Robin Holloway

Ill Met by moonlight

Robin Holloway on when good opera is ruined by tack presentation

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Nothing is sacred or unchanging. One of Radio Three’s most reliable sources of musical pleasure, the weekly Saturday opera relay from the Metropolitan in New York, has recently rendered itself all but unbearable. Not in performance standards, which continue a norm of decency and are at best superlative — casting just about the best money can buy, distinguished conducting, wonderful orchestra — but by a surrounding framework of ‘presentation’ so Philistine, vulgar, moronic, as to nullify, even destroy, the essence of what the whole effort purports to convey.

I’ve dipped into most of the current season’s repertoire and been so put off as not to survive the course complete; and heard two operas from start to finish. They could hardly be more different: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, high point of Italian bel canto, often apparently slight and silly in its obedience to every absurd convention of story and idiom, mockable indeed risible if taken in the wrong way, sweetly affecting, indeed moving if taken aright. Then Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, high classic of German romanticism, plunging the depths and scaling the heights of mystic–mythic eroticism, imbued with metaphysical imagery of night/day, fidelity/betrayal, love/death culminating in quasi-religious Transfiguration, swathed in surging symphonism and a grammatical usage that altered the face and direction of music itself.

What both these utterly contrasted masterpieces shared, as emanating from the Met, was a level of invasive commentary so intrusive as to sicken the spirit and quench the appetite. Plot summary, scene-setting, ‘cast in order of vocal appearance’, ‘and now Maestro Levine [or whoever] is taking his place and the lights go down’ are all perfectly OK, in fact, expected and indispensable. And even the briefest operas (mostly), let alone the vast Wagners, are articulated into Acts; separated by intervals, during which relief/respite — an interview with the artists involved or a talk on some relevant subject (or something of interest and value with no especial connection) — has always been perfectly acceptable. Even the Met Opera Quiz, put out in the longest interval, has its moments and perhaps its point; though I’ve always vaguely disliked the knowing, trivialising tone, and — not vague at all — been distracted from concentration upon the broadcast’s raison d’être, the particular work of the day, by the bombardment of other musics, often wildly discrepant, crossing the wires and jangling the vibes (outbursts of Carmen amid the forests of Pelléas or Siegfried, identification of famous sopranos’ high Cs breaking the spell of sensuous Neopolitan sultriness in Così fan tutte or the bleak Suffolk fishing township of Peter Grimes).

What the Met now offers — shoves, rather — goes way beyond modest usefulness or harmless diversion. Already before curtain-up the hackles are offended and the artistic anticipations rebuffed. And as for curtain-down! Within seconds of the music’s end the obtrusive voices are ‘reacting’, their panting promptness precluding any private, measured response in a gulping gush of ‘appreciation’. Then come chats with singers, dressers, scenery and lighting boys, charladies, etc. — cosy backstage ‘human interest’ (yawn) just in case Tristan or Lucia (or whatever) doesn’t suffice. Worst is when some casually passing prima donna drops in on the star of the live performance for a brief exercise in heavy mutual petting. The tacky hyperbole of these luvvie love-ins beats anything I’ve heard elsewhere or seen in print; nothing is too vapid or sycophantic for these shameless folk. Back again to the regular presenters with their unquenchable banality — the language is so commercialised, now, in this temple of high art, as to make the English audience hanker for the straightforward, honest advertising breaks that aren’t transmitted over here!

Lucia, relatively short, made a long broadcast. I didn’t measure the proportions, but the fragile barque was clearly overwhelmed with gunk — before, during, after. Tristan, vulnerable in different ways, was harder to sink, though the new Met style did its damnedest. Each devastating act-close — the lovers in each others’ arms at last after the turn-of-the-screw intensity by which the bonds separating them have been eroded, greeted by the lawful husband-to-be in a blaze of brass under the sullen eyes of the hostile sailors; the lovers’ ardent mutual defiance of law, decorum, fate, when their tryst has been betrayed, the wronged husband has sounded his woes, and Tristan let himself be pierced on his jealous rival’s cowardly sword-thrust; the billowing synaesthesiac hymn to love-in-death and eternal shared consummation beyond the grave as Isolde sings her Liebestod — all were instantaneously cheapened, sold short by the hard sell, set at nought, effaced.

I’m all for abolishing mystique, for spreading and sharing the joys, rewards, glories of high operatic culture in all its million varieties of pleasure. Explanation that wears lightly any latent tendency towards education; enthusiasm that curbs missionary zeal into urbanity and communicativeness; even touches of legitimate advertisement, done without snobbery, trivialisation, coercion. These are fine, right, proper; can be and have been well done since broadcasting began, not least by the Met in its very recent past. But the current breathless thrustfulness, the jejune ‘empathy’, the luvviedom, the opera-queen campery, are repulsive, not adhesive. One would call it a switch-off (restoring the metaphor to its literal origin), and simply not bother any more to be in and free of a Saturday evening for Jazz Record Requests (delectable hardy perennial that retains its unique tone and its integrity intact), followed by the Met relay. This would be sacrificing an arm and a leg to spite one’s face. What the Met still offers is usually (there have been rare, glaring exceptions) too good to miss. But if the grossness I’ve talked about continues and — God forbid — escalates, we will be denied the real desired experience simply by switching on.