I’m off to Glasgow tonight to see tomorrow’s performance of The Rake’s Progress. When Scottish Opera announced their current season, it was the one opera which jumped out at me immediately as a must-see – a favourite opera, a new production by a favourite director, but more to the point, an opera/director combination which has been on my wish list for years.
I recently noticed that in the space of five months, from Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden on 14th February to La bohème at Glyndebourne on 13th July, I’ll have seen no fewer than eight David McVicar stagings in British houses – six revivals and two new productions. Curiosity got the better of me, and delving back into the further recesses of my memory, I was quite stunned to realise that Rake will be the twenty-first McVicar opera production I’ll have seen live. It should have been more – his Ring in Strasbourg was pencilled into my diary, but just as the four operas had been produced individually, the funding for the complete cycles sadly fell through. Of those I’ve seen, there’s only been one (the Royal Opera’s Aida) that I’ve fully failed to understand, and have since avoided in revival.
I may quip about McVicar’s directorial tics (I imagine my #McVicarBingo Twitter hashtag will be resurrected at some length tomorrow) but I like his understanding of theatre, and how best to choose a period and setting to maximise the audience’s understanding of the characters. If there’s one frequent negative criticism I often have of him, it’s that some of his decisions diverge excessively from the spirit of the libretto in order to create a great show or great drama. Occasionally I wonder if some of his work might be most effective if you don’t know the piece in advance. For me, his Alcina, Faust and Rosenkavalier are near-definitive. But as brilliantly as his splendid romp of a Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare succeeds on its own terms, it ultimately fails to get to the heart of the piece. And his Scottish Opera/WNO Traviata is terrific theatre, but it plays like a straight adaptation of La dame aux camélias set to music, without much thought given to the fact that Francesco Maria Piave bothered writing an opera libretto with its own slant on the source material. Before I saw that production, I wondered how McVicar had reconciled himself to directing a work he’d dismissed in a 2003 interview as inferior – it soon became very clear that this was how.
Curiously, I have absolutely no idea what to expect of his upcoming Troyens at the ROH. I imagine that I’ll recognise elements of his earlier work, but have no idea how he will use them. Unlike Rake’s Progress or Salome, it’s not a piece I’d have thought would automatically appeal to him. I have a ticket for the Royal Opera’s In Conversation event with him on 24th May, so we’ll see.
But the man is second to none in knowing how to deal with a stage full of people, in memorable and telling detail, and how to bring to life the cruelty of the world and of humans’ relationships with one another. More of the same, please – Peter Grimes, perhaps?