Friday, 6 October 2017

Purcell - Miranda (Paris, 2017)

Henry Purcell - Miranda

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Raphaël Pichon, Katie Mitchell, Kate Lindsey, Henry Waddington, Katherine Watson, Allan Clayton, Marc Mauillon, Aksel Rykkvin

ARTE Concert - 29 September 2017

You can't argue with the pedigree of the sources involved in the creation of Miranda. It's a 'new' opera based on characters in Shakespeare's The Tempest, set to music written some 300 years ago by Henry Purcell. And yet adapted by Cordelia Lynn Miranda is also a contemporary opera, set in the present day, with a very different outlook brought to the characters, the drama and the music by director Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon.

The idea of creating a new opera out of existing material or adapting pieces to work in a new context isn't a new innovation in opera. Rossini frequently revised and cannibalised his own works in the 19th century - why waste a good tune? - but the practice is older than that. The pasticcio, an opera made of cobbled together 'hits' from other operas, was popular in the 18th century, and the practice was revived a few years ago for the Metropolitan Opera's The Enchanted Island (interestingly, also based around Shakespeare's The Tempest).

Katie Mitchell and Raphaël Pichon have good form in such matters, collaborating to create the sublime Trauernacht for Aix-en-Provence in 2014, an opera assembled out of cantatas by J.S. Bach. Whether it added up to a convincing dramatic piece was debatable, but the choice of music, the coherence and beauty of the sentiments expressed in bringing them together, certainly added up to a work that was greater than the sum of its parts. Even if you saw it as nothing more than a rare opportunity to bring Bach to the opera stage and hear some beautiful performances of his cantatas, there was merit in that alone.

The same unfortunately can't be said for how Shakespeare and Purcell are treated in the semi-opera Miranda. Shakespeare's The Tempest is pretty much jettisoned right from the start, or rather its themes and intent are casually dismissed by Katie Mitchell and librettist Cordelia Lynn in favour of a more feminist reading that sets out to "correct" the patriarchal attitudes and male power play expressed in the original. Miranda, now a young woman with a child, Anthony, has come to the realisation that she's been a victim of child abuse, and she's going to confront her aggressors; her father Prospero and her husband Ferdinand.

I'm not quite sure how the creators of this 'sequel' to the Tempest have come to this particular reading from Shakespeare's play or why they've chosen to ignore the multiplicity of other themes that can be found in the work, but the implication is that we've only heard one side of the story and it's been an exclusively male one. Miranda has had enough of being misrepresented and she's not going to take any more. It's time, she tells us, to tell the true story. She's accuses her father of forcing her into exile, permitting her to be raped by Caliban on the island, marrying her as a child bride and giving birth to a child when she was only 17. "You're an ego maniac", she challenges her father, "You need to shut up. I'm telling the story now".

Well, as you can see, in addition to being a rather dubious rewriting and imposition of a modern feminist perspective on The Tempest, Lynn's libretto lacks the finesse and poetry of Shakespeare's valedictory work for the stage. Miranda is also rather deficient in dramatic coherence, credibility and, well... taste basically. Miranda decides to stage her confrontation with her male aggressors in the most absurd way imaginable: as a terrorist hostage situation at a funeral where her family are mourning her death. Believed drowned, her body never recovered, Miranda has a surprise for the mourners, turning up at the church with a small terrorist unit, wearing a black mask and a wedding dress and waving a pistol in the faces of the shocked and terrified congregation.

It's nothing apparently to what Miranda has had to endure, and she sets the record straight with a pantomime act that fulfils the masque aspect of the semi-opera. The drama however doesn't really elaborate any further on the contention that "I was exiled. I was raped. I was a child bride", which is all Miranda seems to want to get off her chest. Having stage-managed this little melodrama for attention and revealed to an appalled Anna the true nature of her husband Prospero by whom she is bringing another child into this brave new world, it's all hunky-dory once again when Ferdinand begs forgiveness ('Then pity me, who am your slave / And grant me a reprieve' from O! Fair Cedaria); the presumption being - in the absence of any dramatic credibility or winning way with words - that the beauty of the sentiments expressed in Purcell's music is enough to make everything all right.

And in a way, it almost is. It's clear that there has to be some sort of dramatic compromise made in order to fit the chosen Purcell pieces into a coherent drama, and the suspicion is that the funeral is there to provide a suitable setting for a selection of Purcell's sacred music, the highlight here being the Evening Hymn 'Now that the sun hath veiled his light'. 'Dido's Lament' from Dido and Aeneas, sung here by Anna, does feel rather shoe-horned into the situation, but even in a situation as ludicrous as this the sincerity of the sentiments can't be denied in Miranda's forgiving/recriminating arias to Ferdinand, 'Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom' from Bonduca with the lines "What glory can a woman have / To conquer, yet be still a slave" ('woman' substituting 'lover' in the original) and to Prospero 'They tell us that your mighty powers above' from The Indian Queen.

The singers do their best to put some dramatic feeling into this, but there's not much for them to do as Miranda and Anna look sad and angry and take out their frustrations on Prospero and Ferdinand, who look embarrassed and ashamed. And that really sums up the very limited ambitions of Miranda, emasculating or reducing Shakespeare's achievements in The Tempest down to a one-way protest of anger and recrimination by women against men. Despite being shoehorned into such a situation, the beauty of Purcell's composition and sentiments still comes through in a way that makes Miranda more successful as a musical piece than a dramatic one.

Kate Lindsey obviously has the biggest say and platform here as Miranda and is excellent, firm and clear of voice if somewhat driven to over-expression by the drama. Katherine Watson also makes a good impression, but again the context of Dido's Lament doesn't perhaps permit its best expression. Allan Clayton and Henry Waddington have thankless roles (the brutes!) which they nonetheless sing well and are at least better fitted to their roles than Marc Mauillon's strained priest. Aksel Rykkvin's Anthony is worthy of a mention for a lovely performance of An Evening Hymn: 'Now that the sun hath veiled his light'.  Despite my reservations about the libretto and direction, the qualities of Purcell's music and the performances here under the direction of Raphaël Pichon brought me back to watch this for a repeat viewing - much like Trauernacht - so there are certainly pleasures to be found here.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert