Cinema Exhibitions

Dau is not just a pretentious fraud – it’s rather disgusting

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

The best booers, in my experience, are the Germans. There’s real purpose and thickness to their vocals. Italians hiss. The English grumble. The French? A bit of this, a bit of that. I approve of booing — or feedback, as I like to think of it. It’s galvanising and exhilarating, even when infuriating. Are you with them or not? One caveat: save it till after the performance, please.

The French do not hold to such niceties. One piggy old Parisian thought it appropriate to shout at the stage during last Sunday’s performance of Opéra Bastille’s new Troyens. And not once. But three times. On that third cry, he got on to his trotters to hurl his abuse. Was it feeding time?

The cause of his ire, and to be fair the ire of much of the audience, who periodically joined the farm-fugitive in hooting at the stage, was the mis-en-scène of director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Oh, don’t you just love the French: a nation who, during Berlioz’s life, and long after, did virtually nothing — and often less than nothing — to aid the career of their greatest 19th-century composer but who now see it as their right to demand his works are staged a certain way. Nonetheless, you can see why, in the composer’s 150th anniversary year, they might be a little touchy about what happens to one of the great pinnacles of French art music.

So what was their objection? We had had a thrilling opening two acts, set in the brutalist cityscape of besieged Troy, in which high-rises are flung open and spun to the sides revealing a vast stage, across which people run and fight and stagger around on fire. The problem came after the interval with the flight to Carthage, site of the love story between Dido and Aeneas, and here rendered as a war rehabilitation centre with all the romantic allure of a GP waiting room in Luton. Undeniably depressing, yes. But also clarifying, enlightening and rather moving. Post-Troy PTSD: is that such a mad idea?

What the booers seemed to object to is the attempt to tell the truth of this story. To remove it from myth and root it in reality. Which, once done, does a service to the drama, allows you to understand what’s going on. In the first part this was aided by the most exhilarating singing imaginable from Stéphanie D’Oustrac (Cassandra), playing a relatably huffy hipster-turned-kamikaze.

Tcherniakov undoubtedly fusses too much; overloads the stage with detail and explanation. He needs to relax, allow things to make less literal sense and have more aesthetic impact. But his instinct is correct. He refuses to echo on stage the musical meaning wafting from the pit, and instead provides the much more musical idea of a counterpoint. To have the Royal Hunt and Storm music emanating from Dido’s head, haunting her, was a poetic way round evoking what is, let’s be honest, impossible to evoke. The real problem lay in the pack-horse-like quality of the voices of Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Dido), both of whom seemed to be chosen for their ability to carry rather than sculpt the two final hours of music.

By coincidence the theatres where slabs of Troyens were first performed were themselves hosting a 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk that, in its ambition, rivals Berlioz’s. The only difference being that the immersive film experience, Dau, an elaborate recreation of Soviet life that’s taken a decade to make, is a pretentious fraud.

But let’s start generously. Let’s ignore the fact that nothing worked; that nothing started even remotely on time; that nobody knew what was happening; that I spent three hours waiting around in the Soviet café, eating egg and potato, while my special Dau phone summoned me to various ‘zones’, each of which had precisely nothing going on in them, except one short recital by a second-rate pianist and a few threadbare ‘exhibits’ of Soviet tat.

Let’s put all that aside. Let’s focus on what I did catch of the 13 films and 700 hours of supposed cinéma vérité. To call it slow and dull would probably thrill the director Ilya Khrzhanovsky so let’s avoid that trap. It’s not slowness or dullness per se that renders these films inert. It’s that the director uses slowness and dullness, those classic highbrow signifiers of quality, and hides behind them the most conventional basics of plotting, character, speech, film-work, editing and clichés of Russian life (soup, chess, discussions of morality) that would be laughed off screen if you imagine an art film constructed from British equivalents (tea, cricket, queuing).

The only semi-intriguing thing for a music critic is that you get to see the erect cock of conductor Teodor Currentzis, who, playing the film’s central character, toys with a threesome, then gets sucked off. Now I’ve never seen Haitink’s todger or Rattle’s or Toscanini’s, so that was at least novel. One to tick off the bucket list.

Some call Dau a highbrow Fyre Festival. But at Fyre Festival you didn’t have the director strolling around grinning ear to ear. Fyre Festival was an accidental shitshow. Dau, on the other hand, is a deliberate one, calculatedly negligible, even while being one of the most expensive works of art ever created. That tips this from being aesthetically questionable to rather disgusting.

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