LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, recently turned into a terrific new UK musical jointly produced by three regional theatres, famously begins with the line “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It’s a line that can be easily paraphrased to show the differences between producing theatre and opera, too: For traditional theatre-makers, “the opera is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Last Thursday Michael Grandage became the latest high-profile theatre director to strangely flounder in the face of the massive creative resources — but paradoxically little rehearsal or stage time — of producing a brand-new production of a staple of the operatic repertoire for one of the world’s most famous opera houses, the Met in New York.
As New York Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini put it in his review published in Saturday’s paper, “In theory, gifted directors who are mostly new to opera should bring fresh, bracing perspectives to bear. But there is just as much of a chance that a newcomer to opera might be deferential in approaching the complex, much debated and ceaselessly produced masterpieces of the repertory. What else would explain the timidity of the Met’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a quite traditional staging by the hot, innovative British theater director Michael Grandage in his Met debut, which opened on Thursday night?”
Actually, he’s not quite new to opera, even if he is to the Met: in the summer of 2010 I saw his richly detailed and atmospheric production of Britten’s Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, and was knocked out by its rigour and intensity. But Britten offers a decidedly more avant-garde, experimental canvas for a director to work with than Mozart’s effervescent comedy.
Before seeing it last night, I had dinner with an executive of the Met which cast an interesting light on the timetable and process of producing operas there, which sets entirely differently parameters for the creative process to the ones that Grandage would be accustomed to in the theatre, where he normally calls the shots.
Firstly the production timetable is largely design led - the entire show is designed, built and even fully teched and lit (and therefore blocked) before the singers even arrive. During August, when the theatre is dark, the production has more stage time to be fully installed; but this means that the director has to make his staging choices without his cast.
Then once the cast do arrive, musical needs take precedence. There are five weeks of rehearsal, but only three of them in the rehearsal room; the final two weeks are on stage, for a limited time frame each morning, from 11am to 2.30pm (as the set then needs to be struck and the one for the evening performance installed instead), with piano accompaniment for the first week, then a full orchestra for the second. Here, it is the maestro in the pit that leads the show, not the director.
So nothing is left to chance, or to the sort of creative discoveries that a director makes whilst with his cast; the die is already cast, in every sense. But then there’s chance itself, of course, and what Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity wonderfully calls the “fickle finger of fate”; and Grandage here was massively unlucky. At last Monday’s public dress rehearsal, he suddenly and dramatically lost his lead singer, Mariusz Kwiecien, who suffered a herniated disc near the beginning of the show (and subsequently underwent emergency surgery), and his cover Dwayne Croft — watching in the stalls — rushed onto the stage, still wearing his jeans, to take over. As the performance progressed, I’m told he added bits of costume.
For the next two days, ahead of last Thursday’s evening, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei who has previously sung Don Giovanni and will sing the role for La Scala in December but is currently appearing at the Met in Barbiere di Siviglia, was rehearsed into the production. Critic Anthony Tommasini noted “he was superb, singing alternately with suave, seductive phrasing and menacing intensity.” But, he went on to say, “Still, during weeks of rehearsal this production had been shaped around another Giovanni. It is impossible to know how much the last-minute casting shuffle affected Mr. Grandage’s intentions.”
Mattei, giving his second performance in the production last night, performed with an effortless authority. But the show, with its picture-book frontages that look like they could come from a Las Vegas hotel interior recreating Italy, feels picturesque but tentative in other areas, which is far from the sense you typically get with a Grandage production where every moment is invariably sharply mined for feeling and narrative. Grandage usually manages to make Shakespeare fly by - not with cuts, but with actors speaking the language naturally, as if conversationally. Unfortunately he can’t get the singers to sing faster, though. So pace drags, too.
The London opening of Fiona Shaw’s new production of another Mozart The Marriage of Figaro for English National Opera was similarly affected by a last minute cast change, in which Elizabeth Llewellyn had to stand in for an indisposed Kate Valentine as the Countess. On that occasion, though, it has led at least one critic to wonder if he’d just seen the birth of a star career: in the Daily Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen acclaimed Llewellyn as “a finely poised Countess, singing both arias with remarkable beauty and poise”, and went on to say, “I was reminded of a night in 1973 when I first heard an unknown young soprano called Kiri Te Kanawa sing this role and a star was born.”