Classically Inclined

September 27, 2013

Richard Strauss’ Elektra at the Royal Opera House

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 1:50 pm
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The Royal Opera House has just revived its production of Strauss’ Elektra. Oddly enough, I think I saw this production when it was first put on in 2003 as part of my third year undergraduate unit on classical reception, but that was quite a long time ago and I’ve got better at both listening to opera and analysing classical reception since then. The opera is Strauss’ version of the episode in the Oresteia cycle when Orestes returns home to kill his mother, first sending a false report that he has been killed in a chariot race in order to allay her suspicions and let him get close to her in his guise as an eye-witness to the fatal accident. The libretto, written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, started off as a adaptation of Sophocles’ version of this story, but as is the way with myth, became the poet’s own retelling,  which emphasises the emotional currents of the story in a way that complements Strauss’ powerful music. It’s also an extremely compressed opera – it only lasts ninety minutes (no interval), and basically takes you through a rollercoaster of conflicting and extreme emotions. I didn’t notice how drawn in I had become until the curtain fell and I realised how much I’d been holding my breath. Christine Goerke is sensational as Elektra, and there wasn’t a weak performance among the rest of the cast – the deep grumbling bass of Iain Paterson’s Orest, when he finally appears, was particularly effective, Michaela Schuster offered a superb power-mad and unhinged Klytemnestra, and Adrianne Pieczonka created a Chrysothemis who stood in stark contrast to her sister but not in head-on conflict (which, given the score, is much harder than it sounds). All of which stands as a recommendation for an evening of stunning music and performance, although be quick if you’re in London as the last performance is in mid-October.

Putting aside the performance component (although that is very much in this particular production’s favour), what of the classical reception element? What strikes me is that way in which both Strauss and Hofmannsthal picked up on the emotional trauma of the mythic story. The score reflects it, and so does the structure of the piece – Elektra is on stage for most of the ninety minutes, and the music itself is virtuosic. A poster reproduced in the program from the 1910 premier in London promises “the most arduous score ever written” (not to mention the puntastically dreadful assurance that this is “the opera that will ‘Elektrify’ London”), and it’s not far wrong – it’s technically highly demanding. I’ve never seen a production before where water bottles have formed part of the set and swigging from them has been choreographed in – but I can’t see any other way of a singer surviving, frankly. What all this highlights to me is that the emotional punch of this episode is what caught Strauss and Hofmannsthal, and that is what they seek to bring out most from the source material.

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February 26, 2013

Charpentier’s Medea at the ENO

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:10 pm
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It’s all opera all the time here at the moment! My recent visit to see ENO’s production of Charpentier’s Medea was a Christmas present, because you can never get too much of classical reception. This is another example of receptions overlapping receptions (which I’ve talked about before) – not only does this production offer a chance to unpick Charpentier’s adaptation of the Medea myth (and the approach taken by his librettist, Corneille), but also to think about the ENO’s staging and production choices. Before I get into that, however, I should take a moment to encourage you to get to one of the remaining performances if you possibly can. Yes, it is a long opera – the French habit of inserting ballet at every possible opportunity means that the score might be considered a little on the cumbersome side. But the music is divine. Sarah Connolly gives us an utterly credible, passionate and bristling Medea, and the chemistry between her and Brindley Sherratt’s Creon during the pivotal scene when he orders her out of Corinth crackles with electricity. The other singers are also exceptionally fine (a slight tightness in the top register of Jeffrey Francis’ Jason faded as the evening went on, and in fairness I was at the first performance), and the orchestra do a fabulous job – not least the two theorbo players, an instrument I can’t ever recall seeing in the wild before but which add a very special timbre to the musical atmosphere. Finally, the ballet sequences are handled wonderfully. They demonstrate a light hand, with a touch of archness that hint at the production’s awareness that this is (for a modern audience) rather silly, combined with enough eroticism to echo the reason the ballet sections were originally introduced – to keep the elite young men in the audience visually stimulated.

The Medea sarcophagus, Altes Museum, Berlin. Image taken from .

