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Maskarade at the Royal Opera House

Thanks go to Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who went to London, saw Nielsen's Maskarade, and came back angry. "Angry writes best" says ionarts - and we are delighted to share his impressions from the Royal Opera House.

The Royal Opera House presented Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade, coproduced with the Bregenz Festival, on September 22. It plays through October 13. The results reminded me of an opera director’s recent excuse for a modern dress version of an early 17th-century work set in Lombardy. The historical period, he said, “we found too abstruse and out of reach for us today to deal with.” And so it seems is the case with director David Pountney’s presentation of the early 17th-century Copenhagen setting of Nielsen’s 1906 opera. While Pountney does use some period elements in the design, it is the spirit of his production that illustrates Gregory Dart’s observation in his essay in the program booklet: “It is difficult for us, from our historical vantage-point, to imagine the masked ball as anything other than an opportunity for sexual assignations.” Alas, this is the very difficulty from which Pountney seems to suffer in his Las Vegas interpretation of Nielsen’s masterwork.

The singing was generally exemplary, and the orchestra, under famed Nielsen interpreter Michael Schonwandt, performed well. American soprano Katie Van Kooten handled her last-minute substitution in the role of Leonora with complete assurance. Of the principals, only Michael Schade, as Leander, seemed marginally engaged in his role. Whether his lack of commitment was the product of ironic detachment or limited acting abilities is hard to tell.

Other Reviews:

Martin Kettle, 24-hour party people (The Guardian, September 30)

Anna Picard, Maskarade, Royal Opera House, London (The Independent, September 25)

Edward Seckerson, A giddy whirl in the game of love (The Independent, September 21)

Tom Service, Maskarade (The Guardian Unlimited, September 21)
In any case, the good things about this production were fatally subverted by Pountney’s “directors just gotta have fun” approach to the material on which he unleashed puerile mayhem. Had puppets been used, I would have called it the spirit of Team America. It is hard to recall anything implied that was not made explicit, anything subtle that was not made obvious and, then, anything obvious that was not belabored. We can start with the huge off-kilter picture frame within which the stage action takes place. Might this lead us to suspect that there is also something off-kilter within the frame itself? Yes, indeed. However, the real disorientation was the product of the disjunction between the style of the music and this production’s confused appearance and behavior. Sets and costumes were a mélange of period, German expressionism, cartoons, and 50s kitsch.

Masks and masked balls are familiar theatrical conceits. The anonymity of masks allows unconventional or otherwise forbidden behavior in the “role” one assumes. Freed of conventions, one can act “naturally.” It is, of course, ironic that it takes a form of artifice to unleash the forces of nature, which may make one wonder how natural nature is. In Maskarade, the contest between convention and nature takes place in and is made possible by a highly artificial setting of the masked ball. The contest is between romantic love and contractual marriage, between old and new, and between generations. This is played out by various couples: the father and mother, the son and daughter, the servant and girlfriend, etc., each of whom illustrates an aspect of the problem of nature and convention as it relates to the heart. There are foibles aplenty. At the end, the tension between the two is resolved when the couple resisting an arranged marriage discovers that the prospective partner is, in fact, the secret lover from the masked ball. Of course, this is all too neat in dramatic terms, but this is, after all, a comedy.

It should have been fun, but Pountney’s forced fun became a strain. His reluctance to let the material speak for itself resulted in his condescending to it and to his audience. As the crowd gathers before the ball scene, was it necessary to show servant Henrik simulating oral sex with a woman? The audience tittered in embarrassment. The Mars and Venus ballet in the third act was transposed to a 1950s scene in which a series of bored housewives in polka dot panties cheat on their husbands. Here the sex was more conventional, with simulated copulation. During the dance announced by the master of the Maskarade, we were treated to a gyrating Elvis impersonator, 1920s flapper figures doing the Charleston, the “chicken” dance my children do in grade school, and other solecisms that were intended, no doubt, to universalize the message for the dolts in the audience, some of whom obligingly laughed at this lameness.

Why do this to an opera, especially a soufflé like Maskarade? The only answer I can think of is that the director did not trust the material and therefore felt he had to vulgarize it.

At the very end of Pountney’s Maskarade, a naked woman covered in gold glitter pops out of the coffin into which the masks had been put at the end of the ball. Ha, ha, Eros triumphs! Several years ago in Paris, I saw something similar at the end of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. It did not make a lot of dramatic sense, but this was, after all, France. This, however, was England. Or was it Las Vegas?


Anonymous said...

Not sure if I love the message - but love the messenger for sure! That was one of the funniest ionarts articles yet.

Anonymous said...

Oh when oh when will directors opera die its much needed death? I'm so tired of directors who have no real interest in a piece inflicting their stagings on the public. And I'm *really* tired of walking out of an opera house livid at the bullshit directors inflict on pieces and patrons--yes, Lenhoff and your ghastly Parsifal, I'm looking right at you.

“It is difficult for us, from our historical vantage-point, to imagine the masked ball as anything other than an opportunity for sexual assignations.”

What condescending twaddle. Here's a radical thought: set Nielsen's terrific opera in the period specified, with the correct sets and costumes, no extraneous Vegas bullshit and the piece will *tell* us about what goes on at the masked ball--all the social roles and conventions that jfl alludes to. Instead, we don't get the point that Nielsen and the librettist (s) were making AND we get nothing enlightening in its place.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks again for a great comment. Just to clarify, this review comes from guest contributor Robert R. Reilly.

Anonymous said...

great entry..

Princess Alpenrose said...

I remember an opera workshop scene from Figaro in which I was portraying Susanna. The director was an ass, to put it bluntly, and I had been biting my tongue all afternoon at his stupid and clumsy stage direction.

I was cooperating up until the point when he said, you have to enter from the right. He said, and I quote, "Good characters always enter from the right and bad characters always enter from the left". The entire large room filled with performers, other singing students, student directors and one senior directing colleague FROZE. I just sat there, in the center of the stage, stunned and fuming inside.

I basically stomped through the rest of that rehearsal, with the complete support of the rest of the cast and onlookers. I vowed to myself that I would do it his way for a workshop, for a class, ie when he was the teacher and I the student, but if we EVER ended up in an artist/director situation, I would fight him tooth and nail.

It's REALLY hard to give a good performance (vocally technically) when you're biting your tongue and/or feel like puking ...

Princess Alpenrose said...

A MUST READ on this topic:

Today Canadienne writes about her experiences as a singer in questionable production. Her "Rant" is a searingly honest, insider's view: