Robin Holloway

Ill Met by moonlight

Robin Holloway on when good opera is ruined by tack presentation

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.

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