Dutch National Opera Forward Festival 2023 Review: Animal Farm
Raskatov Produces A Disturbing, Brutal & Brilliant Adaptation Of Orwells’ NovelBy Alan Neilson
Photo: Ruth Walz
Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of the measures introduced to combat the COVID crisis, the political processes by which they were introduced should be a serious cause for concern. Governments throughout the West rushed through measures, often by-passing parliamentary discussion and oversight and ruled by decree. Criticism and dissent were stifled. The media, which should have been holding the government to account, fell compliantly into line and banged the drum, demanding stronger measures and stiff penalties for those who disobeyed. Lockdowns, social distancing, vaccine and mask mandates, and health passes were enforced in what was the biggest restriction of civil liberties since the Second World War.
It is not an overstatement to say that the foundations of the democratic system itself were being undermined. If in any doubt, then one only needs to read recently leaked emails and texts from the politicians directly involved, which talk about “frightening the pants off the public” and when to “deploy details of a new strain of the virus.” The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was even happy to host parties in 10 Downing Street while the population at large was not even allowed to visit sick and dying relatives.
Michieletto’s Timely And Forceful Production
The Dutch National Opera’s decision to program the world premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s “Animal Farm,” based on Orwell’s novel, as one of its headline productions at this year’s Opera Forward Festival was, therefore, a welcome and timely reminder of the dangers of totalitarianism.
The idea for the opera came from its director, Damiano Michieletto, who rightly sees it as far more than a simple story satirizing the Soviet Union. Rather, he sees it as a work “about the mechanisms of power” in general, about “how the establishment tries to protect its position, how propaganda and threats are used to control people, and how power is exercised through terror.” As with Orwell’s depiction, Michieletto clearly portrays the animals as ciphers for people. However, unlike Orwell, he also depicts the appalling treatment we meter out to farm animals.
From the outset, Michieletto focused on the reality of the situation. The curtain rose on a scene in which caged animals were awaiting slaughter inside an abattoir. It was a brutal, disturbing, and accurate picture of our relationship with farm animals: they were here to be slaughtered and then turned into food and eaten. This was no cozy, traditional depiction of rural life. There were no pigs wallowing in mud with ducks swimming in a pond, or chickens running freely around the farmyard. This was a system to supply meat to the table, in which animal welfare is, at best, of secondary importance. One need only think of today’s farming practices, in which the animals are often kept locked inside in small, overcrowded pens and hardly ever see the light of day. If animals could revolt, they undoubtedly would!
Fortunately, in “Animal Farm,” the animals are able to revolt. However, after freeing themselves from the brutal conditions imposed by the farmer, the pigs gradually asserted their control through the use of propaganda and terror while distancing themselves from the other animals. They take over the farmhouse and live in a state of luxury denied to the other animals, who once again live in a state of fear. Meanwhile, the pigs metamorphose into the humans that once oppressed them.
Such was the strength and clarity of Michieletto’s presentation that, at times, the parallels between the behavior of our politicians and that of the pigs in “Animal Farm” were so obvious it was shocking. In June 2021, the leaders of the G7 met in Cornwall in the UK. They paraded themselves outside on the grounds of a hotel, sipping champagne and laughing for the world’s press while the waiters and waitresses, standing around in the background, looked on. Unlike the politicians, however, they were required to wear face masks: one rule for our lawmakers, another for the rest of us. The pigs would certainly sympathize with their behavior as they sat in the farmer’s house drinking alcohol while the other animals were kept outside and forbidden to do the same.
Like the pigs, our leaders constantly altered the wording and justifications for the rules they introduced in order to hold on to their power, to keep people in a state of fear, and to allow themselves the freedom to circumvent any restrictions that they personally did not wish to comply with. Their careless and callous decision to move old people out of hospitals and into care homes, which led to many deaths, was reminiscent of the pigs’ decision to send Boxer, an old workhorse, to the hospital, which was actually the slaughterhouse. The only difference being one of intent, the outcome was the same. Certainly, the politicians did not intend for the deaths to occur, but their lack of foresight and high-handed disregard were contributing factors.
Michieletto, of course, made no such direct comparisons; that much was left to the audience’s own experiences and interpretations, but the message was clear enough.
He was aided by Klaus Bruns’ striking costume designs, in particular the masks he created for the animals. Those for the pigs were dark and vicious. Just looking at them was enough to make you realize that they had no one but their own interests at heart. By contrast, the other animals’ masks were generally pleasant and innocent-looking. The costume designs for Mr. and Mrs. Jones were amusingly garish and unkempt, which added to their appearance as irresponsible and useless farmers.
Paolo Fantin’s set designs were equally convincing. The opening scene, which was already suitably brutal and upsetting, was added to with a meat grinder so that the animals could watch the process up close. His use of a dead brown and white cow hanging from the ceiling next to a purple neon sign with the words “All Animals Are Equal” was another neat touch to ensure the reality of what was going on could not be forgotten. The sets altered slightly with the changing scenes, although the brutality and oppression that defined the animals’ existence always hung over the stage.
