Sunday, 16 May 2010

Opera, Ethics and La Trivialising of Culture

I've been reading a collection of essays on Film and Ethics and am highly taken by the authors' suggestion that "Critical work in the arts and the humanities influenced by those branches of thought known as poststructuralism, have been characterized in recent years by what has been termed as a 'turn to ethics.'" [1] The book concentrates on encounters with films as ethical events but we can clearly apply an ethical line of interrogation to other cultural products. Ethics were certainly at the forefront of my mind as I was confronted by the spectacle of Richard Eyre's production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House on Friday. I found the production unethical.

Why, and what might be an ethical production of an opera? Some might argue that the form itself is unethical in terms of the structure of its funding in Western Europe these days – an elitist and perhaps non-populist cultural product which though it appeals to wealthy patrons has to be kept alive with subsidies from the public purse. This objection can be easily dealt with by affirming that opera would survive, as it does in America, without public monies but that the ticket prices really would then mean that it is available only to wealthy audiences. It could keep itself going like sport from sponsorship deals with corporate companies, but how might their heavier involvement affect the artistic output of a company? I have not followed US opera houses closely enough to know if or how they are compromised by their absolute reliance on private sponsorship.

Back to La Traviata, Eyre's production might be described in terms of it being solid, handsome, traditional and completely competent as a piece of staging. Its main strength is that it foregrounds its singers in such a way that during their major arias, they are the focus of attention on stage. But notice how I use singers here to describe the performers – the singing has been foregrounded here to the detriment of the dramatic content. It is not that I am calling for opera in which the singing is not important – that would be absurd (and the singing of Ermonela Jaho as Violetta and, supremely, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont is superb here). But opera is not only about the enjoyment of the music and singing (otherwise concert versions would be the preferred production model); we are in the theatre to witness a music drama (to borrow Wagner's phrase). Eyre's production fails to lead us into the drama at all; it gives its audience a pleasant experience, and given that the work is about a woman who dies after having her one chance of happiness taken away from her by hypocritical and moralistic social forces, is a merely pleasant and enjoyable experience the ethical one? I would doubt that many in the audience came away from the production with a strong feeling of injustice.

The real work in opera production, since David Alden and others revolutionised it in from the early 1990s onwards, has been to force audiences to look at the content of the work they are seeing and understand that they are witnessing the work of artists who are dealing with the salient problems of human life, in a way which is still vitally relevant to a contemporary audience member. The simplest way of doing this is to update the setting – imagine a Violetta who is a transsexual porn star or a gay man in the 1980s stricken with AIDS. The fact that some relationships would still be socially unacceptable recently or now has to be apparent for any audience to understand the need Verdi had to compose the work; the programme makes much of  how the writing was inspired by the composer's own socially unacceptable relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi. When we are confronted, in the final scene, by a woman on her death bed who has been robbed of what the Americans feel is her universal human right to the pursuit of happiness, we need to see the truth of death, beds and human lives. Someone dying doesn't languish on pristine white sheets, as in Bob Crowley's design for Eyre, but on sheets soiled with bodily secretions. The final scene should be horrific and not merely an exercise in pretty aesthetics; at the outset of Act 2 Scene 2 the audience actually applauded the set, a thing I always find distressing in a theatre.  The production is very disappointing coming from Eyre, who when he ran the Nottingham Playhouse in the 70s was at the forefront of radical dramatic theatre, directing Griffiths' Comedians and Brenton & Hare's Brassneck. Whatever has happened to him – including the prestigious Artistic Directorship of the RNT, a knighthood and hit Broadway musical productions – in the interim has clearly been artistically deleterious if it has lead him to produce La Traviata as if it were a waxwork display sitting on top of a chocolate box.

I have seen a couple of recent German productions of Wagner - Stefan Herheim's Lohengrin and Philipp Stölzl's Rienzi – both of which really interrogated the works and gave the audience no choice other than to think about what they are seeing. Some audiences may not wish to think so hard but I would say that these are non-ethical audiences and the ethical artist cannot be beholden to them. There is the argument that Roger Scruton makes that beauty in itself is ethical, and he objected strongly to Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio on the grounds that it did nothing but destroy the beauty of Mozart's music. I didn't see that production but I did see Bieito's Don Giovanni at the ENO – the music of Mozart was still there in all its grandeur and beauty but Bieito certainly did thrust the ugliness of Da Ponte's characters and their behaviours in our face in such a way that we were encouraged to intimately connect this with our society. That must be the ethical way to produce an opera, and we do an injustice to Verdi, Wagner, Mozart et al if we fail to think of them as ethical human beings engaged in encouraging their audience to think and feel about human problems in a very immediate way.

Some of the problem, it could be said, is in Verdi's music for La Traviata – and we can turn to Adorno as a voice of encouragement to think about serious music and culture in post-1945 European context. Adorno would surely say that La Traviata should never be, as it certainly is in Eyre's production, mere trivia, escapism and aesthetic over-indulgence.

[1] Dowling, Lisa & Saxton, Libby Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (Routledge, 2010), p.1

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