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Features Opinion Published 20 December 2011

Opera of the Bells

The opera on Christmas day.

Robert Barry

This year I will be spending Christmas at the opera. To be more specific, I will be watching La Bohème at the Hungarian State Opera, in Budapest. Who’d’ve thought it would even be open? But apparently it’s pretty full. And so, it seems, are many of Europe’s opera houses; belting it out to full houses on a day most people would only think of leaving the house in order to pick up granny and ferry her back to the hearth.

Before you rush off to the box office though, a word of warning: unexpectedly popular though it may be, it would seem that even the most adventurous of opera houses packs up its avant garde credentials and reaches for the lighter family favourites come christmas time.

Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden, directed by groundbreaking conductor Daniel Barenboim, will be performing Offenbach’s opéra-bouffe, Orpheus in the Underworld this Christmas Day. Pierre Boulez’s Opéra Bastille in Paris is doing Prokofiev’s ballet of Cinderella. Salzburg Festspielhaus is playing Carmen (the Deutche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg likewise). Hamburg State Opera plumps for good old Rossini, while the Staatsoper in Hannover takes a break from Richard Strauss and Kurt Weill to join a chorus of other houses all playing the bloody Nutcracker.

This may be, to a degree, understandable. Three years ago, when the BBC chose the 3pm Christmas Day slot to broadcast the Royal Opera House’s Hansel und Gretel in a new production directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the Daily Mail whipped up a froth of controversy over the gory staging (one scene featured children’s corpses hanging in an abattoir). “The two-hour fairytale,” wrote the Mail, “features lust-crazed parents, a knife-wielding wicked witch who hangs children in her larder before baking them in a giant oven and a final scene of cannibalism in which children feast on her flesh.” The story was followed by an extensive warning to parents over a fat bearded man in a red suit found breaking and entering through chimneys on Christmas Eve who many suspect to be a paedophile.

Curiously, when Sky Arts 2 showed John Adams’s modernist and often highly dissonant opera about the bomb, Dr Atomic, on Christmas Day, 2009, nobody raised such a stink. A shame really, the controversy probably would have done wonders for the viewing figures of this superb work, with its nods to Edgard Varèse and post-war sci-fi.

Perhaps the most fitting yuletide opera would be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, based on a short story by Gogol. The story opens with the devil stealing the moon so a church deacon is unable to find his way home, and ends (almost) with a suspected suicide, after a third act spent mostly in outer space. Now why, I wonder, do the BBC refuse to sandwich such fare between Morecambe and Wise and Kung Fu Panda?

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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