Monday, October 22, 2007

Meistersingers at Hungarian National Opera, 21.10.07

The master singers of Budapest was it not. Only one member of the cast was vocally adequate, Walther (Kovacshazi Istvan). The principal role, Hans Sachs (Gurban Janos) was abysmal, ambling and mumbling through the role as if he resented being talked into it. The female singers are no doubt more at home in Mozart and Rossini. A couple of the jury were also adequate, but were such small roles that their presence hardly compensated for the rest of the scrum. I’d like to say that the direction was the greatest offence of all, but really if you haven’t got the voices, don’t even engage a director. This is contrary to a lot of current practice where a merely adequate cast are compensated for by a spectacular, ingenious or wily production, and if it conveys the work’s raison d’etre then, let’s go with it. We don’t expect a cast of three tenors (especially when one of them is dead) in every opera house. Thus my gavel strikes against ratty direction: it was less forgivable than the voices.

Take this for example. In Act I, some of the chorus were engaged to roll on some curious transparent plastic globes, the size of physiotherapy balls, and the lads busied themselves ensuring that none of their charges rolled into the pit instead of focussing on their singing. Don’t mention acting. It later transpired that said balls were the jury’s seats, unsteady and uncomfortable. For the audience, discomfiting. Once again chorus members were juggling balss at the expense of being choristers. If one is going to show off a jury’s collective balls, at least design a scrotum for them.

The second act was notable for being unlit. Please remember all you budding directors out there, that when you put people on stage, the audience expects to see them. Having read the six line synopsis outlining the 90 mins of action (in the best Wagnerian sense of the word), it was revealed that we were witnessing a night scene with backgrounded townsfolk serving no dramatic purpose whatsoever, oh, except for some pointless pandemonium at one stage. There were even ballet dancers prancing around outside the cobbler’s shop - unlit. Given that the choreography was on a par with the direction, we can’t have missed much. And while we’re at it, ditto costumes. Eva, the object desire, eavesdropped over the whole act from something that might have been a turret – unlit.

The comings and goings of various people were (was?) so clumsy as to occasion the odd titter. The action was played out on a black raked substage littered with manuscript and looked most well, until it was drawn up by cables so that someone could sing something in the air. Titter titter.

The third act, with the singing competition to end all singing competitions (which it unfortunately didn’t), is grand opera at its grandest. A triumphal procession of banners reminiscent of movies about the crusades ended in said items being erected along the rims of the substage where the competition was held. Unfortunately, most of the vast and excellent chorus in their colourful though uncoordinated costumes was blocked by the unironed banners. The competition took place on the raked substage, not black this time, but a huge stained glass window: yes that's right, the floor on which they sang was illuminated. More light and more colour and more clashes. The keen reader will be pleased to learn that the jury once again got to show who had the balls in this town. Fortunately perhaps, none of them fell off their prosthetic perches.

I am happy for the Hungarian speakers in the audience who were able to follow the surtitles as it is such an enhancement to opera these days. It further lets you experience the masturbatory prolixity that is Richard Wagner. Personally, I am always torn between the desire to tighten up the script at the expense of some great music. It was pleasing to find the director’s notes translated into both English and German, though they could be fairly accused of raising false expectations. I was equally pleased that the enthusiasm expressed by the audience coheres with mine. They only applauded Walther and the orchestra, which was by and large excellent. As usual, the winner of the song competition to end all song competitions was Richard Wagner.

The only conclusion I can draw from this production is that Gurban and the director (Attila Vidnyanszky) hate Wagner so much that they set out to sabotage the national opera’s attempt to fulfill their obligation to the opera going public.

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