25 APRIL 1987, Page 36


The Trojans (WNO, Bristol)

Absolutely infuriating

Rodney Milnes

Two productions in uncompromisingly, not to say brutally modern style, one a complete success, the other far less easily pin-downable. Both sets of designs use Day-Glo poster colours, acres of white (which can start to look grubby even before a first night is over) and costumes whose visual references range freely over the centuries — gleaming breastplates, hip flasks, automatic rifles, belt-'n-braces. Both pay no heed whatsoever to operatic tradition. Why should I have found one the WNO Trojans, which opened in Febru- ary to general admiration and which I have finally caught up with — fresh and exhilar- ating, and the other, the ENO Boccanegra, absolutely infuriating? And infuriating to an almost health-endangering extent: had not the ENO press officer so wittily put me in a seat next to the modest and accom- plished designer, David Fielding, there would have been much of the shuffling, hawking, grunting and pass-the-sick- bagging to which cantankerous critics are wont to resort when provoked. As it was, I politely held my peace and ended the evening in a state of silent and near- apoplectic rage.

The most worrying thing about David Alden's production is that it seemed de- vised to have just such an effect on critics (`ambulances at 10.30' quipped the press officer with a merry laugh) and the long- suffering but ever-loyal Friends of ENO. `This'll show 'em,' you could almost hear the production team saying as they ensured that the first thing the audience would see would be a fire-bucket. Well, yes, it did show us, but there may be more grown-up ways of approaching an opera like Simon Boccanegra. The most infuriating thing of all is that the staging has haunted me ever since, and I know I shall have to go and see the wretched thing again, because there's something there quite apart from the ster- ling musical values. Alden knows his way about a theatre but, as in the case of his never-to-be-forgotten Mazeppa, he doesn't know quite when to stop.

So without such excrescences as the fire-bucket, the little girl extra (most tire- some of modern production clichés), Fies- co's Homburg hat, Fielding's obsession with strip lighting (now beyond a joke), the kitchen chairs (ditto), and the three stuffed vultures plonked on stage in the second half, there are the bones of a fine produc- tion here. The first appearance of Amelia, emerging from the coffin of her late mother, forged a powerfully suggestive link between the prologue and the first act; the Doge's disrobing from near-traditional garb down to his shirt and braces in `Plebe, patrizii' and then removing one hugely significant red glove was curiously effec- tive; even the massive fickle finger of fate (knocked off with a sledgehammer) in the Council Chamber (memo: kann zis be castration symbol?) had its peculiar, way- ward charm.

Where the charm wears thin is in its determination that we shall continually be distracted from the music. It's not just the little mysteries like precisely what docu- ment is it that Paolo burns at curtain-rise (Verdi's production book?), or why a lady terrorist is lurking about during the tenor- soprano duet, or why Pietro draws lines on the stage and then crosses them out, though each makes you stop listening for a fatal instant while you ponder various possibilities. It is more the way that scenes are purposefully broken up with shock lighting changes or the sudden eruption of armies of stage hands. The piece doesn't move at its own natural pace, but is fragmented, chopped up into alienated little sections. I am not a supporter of the `long hot bath' approach to opera produc- tion (or attendance) but enough is enough. Music must be allowed to rule, OK?

Tim Albery's Trojans may have its passing oddities (why should Iopas be a none-too-secret drinker?) but its big, bold structure exactly matches that of the music and its epic gestures march with the score, not against it. The singers always hold centre stage, and my goodness they are worthy of it: Della Jones has done nothing to apprOach her Dido, which open's up whole new vistas on her career; Anne Evans lashes into Cassandra with blazing commitment; and Jeffrey Lawton, although indisposed, sang Aeneas with quite amazing proficiency. For the choral singing and orchestral playing, and for the conducting of Charles Mackerras, no praise could be too high; this most de- manding of 19th-century French master- pieces was given a performance entirely worthy of it.

At the Coliseum, though, you sensed something between the singers and the audience. None of the excellent cast was, I believe, at his or her best in the first part of the evening — some wobbly tuning here, a nervously bumpy phrase there — but by the end all were showing just how good their best could be. Jonathan Summers's Doge was beautifully moulded — he catch- es the interior quality of the character perfectly — and I much admired Janice Cairns's spirited Amelia (not every prima donna would consent to make her first entrance being tipped out of a coffin and wrapped in a shroud). Adorn° can be a cipher, but Arthur Davies (got up like something out of The Prisoner of Zenda being staged off-off-Broadway) made him a believable human being, albeit an over- hysterical one. Gwynne Howell was made to play Fiesco as a very bad-tempered old man indeed, and this sadly washed over into some over-emphatic vocalisation. Mark Elder showed a firm grasp of the work's unwieldy architecture — it moved in one long, uninterrupted arc of musical thought — but maybe one or two indi- vidual passages could take a little more emotional weight. Musically the show can only get better — and it is already very good. Damn and blast, I must ring that witty press officer and go again.

Rodney Milnes has been awarded a knight- hood, first class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland, for his services to Finnish music.