Will This Be The Last War On Earth?

Close-Up on Andrei Tarkovsky; Close-Up Film Centre, London. 7 November - 22 December 2017.

Close-up cinema’s exhibition of Tarkovsky's seven masterpieces is not an easily digestible affair. Perhaps more so in the present world, as we become comfortable with the immediacy of smart phones and online content. Slow moving camera movements combined with epic run times (Andrei Rublev is over three hours long) are truly a world apart from the attention required to consume a snapchat video or scroll through Facebook. The most challenging aspect in entering Tarkovsky’s world is time itself, letting go of it as one might ordinarily experience it is the key to gaining insight into the meanings installed. Tarkovsky wants the audience to experience the world he’s created and sometimes even instructs the audience on how to to access it. In Stalker during the first scene the wife acts as his messenger "Why did you take my watch?” Tarkovsky may have been prominent over 30 years ago but it would appear that with regrettable events such as Brexit and the appointment of Mr 45 to the Whitehouse, Tarkovsky’s ideas of time and the world may still be relevant today. 

Growing up in Soviet Russia during the Second World War, Tarkovsky experienced first hand the horror of warfare, Ivan's Childhood is perhaps the most potent reflection of this. We follow Ivan, a young boy who seeks revenge for his family who were slaughtered in a Nazi raid. He is determined to do his part in the war as a spy for the Red Army in daring top secret missions. As Ivan becomes increasingly absorbed by the mechanics of warfare it becomes eerily comparable to present day conflicts in the Middle East and the innocence which has become entangled. Slow, long tracking movements through stunning yet surreal natural environments, provide stark contrasts to mankind’s so called progression which results in much destruction during Ivan’s childhood.  

Tarkovsky’s weariness of humanity’s impatience is seen across his filmmaking, often transported by unlikely yet wise characters who comment on how we use time “Everybody’s rushing, no one’s got any time” (Mirror) yet these words more often than not fall on deaf ears. In Stalker we are presented with a zone, an area of land contaminated by extraterrestrials. It becomes apparent that even the stalker himself knows little about the true purpose of the zone and its room which promises what your heart desires, yet they continue before fully understanding what they are pursuing. Set in an eerie post apocalyptic landscape, the setting is reminiscent of Chernobyl’s lifeless aftermath which still haunts the ongoing quest for nuclear power to this day, and is a symbol of mankind’s desire to push forward at all costs.  

Tarkovsky’s response to the Cold War comes in the form of The Sacrifice. Making use of delicate tracking camera movements, immersing our interest in the environment which later becomes threatened by man’s impatience. An imminent nuclear threat is announced over a television set whilst the shrill scream of jets can be heard thundering overhead. The terrified faces of the family as the news strikes are revealed slowly one after another, each with their own horror which resonates within you. Alexander eventually strikes a deal with God to destroy his own life in return for the mercy of the world which sees him spectacularly setting fire to his own home. A warning from Tarkovsky that for our own longevity we must make sacrifice, existence must come before progress. 

Tarkovsky uses time and often explains how we can use it to question ourselves about our own morality. Perhaps this is something we should be performing more frequently to help prevent us from repeating failures of the past.

Willow Sanders

What’s Needed is a Culture Shift

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a new English version by Robin Norton-Hale, new orchestration by Alison Holford, OperaUpClose, directed by Lucy Bradley, musical director Sonia Ben Santamaria, Arcola Theatre, Monday, 4th December, 7.30pm

Opera is the greatest of the performance arts. But there’s no doubt it has a perception problem. Money. Opera is rolling in it. Or so it seems to the casual observer of, say, Glyndebourne. Entertainment for rich people with the right clothes. Attendance at the opera is a social signifier of some very specific characteristics. You are the right sort. You went to the right school. You know when to wear white tie. It’s a great place to network if you know the right thing to say. In other words, you know how to behave as a member of the ruling class. 

Opera isn’t usually connected with rebellion, with transgressive, anti-social behaviour, with the new. It’s the ultimate insider art form, a prop, a support, a fortification of the status quo. Opera lovers know who they are. It’s a secret society, with arcane rules and traditions, catnip to the cognoscenti.