The Medea sarcophagus, Altes Museum, Berlin. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Now, to the classical reception content. I want to start by thinking about the changes that Corneille made to the original plot – which aren’t as drastic as one might expect. The overall structure of the drama cleaves very closely to that of Euripides, particularly in the final scene where Medea reveals to Jason that his children are dead. However, there are a number of other interesting changes in the basic plot structure. The one that stands out most to me is that Creusa, Creon’s daughter, is quite frequently on stage, and is given her own personality and motivations. This is a major departure from the Euripidean original, where Creusa never appears on stage (and is in fact never named), and her grisly death from poisoned gifts is reported through a particularly graphic messenger speech. This is mainly to do with the convention that Greek tragedy places deaths off-stage, but that in and of itself doesn’t prevent Creusa from appearing – indeed, one imagines the fight that Euripides would have written for the two women and mourns the lost opportunity. Bringing Creusa on-stage allows Corneille and Charpentier to stage this confrontation, as well as more subtle interactions between the two women, but also allows them to create a relationship between Creusa and Jason, adding to the audience’s sense of his spinelessness.

The other major plot change is that the context of the play is altered. In Euripides’ original, Medea and Jason are just hanging around Corinth; in Corneille’s version, Corinth is gearing up for a war with Acastus of Thessaly, hot on Medea’s tail after her outrages there, and the couple need to keep Creon and Creusa on side so that they and their sons will be protected. This shift also allows for the introduction of a rival for Creusa’s hand, the prince Orontes of Argos, who has come to provide military support to Corinth and to marry Creusa, to whom he is formally betrothed. This has a number of interesting knock-on effects, not least of which is the added complication of the Jason/Creusa relationship when she’s meant to be betrothed to someone else and he’s meant to be married to someone else – Creon is quite happy to ignore both of these prior commitments and string the spare partners along, so when he eventually gets driven mad I have to say I didn’t feel terribly sympathetic. The second effect is that Orontes takes on the Aegistus role from Euripides and promises Medea a safe haven when she leaves Corinth – a promise that is rather less effective at the end of this opera, as Orontes has been stabbed by the insane Creon, but there we are. He also serves as a partner to her grief and frustration at Creusa and Jason’s betrayal, providing some balance to the piece. Finally, his inclusion ups the political content and relevance of the opera – it heightens the dimension of realpolitik manouvering, as Creon tries to work out how to keep his ally happy and obtain military victory whilst ensuring the most advantageous marriage for his daughter in the long term. It’s this aspect, I think, that speaks most interestingly to the context of the opera’s composition; it was first performed in 1693, and began with a prologue in praise of Louis XIV (omitted from the ENO’s production). This was a time when the royal houses of Europe were swapping sons and daughters in alliance marriages with considerable care and deliberation; the choice to generate this element of diplomatic juggling, and its dramatic failure, must have had a certain political resonance for the contemporary audience.

And so to the ENO’s adaptation. The most interesting choice, in some ways, that they’ve made is to set the opera in the Second World War, and designate each nation as a different country – so the Corinthians are French, Jason and his troops are British, and Orontes and the men from Argos are fabulously brash American airmen (flying in to save the day!). This works with the underlying civic context of the libretto by really foregrounding that political element of the opera; as a directorial choice, it’s very effective. It also implies some unspoken cultural differences between Jason and Orontes. Jason, for instance, sings to Creusa in moments of private passion, all very Brief Encounter; Orontes, by contrast, declares his love through a spectacular party and floor show, involving a Weimar-esque singing Cupid, a crooning lounge singer, and a set of ballet dancers dressed as sailors, American car mechanics, and 1940s magazine pin-ups with a bit of extra raunch. (There’s a video of the process of building Cupid’s plane here if you want to get a feel for it.) One feels quite sympathetic for Creusa’s preference for something a bit less ostentatious. The choice to make the men from Argos American airmen also plays into a set of British assumptions about what the Americans stationed here were like during the Second World War, and that sets up a particular dynamic of interaction that maps onto the libretto very effectively.

