King of Spades
It has been quite a fortnight in London's opera houses, with preconceptions and prejudices falling like autumn leaves. All this and industrial action too, with both companies offering apologies for underrehearsed or cut performances, and indeed cancellations. This very British compromise is fair to everyone except the composers, one of whom is actually alive; David Blake cannot have enjoyed seeing the last two performances of his first opera, Toussaint, scrubbed to make way for preparation of a revival of The Tales of Hoffmann. This lunatic situation could drag on for weeks. Might it not be wiser for both houses to close for the time being, so that the gravity of the dispute could be revealed, heads banged together from the Treasury downwards, managements stop behaving like school sneaks, and everyone get on with the business of presenting opera properly? Maybe not. I should hate to have missed most of the compromises that were thrown on stage.
First set of prejudices: Tosca, that despised melodrama that seems to get more and more uncomfortable as life catches up With art. Mock executions are the stockin-trade of modern tyrannies, and the papers full of people throwing themselves from a great height while in police custody. And we all know that Montserrat Caballe and Jose Carreras are two of the highest-paid nightingales in the business; what was so extraordinary was that as well as earning every penny with their larynxes they both acted with more spirit and purpose than ever before in London. The idea of of relationship between earth-mother and pretty boy seemed perfectly valid. Caballe's discovery of the table knife was a masterpiece of subtle stagecraft, and of course you have to be a Mediterranean Roman Catholic to play Tosca convincingly. She did. With the Young English conductor Robin Stapleton wringing very drop of Latin anguish from the score, this was a stirring evening, and one most scurvily treated by my preconceptual colleagues. Having absorbed much pre-publicity from David Blake, I was prepared to be mightily prejudiced against Toussaint. Sample, from interview in the Musical Times: 'Well, yes, the political angle is interesting, because a revolution always is exciting, and the kicking out of a colonial power is an inspiring business.' Golly, yes, isn't it, super. I'd like to see Mr Blake discussing that point with anyone who happened to be alive still in Uganda, I thought, but I needn't have worried. He was only proving my theory that composers should stick to composing. In fact, Anthony Ward's libretto and the opera as a whole in David Poutney's brilliant production are mordantly realistic about revolution, colonialism, race, power etc (rather like Don Carlos). Splattering racial prejudice in every known direction from white-gloved 'Mammy'-Blacks to freaky-Fellini Whites (the whole evening cocked a splendid snook at the Race Relations Act), the opera charts Saint Domingue's battle for freedom under the eponymous slave, with the 'inspiring' and 'exciting' revolution floundering into Actonian corruption, opportunism and multiracial betrayal. 'That was how Haiti came into being,' remarks the Brechtian commentator. 'Independent and starving.' It is starving still. If the lessons of Toussaint, like those of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, are applied to contemporary problems, the answers are not those that will fire progressive hearts with enthusiasm.
What I admire most about Toussaint is that it has fire in its belly rather than flutterings in its cerebellum. It makes no apologies for opera as a means of expression, but uses every weapon in the operatic armoury to bludgeon the audience into reacting to issues of burning importance. I hope this and, to a less political extent, Musgrave's Mary Queen of Scots mark a move away from chamber, or closet, opera (one such was also premiered last week, Nicola LeFanu's Downpath; it had nothing to say and I shall return the compliment). Blake's musical language is approachable, firmly in the post-Schoenberg European tradition (he studied in Berlin with Eisler, Which shows every now and then). His skill in putting together a big set number, like Musgrave's, is encouraging. He does not disdain pastiche or divertissement. He goes out to meet his audience instead of issuing it with a challenge. But I think he is pushing his luck in ending each of the long first two acts with a slow dying fall — not even Donizetti risked that.
Reviewers have noted Toussaint's affinities with nineteenth-century grand opera: a historical subject, genre episodes, four hours' playing time. But seeing Don Carlos so soon afterwards reinforced my doubts about the piece's form. In the nineteenth century librettists adapted history to make their points; Toussaint is the first documentary opera. There are forty-six named roles and an awful lot of history in the twenty-two scenes, most of it dramatically superfluous. Narrative, as I never tire of arguing, is not opera's business, and here narrative swamps characters well defined musically and dramatically: Toussaint himself, his nephew Moise who sees he is betraying the revolution and is shot before he can do much about it, the opportunist Dessalines who betrays him, and his longsuffering wife. It is tempting to guess what Verdi might have done with this subject, one that he would have found congenial, and these four characters. He would have thrown history out, ended with the secondact battle in which Dessalines would have shot Toussaint (here he lingers on, historically, into a largely redundant third act). He would have examined the issues through the characters. There wouldn't have been any whites. We know all that.
For the huge cast I have nothing but grovelling admiration: Neil Howlett in the title-role, Willard White as Moise, Sarah Walker as Suzanne, Geoffrey Chard as Dessalines, Emile Belcourt as the narrator. Maria Bjornson's decor is stunning and Pountney's production, though perhaps too freezeand shock-light-conscious, a model of its epic kind. Mark Elder conducted, as far as one could tell, faultlessly. We must see Toussaint again.
With scarcely any stage or orchestral rehearsal, it is a wonder that Don Carlos itself got on the boards of the Royal Opera House at all. In the circumstances it was, I suppose, praiseworthy, but as a performance of Verdi's masterpiece it was a non-starter. This complex drama cannot just be flung on stage. The tortured interrelationships were barely suggested — Yuri Mazurok's ice-cold, insensitively sbawled Posa was largely to blame for that. Carreras, perfect casting for Carlos, failed to overcome the special circumstances. Grace Bumbry was defeated by Eboli's Veil Song and then took '0 don fatale' by crude frontal assault. Nicolai Ghiaurov had his moments as King Philip. The evening was saved from mediocrity by Katia Ricciarelli's Elisabeth, which was exquisitely sung and touchingly. acted. In the pit Miguel Gomez-Martinez kept things together neatly, which was all he could be expected to do. More is needed.