But we need some traditional art forms, don’t we? Some kind of continuity? All this obsession with the new, where is that leading? To chaos, surely? What’s wrong with spending an evening having my delusions massaged?

Where did this kind of feudal, imperial, hierarchical, flat out filthy rich face of opera come from?

I guess operas like Eugene Onegin (in its original form) don’t help. Russian aristocrats hanging around extensive estates getting excited about their sensibilities, about things that they’ve read in books, mostly by Byron, that scoundrel, while their serfs get on with the work, largely out of sight, except when they are singing or dancing, the whole accompanied by a sumptuous soundtrack. Little did they know what history had in store, a signal lesson to all of us with a lot to lose.

The ultimate question is: is opera, shorn of its extravagant wealth, of its aristocratic characters and settings, of its enormous orchestras, of its plush theatres, is it still the greatest?

Unquestionably yes. Opera can deal with the largest concepts, the most complex themes, whatever the context, whatever the subject. No other form comes close. Perhaps it’s not so much wealth that’s the problem (now he tells us) but opera’s sheer scale.

And we all know what scale means: large scale, individualistic, competitive and, yes, say it, masculine. The opera isn’t called Eugene Onegin for nothing.

But, transgressively, the buzz word for today, for now, is ‘disruptive’. Tech, the industry quartered in Silicon Valley, California, loves ‘disruptive’. Tech, too, is individualistic, inward looking, competitive, isolationist; in a word, masculine. No wonder tech, just like opera, has a perception problem; it’s unfriendly to women. A bit like Eugene Onegin.

What’s needed, clearly, is a culture shift. For tech, that’s a lot to ask, but for opera?

There are, out there somewhere, fixed ideas that are very hard to budge: a country’s economy is just like a household’s; poor people are less valuable than rich people; art can make you a better person; men are more important than women; girls should be taught to be more like boys but boys should never, never be like girls. This is just a short selection.

The shock of the new. How hackneyed that phrase sounds. When it does come along your (my) response often is: this doesn’t work. Yet, in fact, it’s confronting. You don’t want it to work.

Theatre, in its obsession with the inner life, with intense emotion, seems to have driven itself into a cul-de-sac from which it can’t find the exit. Opera’s sheer power, contained in its form, means it can’t be constrained in this way. Opera is always larger than the sum of its parts, concerned with a fundamental, central imperative, which is probably why money and power was attracted to it in the first place.

Others productions, adaptations of Eugene Onegin have taken the focus away from the eponymous hero. John Cranko’s ballet of the same name inevitably puts the emphasis on the prima ballerina dancing the role of Tatiana, the man simply partnering. But in traditional ballet the central female role is often the slave of circumstance, flung to and fro by events out of her control.

This adaptation of the opera takes a different and, ultimately, radical approach. The men, the males roles, are almost irrelevant. This isn’t the tale of a man following his honest, creatively destructive path, hacking a way through life’s temptations no matter what the cost. (Onegin might end up alone at the end but there’s something suggestively heroic in the subtext somewhere that has always been just a bit unpleasant.)

Here the men can do what they like, kill each other according to some obscure social norm, and it makes not the slightest difference. The drama resides somewhere else altogether.

The drama is found in the interactions of the female characters. And given how male focused this story, whether Pushkin novel or Tchaikovsky opera, this is some achievement. More importantly, it isn’t about replacing like with like, women substituting for men battling over the spoils, a zero sum game. Somehow this production hints at a new kind of of dramatic contract, one which involves a kind of outward looking, collaborative, ‘if one wins we all win’ approach which somehow doesn’t lessen the stakes.

It isn’t just that the production considers the relationship between the sisters, Olga and Tatiana, but it successfully broadens the subject to involve even the minor characters, that the issues have repercussions and reverberations beyond the central imperative. The drama is cumulative, rather than reductive, as is the original.

This is a very difficult, confronting production, both to watch and to write about. More power to CloseUpOpera for taking a courageous approach to re-working a classic. It seems only right that if there is to be a cultural revolution, it should begin with an art form so closely associated with holding firmly to the traditions of the past, but which, at the same time, has the cultural clout to really make a difference.