I should mention an interesting point about the ENO’s casting. Creusa, in Euripides’ play, is a young girl; Medea, when Jason meets her, is a young girl, and he is a young man – say, perhaps, 16 and 20? A little difference, but not a great deal. I have always presumed that Medea is in her mid-20s, Jason his early 30s, and Creusa her late teens for the plot of the Medea, particularly given the ancient world’s usual practice of fairly early childbearing. However, the ENO doesn’t follow this. Their Creusa is presumably in her early 20s; their Medea is in her late 30s/early 40s – and Jason. Oh, Jason. Jason is at least early 40s, if not quite a bit older. Put simply, they have deliberately worked the casting so that Jason is old enough to be Creusa’s father, and the comparison with a boyish Orontes serves to foreground the age difference. This makes a number of differences to the production, most obviously the rather unhealthy possessive attitude Creon has to his daughter (of which she, thankfully, seems blissfully unaware), which both provides the route for Medea to drive him mad and a psychological motivation for Creusa to find Jason as attractive as she does. However, it also plays into the well-known trope of older men abandoning their wives for a younger model – with the Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce affair floating around, again, this aspect of the plot gains a certain resonance and relevance, and the acting out of the consequences become that little bit more poignant.

As for the presentation of Medea’s witchcraft itself, the ENO has made the excellent decision to ditch realism and go for the full-on zombie nurse spirits rising from the underworld approach when Medea invokes hell and poisons the dress she will give Creusa. The whole point of the Medea myth is to highlight the dreadfulness of the unknown and the dark – to do anything less that bring the witchcraft to the stage would have neutered the production. The ENO’ s staging keeps the ghastly and the grotesque (mainly through clever choreography), but also lets the opera properly move into the realm of the mythical. The scene where Medea torments Creon is similarly carefully managed, in that there’s enough overlap of reality with magic to indicate a sense of wavering boundaries which Medea controls; the final scene, which closes with Medea ascending on a plinth as Jason mourns over the dead bodies of his sons, again retains the Euripidean sense of a dark world which the gods have abandoned, tying in well with the underlying WWII themes of the production. Medea’s costume also represents her shift from following human laws to playing by her own rules. When she has decided to call up hell, she removes her heels and neat twin piece, and instead stamps around the stage barefoot in a black shift. Her transition is even more marked as this is the moment she decides to hand over a shimmering silver ballgown to Creusa, its poison only to be activated if Creusa will not give Jason up and marry Orontes – which, of course, she will not. The symbolism of clothing thus becomes a marker of status, of Medea’s move away from the laws of humanity as represented by Creon into the otherworldly power that up to this point she has kept in reserve, and of Creusa’s slow but inexorable journey towards her tortuous death.

Let me repeat myself – go and see it if you possibly can, or if you can’t, watch out for a revival of the production. This one deserves to be taken off the shelf again in the future.

January 30, 2013

Birtwistle’s Minotaur at Covent Garden

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:40 am
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The Royal Opera House; image courtest of Flicr user Cebete under a Creative Commons license.

The Royal Opera House; image courtest of Flicr user Cebete under a Creative Commons license.

Apparently I’m in the mood for modern and experimental stuff at the moment, because my most recent cultural outing was to see the current production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur at Covent Garden. The opera was a commission for the Royal Opera House and was first performed in 2008; I think this is its second set of performances, which isn’t unreasonable for a new composition. There’s one really big obvious classical reception point to make up front – the world of classical myth is still full of power and influence for all sorts of cultural enterprises, opera included. It’s not just those eighteenth century chaps who find it inspirational.

Birtwistle’s opera contains three main protagonists – Ariadne, Theseus and the eponymous Minotaur, pleasingly given his proper name Asterios. There is also a snake priestess and her priest interpreter; a chorus of Innocents, tribute from Athens; a Crowd; and a flock of Keres, spirits of the dead who feast on those murdered by violence. Ariadne is on the Cretan shore when the latest tribute ship from Athens arrives; she tricks Theseus into staying with her as she sends the Innocents into the labyrinth. When they reach the centre, the Minotaur slays them, and then dreams as the Keres tuck into the bodies of his victims. In his dream, he has human speech, and sings of his desire for freedom. Ariadne tries to bargain with Theseus, but he will not agree to take her to Athens with him as his wife. She then goes to the Snake Priestess, who (through her priest) reveals that Theseus can use a ball of twine to get in and out of the maze safely. Ariadne then offers Theseus a deal – her secret of how he can get into the Labyrinth and back for a promise to take her with him. (Of course, “Theseus and Ariadne will set sail for Athens!” doesn’t quite mean what she thinks it means…) In the final scene of the opera, Theseus descends to the Labyrinth and slays the beast, who gains the power of human speech in as he dies to sing his last notes, before a final Ker appears on stage to feast on him.

