by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2002.
English audiences produce an unmistakable noise at the end of a great night of theatre—a revved-up, rapid-fire applause that is almost caffeinating in its effect. That noise erupted after a recent performance of Alban Berg’s "Wozzeck" at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and it was a welcome sound, since England’s leading opera company has too long been known as the place where everything goes wrong. In the nineties, as the rest of London enjoyed a cultural renaissance, Covent Garden dwelled in a state of chaos, each new cultural or bureaucratic horror sprayed across the morning papers. Executives came and went; productions were cancelled or curtailed on short notice; extensive renovations sucked up millions of pounds of public money; Labour politicians self-servingly denounced the house on behalf of the working class; and the London tabloids mocked the entire spectacle ("The Greedy Beggar’s Opera," the Sun dubbed it). Several ugly backstage scenes, complete with screaming, swearing, and the hurling of a telephone, were broadcast to the nation via a merciless television documentary entitled "The House." At one point, it seemed possible that the Royal Opera and Ballet would simply go under.
This season, Covent Garden is a happier and healthier place. The critics are full of praise, and the tabloids have let up on their needling. The solution, oddly simple on the face of it, was to hire a powerful artistic personality around whom the company’s energies could coalesce. The new music director, Antonio Pappano, is one of the best all-around conductors of opera now working; unless the byzantine management structure makes a victim of him, he ought to have a long and happy reign. The house that rode so high under Georg Solti’s direction in the nineteen-sixties once again has the swagger of success.
Pappano is forty-two years old; he was born in London and spent much of his youth in Connecticut. He got his start as a rehearsal coach at the New York City Opera but soon moved to European stages, gaining precious hands-on experience in Frankfurt. From 1992 until this year, he was the music director of the perennially adventurous Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, in Brussels. He has a pleasant, soft-featured face and speaks in a flat-toned American accent that can only be described as pure Washington, D.C. Padding around Covent Garden in slacks and a green Lacoste shirt, he has no air of grandiloquence about him. He even seems a little bland. But when he speaks about his plans for Covent Garden he assumes the air of someone who has decided what he wants and has no time to argue.
"My job is to be a point of focus for this incredible community of artists and art-minded people," he told me, in his not yet fully furbished Covent Garden office. "They need to funnel all their talents in one direction, rather than in twenty directions at once. This is what Covent Garden has lacked in the recent past. All that infighting you read about was just filling a vacuum. At the same time, my job is to provide flash points for the audience—dramatic moments where the music and the image come together as one. I’d like to work with directors who challenge clichés without going to conceptual extremes."
The new "Wozzeck," directed by Keith Warner, with sets designed by Stefanos Lazaridis, was a model display of Pappano’s philosophy. Purists could advance any number of criticisms of this wholesale revision of Berg’s opera, in which an unlucky soldier is driven insane by military discipline and medical experiments. At the start of Warner’s scenario, Wozzeck is already cooped up in a gruesome white-walled asylum, and it seems as though he is telling his story in flashback. The images are vague and disorienting, but they strike home in uncanny ways. We see an assortment of objects—models of houses, mushrooms, other nameless organic matter—sealed up in Damien Hirst-like glass tanks. One of them contains nothing but water. When Wozzeck kills his wife, Marie, holding her over the tank, the water turns red. Then, at the moment where the libretto calls for him to drown in a river, Wozzeck climbs into the tank and submerges himself entirely. The baritone Matthias Goerne gave a terrifyingly believable performance; he made himself a baffled, agitated hulk of a man, his limbs going every which way as if they had minds of their own. Katarina Dalayman sang Marie in grand lyrical paragraphs, like a creature of Wozzeck’s better dreams. The mostly English supporting cast, including Graham Clark, Eric Halfvarson, and Kim Begley, were an excellent gallery of grotesques.
The orchestra’s playing was extraordinarily clear. It made expressive points in quick bursts, without ever overwhelming the singers. Some passages were a little scrappy, suffering in comparison with the voluptuous detail that James Levine brings to this score at the Met. The huge crescendo on a single note in Act III, for example, was something less than a perfectly balanced pillar of sound. Then again, Warner’s production did not highlight the moment, so no big effect was called for. It struck me, in this passage, that Pappano was conducting with his eyes on the stage, tailoring his phrases to suit the action. His hair-raisingly vehement conducting of the final D-minor interlude clinched the production’s climactic coup de théâtre, in which bright lights bore down clinically on the floating body in the tank. (The audience could see that Goerne was breathing through a plastic tube, which somehow made the image all the more disturbing.) The idea of shaping the music to fit the action may not seem like much of a breakthrough, but in the modern opera world, where orchestra and conductor too often inhabit an impeccable but irrelevant world of their own, it is a minor revolution.
Covent Garden still has a long way to go before it fulfills the dreams that were vested in it back in 1945. At that time, a group of highly placed intellectuals, led by John Maynard Keynes, envisioned the Royal Opera and Ballet as the crowning glories of a national arts program. "Let every part of Merrie England be merry in its own way," Keynes proclaimed, adding, for effect, "Death to Hollywood." Institutions, he said, should instill confidence in the country’s artists and give them every opportunity. Yet the Royal Opera has a very erratic track record with regard to English composers. In the early postwar years, when Benjamin Britten gave the house two masterpieces, "Billy Budd" and "Gloriana," he encountered a wall of indifference, and took his genius elsewhere. After that, premières were sporadic and often ill conceived. Covent Garden can redress the wrong by reaching out now to England’s brilliant contemporary talents, and it has in fact sent one or two positive signals. This December, it will give the première of Nicholas Maw’s "Sophie’s Choice," and in 2004 it will present "The Tempest," an opera by Thomas Adès. Perplexingly, however, the conductor Lorin Maazel has been asked to write a work based on Orwell’s "1984." English composers are scratching their heads over that.
There is still some debate over the relationship between Covent Garden and Her Majesty’s Government, which supplies about a third of the budget. Tony Blair’s culture mavens have tried to score political points by distancing themselves from so-called "élite" arts. But was their Millennium Dome really a better use of the people’s money? Some critics want the Royal Opera to get out of politics altogether and convert to what they call the "American system," where all funds come from donors and subscribers. Perhaps if these pundits had to sit through the Metropolitan Opera’s fifteenth "La Bohème" of the season, with a new Mimi fresh off the plane from Sydney, they would have second thoughts. (America doesn’t have a "system"; it has grim reality.) If, on the other hand, Covent Garden is to retain official status, it will have to discard its air of lordly entitlement and appeal to a larger cross-section of the public. The only way to bring in new fans is to lower ticket prices; paradoxically, it cannot do this without more government support. To this end, the new "Wozzeck" was a promising test run for a future pricing scheme, with the top tickets set at fifty pounds. On the second night of the run, there were no empty seats.