Paul Corcoran

A Blast of Scarlet

The Cunning Little Vixen, music and libretto by Leoš Janáček, English translation by Norman Tucker, conducted by Michael Rosewell, directed by Daniel Slater, presented by The Royal College of Music, International Opera School, The Britten Theatre, 29th November, 7.00pm

How much I love the Janáček operas, Kátya Kabanová and this one, The Cunning Little Vixen, can barely be expressed. I love the joyous energy of the music, the fact it seems to be doing many things at the same time, that it still, after the passage of a century or so, seems utterly modern and yet calls so much on a kind of timeless Central European echo of folk and myth that I, as an Australian, always found so exotic and alluring, the marriage of the dark and the light which gives all their storytelling a mystery and magic that is unique.

I knew these operas as box sets of vinyl for many years. The actual plots were always a bit cloudy. I could never really get too excited about studying the libretto. So when I got to see a production of The Cunning Little Vixen at the Royal Opera House, you can perhaps imagine my anticipation. At last, this transcendent piece of music would become clear. I would finally have all the pieces to complete the full picture.

The disappointment was overwhelming. It was all dancers on trapezes, flying about, on a set that was a rubbish tip. What did a rubbish tip have to do with this opera, apart from allowing various birds and insects a stage to show off their costumes? The flying apparatus took up so much space in the wings (I was working there at the time) that it was difficult to get a clear view but I saw enough to know that the production was a travesty.

I am happy to report that this production, somewhat less ambitious on the trapeze front, finally delivers the joyous, transcendent experience I’ve longed for.

And this from an opera whose origins are a comic strip, originally published in a newspaper. 

And yet, it was comics that invented the super-hero, the kind of fun, shape-shifting, up-lifting vessels of limitless power, who not only vanquish the bad guys but do it by bringing colour and vivacity to our drab and jejune lives.

Thus, the Cunning Little Vixen: a super-fox, Superwoman before she was thought of, Super-vixen, a blast of scarlet and movement for a village from which all happiness and zest has been leached.

The concept allows Janáček full reign for his two or more things at the same time schtick - the animals are both people and animals. They are characters of the imagination, but living and breathing in their own right. They won’t be controlled or managed or repressed. They are transgressive, transformative, exciting, dangerous, alive.

They are excitement, but also rebellion, revolution, danger and death.

And they are animals, less than people, but still people. The superhero comes from the other side, the ranks of the lesser, the common, the overlooked.

I’ve always felt this to be a dangerous and revolutionary opera, whose ideas are much more radical, subversive and anarchic than the innocence that an opera about animals usually entails. This certainly isn’t Peter and the Wolf, for instance.

And herein lies the real contradiction, the real paradox - this is an opera, an art form most closely associated with a different kind of heroic trope, romantic, Wagnerian maybe, an opera conversely about the triumph of those at the bottom of the heap, rather than a vindication of the natural order of things, the rich at the top, the poor making up the numbers, supernumeraries merely. An opera about a comic book heroine, one sprung from popular culture, which has found its way into an utterly different form.

The Forester brings the Vixen home, in much the same way that Heathcliff is introduced to the Earnshaw household in Wuthering Heights, an intervention that brings adventure but ultimately destruction. The Vixen does as her nature dictates, she upsets the dog, bites the children, ferments rebellion in the farmyard, kills all the chickens and escapes into the wild; the house that the Forester built now a smoking ruin of regret and recrimination.

But she doesn’t stop there. She disturbs the lives of both the local teacher and priest, goes on to marry, have many children (or cubs) and, as her alter ego, Terynka, the town beauty, finally make a life with, fittingly, the poacher, the person toward whom everyone can feel superior. A final exultation of the genuine over the socially moribund.

The Cunning Little Vixen seems so radical on so many levels as to be almost super-human, and it’s in no small part down to Julieth Lozano’s performance. There is definitely something of the superhero about her Vixen, encompassing her many identities, fox, human, superhero with the simplest of gesture but credible vivacity, charm and charisma. Her courtship with Nardus Williams’ Fox, a dangerous, charming presence, sophisticated in all the most attractive and alluring ways, is simply wonderful, an expression of what this opera can be, simple, heartfelt, but complex and very intelligent.

Paul Corcoran