Of course, the obvious question is to ask what difference it makes for an opera to be written in the eighteenth century and for one to be written in the twenty-first century. The answer, as so often, appears to be Freud. Ariadne, Theseus and Asterios operate as Freud’s tripartite soul, the id, ego and super-ego; Ariadne-as-ego battles Asterios-as-id, while Theseus-as-super-ego is the only one with the power to overcome the beastly urgings of the soul. There’s lots of reflective language and action used to indicate that these figures are all aspects of the same person. For instance, Ariadne walks safely around Asterios after he’s killed the Innocents, and lies down next to him to sleep; Asterios sees both Ariadne and Theseus as his reflection in his dreams; and both Theseus and Asterios are sons of Poseidon. (One might also point to the hierarchy of man -> woman -> beast in the characters here.)  The opera thus becomes a psychological drama, the tale of the self’s battle with its animal instincts and its attempt to get them under control.

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September 17, 2012

Film Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:01 pm
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I meant to watch this before giving my talk at the Birmingham and Midlands Classical Association branch sixth form conference earlier this year, but didn’t get around to it for various time-related reasons. They have, however, invited me back to speak again next year, and I’m intending to go with my other plan, which was to talk about this film in tandem with the new Clash of the Titans and The Immortals – but that, of course, that means watching this one first.

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I came away pleasantly surprised. The plot, based on the first of the best-selling series by Rick Riordan, has the eponymous hero discover that he is in fact the son of Poseidon, that he is suspected of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt, that there is a whole parallel world for the children of gods, and that he had better find the lightning bolt or else there will be war between the gods. First, however, he must rescue his mortal mother from his uncle Hades… this leads to a road trip across America to collect pearls from various locations that will serve as the escape route from the underworld before a good old fashioned katabasis under the Hollywood sign. It is presumably not too much of a spoiler to observe that the world must survive in order for there to be sequels.

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September 23, 2011

Book review: Where Three Roads Meet – Salley Vickers

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 7:39 am
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I don’t know how many of you are aware of the Canongate Myths series of books, but if they’re not on your radar, they should be as they are pretty awesome. The editors of the series basically invite significant writers to come and ‘re-do’ a myth of their choice, which is completely in keeping with the dynamic nature of myth itself – the whole point of mythic stories was that they could be tweaked and varied and have new bits added to them and have bits taken away depending on what the story was needed for. (Hence why, for instance, so many different places claim to be the birthplace of assorted Greek heroes.) The most recent myth is A. S. Byatt’s retelling of the Ragnarok story, so myth isn’t being interpreted as being strictly ‘classical’; that said, one of the initial volumes was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which took on the Odyssey and turned it on its head to look at things through the eyes of Penelope and, in particular, the maids who Odysseus and Telemachus kill at the end of the poem.

The book I want to discuss in this post is Salley Vickers’ Where Three Roads Meet, which takes on the myth of Oedipus in a really interesting way. You can’t think of Oedipus these days without thinking of the Oedipus Complex, and thence to Doctor Freud – so Vickers grasps this inevitable nettle with both hands, and makes this a tale of Freud being told the Oedipus story by a ghostly figure, who ends up being the prophet Tiresias visiting him through a mysterious time/space travel thingummie. How the mechanics work aren’t important. What is important is the dialogue, the conversation between the two men. Vickers starts with a short precis of Freud’s life and the various crisis points that she wishes to emphasise, including various small and interesting details like Freud’s famous spearless Athena (paging Doctor Freud… oh, wait). Having set the stage, as it were, the main body of the novel takes the form of a series of dialogues, with the date of each dialogue noted at its beginning. The first takes place after the first operation Freud had for mouth cancer; the subsequent dialogues are dated when Freud has come to London and is gradually succumbing to ill health and the cancer that would eventually kill him. (more…)

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