives on imaginative direction.”
In today’s Guardian Charlotte Higgins goes on to point out, “One minute, director Rupert Goold is being showered with praise for his production of Lucy Prebble’s Enron at London’s Royal Court. The next, he’s critically ravaged for his Turandot at English National Opera”, and she asks, “Was this a case of opera critics operating with a completely different set of values from their theatre colleagues?”
Actually, both Michael and Charlotte seem guilty of reading only their own paper. In The Independent, Edward Seckerson put up a spirited defence for Goold, and in a four star review says, “Theatre is an extraordinary thing and if any one had told me in advance what the key metaphor of this staging was to be I’d probably have laughed it off. But Goold is a cunning as well as an immensely theatrical director…” And in a three star review in The Times, Richard Morrison says, “Personally, I enjoyed it. But then, I think Turandot is a horribly nasty work that deserves a good mauling. Setting it in a cannibalistic eaterie run by blood-crazed lunatics may be a monstrous slander on all those excellent Chinese establishments two minutes from the Coliseum — but no more monstrous than Puccini’s slur on the entire Chinese nation in the original opera.”
It’s good to see that the opera critics can be as divided as us theatre critics from time to time on the same show (Just last week, I see that the Mail on Sunday’s Georgina Brown and the Sunday Telegraph’s Tim Walker both gave David Hare’s The Power of Yes one-star reviews, against four-star reviews from Billington and myself, amongst others).
But there definitely seems to be a “them and us” in some quarters, on both sides of the curtain as well as critical fence. Just a few weeks ago David McVicar, who has made his name in opera, was complaining in an interview profile in The Independent that he would be keen to do more pure theatre work, but can’t, because “they won’t let me in”. His interviewer Christina Patterson asks why not. He replies, “I don’t know, you ask them. No one will take the risk of giving me a King Lear, because somehow ‘oh, he won’t know how to do that’.”
Perhaps this mutual suspicion needs to be set aside. But theatre directors are going to be as wary entering the choppy waters of directing opera after the reception that Goold has received as the theatre world seems to be wary of employing opera folk. Still, the Broadway director (and artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Ontario) Des McAnuff told me earlier this year when I interviewed him for The Stage that he’s heading to ENO next year, too, where he’ll be directing a new production of Faust: “I’ll open the Stratford season, then come here and get the opera rolling; go back to Stratford to open the late openers, and then carry on here in September,” he told me. And last night, the Donmar Warehouse’s Michael Grandage told me that he’s heading to Houston next year to direct an opera, too.