By Matthew Gurewitsch
PARIS — Katie Mitchell, genius or vandal? Take your pick. Her detractors, and they are ferocious, complain that she plays so fast and loose with dramatic scripts and libretti as hardly to be staging the given material at all. The actor Benedict Cumberbatch, as starry a name as any in contemporary British theater royalty, has described Mitchell, 53, as “a real European master craftswoman: an auteur who takes risks and continually creates beautiful work.” Her fellow director Richard Jones, another defender, has called her a “zealot,” in this instance a ringing endorsement. “She doesn’t render pulsating masterpieces into Downton Abbey,” he added. “She’s much more important than anyone else, and I don’t think people get that.”
With Miranda, which opened at the Opéra Comique on Sept. 25, Mitchell trains her death ray on The Tempest, by general consent the most poetic and conciliatory entry in the vast Shakespearean canon. As foreshadowed in the play, Prospero’s daughter has returned from exile on their desert island and taken in marriage his enemy’s son Ferdinand, a love match meant to have settled all scores between their elders.
Yet 13 years later we find wife and husband, their son Anthony, Prospero himself, and his pregnant second wife Anna all caught, seemingly forever, in the hell that is other people. At a religious ceremony that doubles as a criminal indictment, Miranda steps out, all in black, to rewrite history her way. “I was exiled,” she begins. “I was raped. I was a child bride.” The service the congregation has gathered to witness in a bunker of a church is Miranda’s funeral, yet Miranda proves to be very much alive. At the climax of the show, she reappears in a wedding dress, her head sheathed in black, jihadi-style, brandishing a pistol, holding the congregation at bay. If you flash on Lucia di Lammermoor, perhaps you are not wide of the mark. At this very moment, Mitchell’s take on Donizetti’s romantic melodrama is in revival at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden through Nov. 27.
Divided into sections called “Anti-Overture” (please), “Preparations,” “The Funeral,” and (please) “The Masque,” Miranda (seen Oct. 5) is billed as a “semi-opera after Shakespeare and Purcell.” Apart from Mitchell, the creative principals in the project are the rising Baroque conducting star Raphaël Pichon and Cordelia Lynn, an emerging dramatist. Designers of the production include Chloe Lambert, who created the nave of a church that might double as a bunker; Sussie Juhlin-Wallén, who came up with the workaday, mostly nondescript wardrobe; and on the lights James Farncombe, all too mindful of the electric bill.
“After Shakespeare.” How far after? As the foregoing may suggest, the gulf, not to say the abyss, between The Tempest and this sequel is perhaps not to be bridged at all. To judge by her theatrical credits, Shakespeare as Shakespeare interests Mitchell scarcely at all. Her single Shakespeare production to date was a Henry VI, Part III, in its way a gripping play but hardly an iconic one, for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Apparently, nothing further from the Bard is on her docket, though she has staged, in Germany, the new play Ophelias Zimmer (Ophelia’s Room), focusing on the abused innocent who loved Hamlet. Following in Ophelia’s suicidal footsteps, Mitchell’s undead Miranda dies by drowning.
Purcell’s hand in the piece bears comment, too. A pastiche in both the colloquial and the technical sense, the score studiously avoids the composer’s greatest hits. Rather, it stitches together token items from The Indian Queen with obscure but authentic Purcelliana drawn from Sophonisba or Hannibal’s Overthrow, Elegy upon the Death of Mr. Thomas Farmer, and Who Can from Joy Refrain? – plus stylistically compatible pages by Matthew Locke, Jeremiah Clarke, Orlando Gibbons, and the ubiquitous Anonymous.
The flow, for the most part, is unbroken, pausing for the occasional, invariably caustic, line of spoken dialogue but never to spotlight passages of musical eloquence. As for the words, though most of Lynn’s libretto is new (80 percent, according to an estimate from the Opéra Comique), her clipped syntax and frequent recourse to abstract, even philosophical, diction match the tightly sprung rhythms of the 17th-century British vocal style to perfection.
Given less stage time than might have been expected from her status as titular prima donna, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey had little to do but denounce, complain, and cast blame. One suspects that this Miranda’s fury and the claustrophobia she inflicts on all around reflect private obsessions of Mitchell’s own. (Certainly nothing in Lynn’s libretto bolsters her case.) Lindsey’s smoky timbre and razor-edged attack lent conviction to grievances that according to an informal survey left many listeners other than this one totally cold.
As Anna, Miranda’s woebegone stepmother and double, the soprano Katherine Watson painted in softer, more affecting colors. The tenor Allan Clayton endowed the baffled, underwritten Ferdinand with plangent tone and urgent phrasing. As Prospero, the bass Henry Waddington brooded at first in a gravelly lower register that made the character seem only cold-hearted, authoritarian, and remote. After his battering (physical as well as verbal) from Miranda, high-lying phrases in a smoother, gentler key conveyed a disappointed, breaking heart. “For I must die,” Prospero sings at the final curtain. “There is no remedy. For I must die.” Hushed phrases with which the character or the singer — how could one tell — as much as nullified any case against him.
The glory of the evening lay in the instrumentals. As arranged by Pichon and Miguel Henry for Pichon’s period ensemble Pygmalion, the accompaniments touched many chords plain and fancy, spare and lavish. In the 1,200-seat candy box of the recently refurbished four-tiered Salle Favart, the vibrations of strings bowed or plucked, the fine-spun cantilenas of recorders or reeds, and the subliminal or pounding pulse of the timpani brushed a listener’s cheekbones or fingertips as sensually as they did the eardrum. In matters of tempo, Pichon leaned towards the brisk, but not to the exclusion of interludes of stillness and serene repose. When the recording comes out, the track listeners surely will keep returning to is Miranda’s son Anthony’s song “Now that the sun hath veil’d his light,” sung by Aksel Rykkvin, a Norwegian treble whose crystal tone and radiance are inextricable from his seraphic gravitas.
After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated in Maui to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit beyondcriticism.com.