Thursday 25 August 2016

Not lost in translation

Andrei Valenty as Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival 2016 - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Andrei Valenty as Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
Boilshoi Belarus Opera & Ballet at Birgitta Festival 2016
photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Attending the recent performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin by National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn (see my review), during Prince Gremin's aria (finely sung by Andrey Valenty) I was struck how the words which came into my mind were those of David Lloyd-Jones's translation. It led me to think how certain translations create felicitous combinations of words and music which lodge in the memory.

Perhaps classic examples are the Puccini arias which I still think of as Thy tiny hand is frozen ('Che gelida manina' from La Boheme) and One fine day ('Un bel di' from Madama Butterfly). I have not heard either used in performance recently, but I first came across these when listening to my mother's record collection, and Thy tiny hand is frozen still comes to my ear in Heddle Nash's voice. The recordings of these two operas in Chandos's Opera in English series reflected the classic status of these English translations and both La Boheme and Madama Butterfly use modern revisions of classic translations, thus giving us 'Your tiny hand is frozen' and 'One fine day'.

Rita Hunter, Norman Bailey - Wagner The Valkyrie - ENO 1970
Rita Hunter, Norman Bailey
Wagner The Valkyrie - ENO 1970
Many translations nowadays favour demotic immediacy, and even those used on some of Chandos's Opera in English recordings rather favour plainness over poetry. But as David Lloyd-Jones's translation shows, not all modern translations are unmemorable. I first heard the translation used for performances of Eugene Onegin by Scottish Opera in 1979, directed by David Poutney. I have heard it a number of times since, and still admire the poetically memorable nature of the English text.

Another translation (or set of translations) which I admired are those which Andrew Porter did for The Ring of the Nibelungen, and for Tristan and Isolde. Those of The Ring were created for ENO's Ring cycle in the 1970's conducted by Reginald Goodall, and here I have to admit that I came to know the translations off record. When I heard the operas, when ENO was on tour in Manchester in the 1970s the English text did not come over very well in the theatre, but then we were sitting in the cheapest seats in the Gods. More recent performances at ENO have favoured a more contemporary less classical style, but I enjoy the poetry of Porter's translations, and it was heartening to hear his translation in use for the recent performances at ENO of Tristan and Isolde.

Of course translations can often impede the style of production too. I have lost count of the number of operettas whose subtlety has been marred by translations which seem to take Gilbert's word for Sullivan as a model. It would be interesting to return to the translations created for Wendy Toye's Offenbach productions for Sadlers' Wells Opera in the 1960s and see how they have weathered.

Perhaps too many modern directors are wary of the text having a poetic memorability which might distract the audience from the message of the production.

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