Interesting discussions with friends about ‘concert performances’ of operas they’ve attended at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. I have been to two: Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ and Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’, both excellent, and I’ve been told that Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ was tremendous as well.
We found it intriguing that these operas, performed without a conventional theatre stage, scenery or props, were so satisfying. In some cases the singers even wore conventional concert clothes and didn’t bother with theatrical costumes. They used the line across the front of the stage as a minimal space for acting. Yet these restrictions didn’t seem to matter. In fact, some people said that, far from missing the full theatrical experience, it was a relief not to be confronted by some of the bizarre ‘directorial concepts’ offered to the public in recent years. I know from my own experience how such concepts can come between the listener and the music.
In a good ‘concert performance’, on the other hand, the listener supplies the missing scenery from their own imagination. Perhaps this is easier to do if you have actually seen an opera house production of the piece and have an idea of how a stage setting would work in terms of depth of field, lighting, and so on. But I did speak to one friend who was bowled over by Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ last week despite never having seen it in the opera house.
To perform an opera on the concert stage is usually considered second-best and a disappointing way to economise. But this year’s Edinburgh Festival has made me realise afresh that when the performers are really good, and the music is gripping, one loses very little by not having the whole treasury of opera house effects. In fact, their absence can be liberating.