Thomas Wilhem’s choreography was expertly crafted. Often the stage was crowded with a variety of animals, yet it was always well-ordered and never chaotic. Yes, there are scenes when the animals panic or are forced to flee from the pigs’ aggression, but it was always carefully managed.
Raskatov’s Brilliantly Detailed Score
Raskatov and the librettist, Ian Burton, stuck closely to the original novel in associating the characters of “Animal Farm” with figures from Soviet Russia, as Orwell intended: Napoleon was Stalin, Old Major was Lenin, and so on. One notable alteration, however, was turning Squealer into Beria, the head of the secret police, which successfully added to the sinister atmosphere and illustrated how power could be abused for personal gain as he forced Pigetta, a newly introduced character, into physical intimacies.
The score is written for an expanded orchestra that also included six percussionists, a celesta, two saxophones, two harps, electric and bass guitars, and a cimbalom, which were used to create a texturally diverse and varied sound, full of engaging details and sharp contrasts. The imaginative musical lines were often short, with clearly defined and accessible melodies and a strong rhythmic quality. The singers are viewed as a “vocal orchestra,” which he used to add to the musical range and contrast of the work.
The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, comprising 65 musicians, was under the musical direction of Bassem Akiki, who produced a wonderfully energetic and colorful reading full of rhythmic vitality, which captured the onstage drama perfectly. Listening to the depth and detail, he was able to elicit from the orchestra was a real joy, especially the way he managed to allow Raskatov’s wide variety of instrumental sounds to assert themselves with such clarity. He maintained a near-perfect balance between the musical forces; it is difficult to recall a single moment in which the singers struggled to be heard.
A Large Committed Cast
There were 18 named characters, all of whom had meaningful and significant roles. For sure, some, such as Napoleon, had a greater presence than others, but even minor characters, such as Mollie, the mare, or Blacky, the raven, were fully developed and had their moments in the spotlight.
The bass Gennady Bezzunbenkov, who appeared for a relatively short period at the beginning of Act one in the role of the Old Major, created a strong impression. His resonant, warm, and dark voice provided him with the necessary air of authority.
The vain and silly mare Mollie was played by soprano Hollie Flack. The high-lying tessitura of the role proved to be well within her range as she skipped nimbly across the line, often above the high C, without any strain whatsoever. Her tongue-in-cheek portrayal was wonderfully flirtatious.
Baritone Misha Kiria expertly portrayed Napoleon. He was suitably aggressive, brutal, and intolerant and possessed the necessary physical presence to create a sense of fear in those around him. He strode about the stage with a vicious swagger and coated his voice with a malevolent sheen.
The farmer Mr. Jones and his wife, essayed respectively by tenor Marcel Beekman and soprano Francis van Broekhuizen, were depicted as a couple of irresponsible drunks. Although they played the part for laughs, at one point, they got tangled up in the rows of seats in the stalls as they attempted to flee the animals through the auditorium; their wanton neglect for the animals was clearly displayed.
Squealer was parted by tenor James Kryshak. He was forceful and aggressive, and his high-pitched delivery, with its bright, piercing tone, gave him a sinister and ruthless quality.
Baritone Germán Olvera produced a sympathetic reading as the old workhorse Boxer. He possesses a noble, expressive, and warm-sounding voice, which suits the loyal horse perfectly. As a reward, the pigs dispatched him to the slaughterhouse as soon as he was no longer of use.
The tenor Karl Laquit was cast in two roles, as Pigetta and as Benjamin, the old and cynical donkey, which allowed him to show off his interpretive skills. His wide vocal range allowed him to successfully portray the two very different characters, in which he embraced the high tessitura of the female Pigetta with ease. His ability to incorporate the braying sound of a donkey was equally notable.
Likewise, the soprano Elena Vassileva, who fluttered around the stage, also managed the squawking and birdlike sounds of her character Blacky the raven.
The idealistic Snowball was played by tenor Michael Gniffke, who, although popular, became the scapegoat when the windmill project failed. He has a strong presence and an even, bright-toned voice that produces a strong contrast with Kiria’s Napoleon.
The cast was completed by mezzo-soprano Maya Gour, who produced an expressive and convincing performance as Muriel the goat; contralto Helena Rasker, with a sympathetic portrait of the good-natured cart horse Clover; countertenor Artem Krutko, with a pleasing presentation as Minimus the poet; and bass-baritone Frederick Bergman, with a solid reading as Mr. Pilkington.
There were also strong contributions from the New Amsterdam Youth Choir in the roles of the chickens, ducks, and other assorted animals that littered the farm under the direction of Anaïs de la Morandais.
The quality of contemporary opera is now of a very high standard, but Raskatov’s “Animal Farm” stands out. It is an exceptional piece: musically, it is imaginative, accessible, and engaging; its narrative is well-crafted, gripping, and easy to follow; its underlying message on the dangers of totalitarianism is clearly presented; and its relevance to today’s world is impossible to miss. It is not an exaggeration to claim that this is a modern masterpiece.
Fortunately, this is a co-production with Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, the Wiener Staatsoper, and Helsinki’s Finnish National Opera, so there will be opportunities to make up your own mind in the very near future.