The repertoire of many opera companies can often seem a little predictable, a little repetitious. They all seem to circulate around the usual suspects – Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Mozart with the odd Donizetti, Bellini, Bizet and Rossini thrown in for good measure. Some of the smaller companies often present more obscure, less accessible works and some are determined to be downright innovative. One such is The Hague based Opera2Day, who, with The Mad King, has effectively created its own new opera as they did with their previous production, Opera Melancholica, which wove an unusual narrative around Phillip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
Postponed from earlier in the year, The Mad King brings together the music of Peter Maxwell Davies and Georg Friedrich Händel, plus a soundscape designed by composer and arranger Brendan Faegre, to spawn an entirely new entity in a co-operation with New European Ensemble.
As with Opera Melancholica, The Mad King is intertwined with, and takes its premise from, one main piece – Eight Songs for a Mad King by Maxwell Davies. The mad king in question is, of course, the most famous mad king of them all – King George III of England, a monarch already sympathetically exploited by Alan Bennett in his play and subsequent film. Sympathetic perhaps because there seems to be a certain residual fondness and affection for poor old George whose crime was to loose America but was a kind man, a doting husband and father and an astute politician.
This was only my second visit to a theatre in the past year or more. And, with Covid restrictions still in force, one felt rather self-conscious in the foyer of Theatre Rotterdam with such a vastly reduced capacity. However, our awkwardness was soon alleviated by two giant squawking caged birds who gave a hint of what was to come.
Director Stefano Simone Pintor’s vision of poor George’s madness revolves around the King’s efforts to teach his collection of bullfinches to sing with the help of a small mechanical hand-cranked organ. In the stylised cage which encompasses the stage, the King is surrounded by a motley collection of birds, including the six musicians of the New European Ensemble playing a variety of instruments, some improvised, some conventional – although I can’t imagine it’s easy playing a flute if you have a beak.
Sleeping restlessly on a palette on the floor and dressed only in his underwear and a tatty dressing-gown, his feathered companions dominate the King’s life, provide his raison d’être – including a talking parrot on a flickering television at the foot of his bed. His madness is demonstrated by, among other things, his predilection for wearing cardboard take-away food boxes as a crown and his grabbing a violin from one of the musicians and smashing it to smithereens, à la Pete Townsend.
At the beginning, the stage is dominated by a colourful, acrobatic and vociferous bird sitting on its roost swinging from the ceiling. But when it falls off its perch, when it is no more, when it is an ex-bird pushing up the daisies, its place in the pecking order is taken by a menacing and mysterious black cockerel who brings a new, darker element to the proceedings.
Although the progress through the madness, from which the King will eventually die, is occasionally charted by the number of days of his affliction flashed on the screen, there is no real plot or linear development to the piece. There’s not much singing, as such, either. However, baritone Wiebe-Pier Cnossen certainly had his work cut out with his voice ranging from almost falsetto to growling bass in a series of often painful vocal contortions. In doing so he perfectly portrayed the bewilderment and frustration of the pathetic monarch. Charles Johnston performed in the live stream earlier in the year and it is him in the production photograph.
Although The Mad King had perhaps less singing and plot than one would expect from an opera, it made up for it visually with a colourful array of feathers, eccentric props and the beautiful little pipe organ from Museum Speelklok. The music, and Faegre’s soundscape, was always exciting and innovative under the musical direction of Hernán Schvartzman.
It was great to see a live performance again and be back in a theatre after all this time. Opera2Day, New European Ensemble and Messrs Faegre and Schvartzman should be congratulated for providing an original, worthy and thought-provoking return to a semi-normality which poor King George would sadly never regain Michael Hasted 11th June 2021
The Mad King continues its tour until 28th June