A recent visit to London offered interestingly comparable back-to-back performances: Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck at the English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday evening, May 25th; and the next afternoon Shakespeare’s Othello at the National Theatre. Both works center on a military man, mad from the start or driven mad as things progress, who comes to kill his lover (female) out of sexual jealousy, and then kills himself. Comparison of the two works (the Berg opera, of course, based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck) can lead one into interesting thoughts on the nature of tragedy, modern tragedy versus classical tragedy, the function of character and fate in such dramas, and so on. But remarkably, these two London productions were given the same setting: the military world of the recent Iraq and current Afghanistan wars—thereby making a particular and strong point about the nature of experiential and environmental pressures upon such characters as we see.
English National Opera
Feral fairies. Anyone afraid of a sugar overdose had nothing to worry about at the English National Opera's fiercely odd production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is a company that often traffics between radical and gimmicky, every once in a while being capable of acts of metamorphosis. In this case the director, Christopher Alden, seems to have taken his cue from the first sound we hear: slithery glissandos in the lower strings that introduce the fairy world not with whimsy and a twinkle but a wave of sea-sick nausea. In a daring move, the entire production metastasizes from the queasiness of that sound. The initial effect was to travesty Shakespeare's magical comedy — audience members who stalked up the aisle before the first act ended clearly didn't appreciate such high-handedness — but the music has never sounded so disturbing, or so convincing.
Not enough pearls. It has become fashionable for opera houses to invite movie directors in for some cinematic sprucing up, hence Rigoletto turned into a Don Corleone clone, Die Zauberflote with puppetry courtesy of The Lion King, and so on. But when English National Opera invited independent filmmaker Penny Woolcock to stage George Bizet’s rarely seen Pearl Fishers, she didn’t look to Hollywood for inspiration but rather to something like a public service message from UNICEF. When the curtain rose we had been helicoptered to Ceylon, the right setting but updated and now seriously impoverished. On a wharf lapped by the sea were jammed native washer women wringing out their bright saris, sadhus bathing from a bucket, Hindu devotees performing temple rites, and anonymous stragglers emptied out of a kebab shop on Brick Lane. When two Western tourists show up handing out alms, they get eager takers. I stared doubtfully. Exotic doesn’t mean Third World. But Woolcock had no political agenda. The extras mingled in Franco Zefferelli fashion, pretending to occupy themselves with everyday life despite the presence of opera singers quayside.