Last week, I went to see Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, at the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv. Well, no – that’s only half true. I certainly went with the expectation of seeing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. What I actually saw was a complete travesty. This was not Dido and Aeneas, it was not Purcell, it wasn’t even opera. This was a co-production of the Berlin Staatsoper and the Sasha Waltz Dance Company. But again, that’s only half the truth. In fact, it was a contemporary "dance" production by the choreographer and stage director, Sasha Waltz, onto which Purcell’s opera had been tacked on. The production started with fully dressed dancers (I say fully dressed, but that is a matter of interpretation, since, for the most part, they were clad in semi-diaphanous shmattes) diving into a huge aquarium and swimming around in a kind of underwater ballet. This, in itself, could have been quite pleasing aesthetically, although it was difficult to see what in the world it could have to do with the plot of the opera. The total irrelevance was compounded by the fact that when the swimmers/dancers emerged from the water, they proceeded to strip off in full view of the audience. I suppose I should be grateful for the fact that they were facing the rear of the stage, so we were spared the experience of Full Frontal Nudity. However, given the complete irrelevance of the fish tank, it is hard to see what the sight of exposed buttocks was supposed to contribute to the operatic experience…
There then followed several minutes of rhymed spoken dialogue, in English, which, despite the fact of this being my mother-tongue, I would have found unintelligible, were it not for the surtitles, due to the fact that it was all pronounced phonetically (eg. spear, pronounced as spe-ar). Why? I have no idea.
Finally, we got to the opera itself. I thought that now, at least, I would be able to sit back and enjoy the singing. How wrong I was! The singers were accompanied by dancers, in such a way that the sung characters were accompanied by dancing "doubles". In the case of Dido herself, she was not merely doubled but tripled, since two dancers represented her ambivalent feelings. Again, not a totally ridiculous idea, but why then was it necessary for the singers themselves to accompany their singing with ridiculous, jerky, semaphore-like arm movements? Were they trying to translate the words of the songs into Sign Language for the Deaf? Why would deaf people go to the opera anyway? Isn’t the whole point supposed to be the musical experience, for which the faculty of hearing is, one would imagine, a sine qua non? In short, the choreography distracted – and thereby detracted – from the music.
We were also subjected to a "comic" scene of spoken dialogue which appears nowhere in the opera, in which an androgynous character, played by a man but dressed (more or less) like a woman, drilled what appeared to be a group of escaped Bedlamites in some strange choreography. The significance of this scene totally eluded me. It was, I suppose, mildly amusing, but totally irrelevant to the plot.
After the performance, there was a "talkback" between the audience and the participants. When I raised the subject of the irrelevant and therefore needless nudity, I was asked "What is your problem with nudity? It is the most natural state there is." (If it is so natural, why were we all clothed, including the actor?) And there you have it, the intellectual arrogance of the perpetrators of this outrage. I somehow have a problem with nudity. I can’t understand the director’s concept. And it is precisely this sort of arrogance which causes audiences and critics alike to fall victim to what I call "The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome". People don’t like to be thought unsophisticated or provincial. They don’t like to admit to a failure to grasp the director’s "concept." That accounts for such descriptions in music and theatre critics’ reviews as "stunning" to describe the production. Stunning, it certainly was. I was very definitely stunned – with horror! I do not have a problem with nudity. I have a problem with irrelevant nudity, whose only purpose seems to be to provoke an audience reaction and grab newspaper headlines. If there had been a nude love scene between Dido and Aeneas, I might not have been thrilled about it – this is, after all, a Baroque opera – but it would at least have been relevant. After I returned home, still seething with indignation, I visited the Israel Opera website and discovered that the giant fish tank was somehow supposed to represent the sea which Aeneas had crossed to reach Dido, and the discovery of the sunken city of Carthage. My uncle, who actually enjoyed the performance, having read the programme notes in advance, and having therefore known what to expect, thinks I should have read about the production first and then I would have enjoyed it more. Well, I’m sorry, but in my opinion, if one has to read the programme notes in order to understand the director’s so-called "concept", then the said director has failed lamentably in conveying his or her concept to the audience.
Was there anything about the production that I liked? Well, the orchestra of the Akademie für Alte Musik from Berlin wasn’t bad, nor was the choir, but, as I said, the ridiculous so-called dancing (consisting for the most part, of ugly, jerky movements that made one wonder if the dancers were suffering from convulsions) made it impossible to concentrate on the music. Aeneas had a good voice and so too did Dido, but she suffered from a bad habit of swallowing the ends of her phrases. To put it bluntly, what I saw epitomised everything I detest about modern opera productions. I am so sick and tired of the way megalomaniac stage directors impose their crazy "concepts", and, in their infernal arrogance, try to make the audience feel that they are somehow deficient in understanding or in sophistication, if they fail to grasp what, in the director’s opinion, should be obvious to anyone but a child.
Israeli audiences are actually very polite. I suspect that the reaction of a La Scala audience to such a travesty as I witnessed last week, would have been boos, whistles and catcalls. As for the New York Metropolitan – I doubt that this production would even have made it to the stage. Well, I know myself to be an extremely intelligent person, in no way lacking in sophistication. I therefore have no hesitation in declaring that, as far as the Sasha Waltz production of Dido and Aeneas is concerned, the King was very definitely in the Altogether – literally!