by Margaret Rand

Cutting Through The Babble

It struck me, watching Katya Kabanova at Glyndebourne this last summer, that opera has terroir. It also has directors, who fulfil the same role as winemakers, either expressing the terroir or removing it. That pared-down Katya was a good production, but a somewhat sterile one. It had the terroir taken out of it.

Katya is set in a Russian village, in a tight-knit family. Both are claustrophobic. The plot depends on this claustrophobia. Take away the village and stage the opera within plain white walls and you have to re-emphasise that claustrophobia – in this case via birdcages; lots of them. Towards the end one large birdcage descends and you think, She’s going to get into the birdcage, isn’t she? Yes, she’s getting into the birdcage. There she goes. Oh, please.

The piece was still recognisably Katya Kabanova, of course. The music was the same, and so was the plot. The brand, if you like, was still there. It was just the terroir behind it that had been simplified into an idea.

Terroir in a vineyard is a babble. Understanding it takes years because it’s apt to say different things in different circumstances. Gradually a winemaker finds a coherent thread in this chatter and is able to present a clear statement to the world: to say, this is what this terroir means. This is how I see it. To achieve this they must either narrow a given terroir down to a small geographical area – the Burgundian approach – or simply decide on a style that fits a larger area as well as it can.

At what point does clarifying a style end and imposing a style begin? With opera it should be easier to tell – we have the libretto and the score, in black and white. But in practice there might be different versions, different overtures, whole scenes which might conventionally be left out because they’re frankly ponderous, stretches of laborious recitative which might be cut – and that’s before the question of whether to sing it in the original language or in translation (Glyndebourne calls the opera, correctly, Kát’a Kabanová), whether to update the setting or not, whether to stress this aspect or that. The director of this year’s Kát’a at Glyndebourne was cutting through the babble to present a fresh and clear vision. Was it, in wine terms, the exposed signature of a great terroir? Or was it the equivalent of a winemaker wine?

(As a brief tangent, I noted Michel Roux’s comment in an interview in The Times a few weeks ago: ‘I can taste the personality of a chef on the fork. It’s like art, the artist is in there somewhere. I can tell if a chef is angry or happy…. The angry chef’s fish will have a crisped edge. It’s a completely different fish.’ Food, like wine or opera, can never be a pure expression of its ingredients.)

Take the question of rusticity. Kát’a, in an absolutely traditional production (the first performance was 1921, so it also carries the baggage of revolution and civil war) would have the peasants dressed as peasants, the rich merchant family of the Kabanovs dressed  in the fashions of the day –but keep it provincial: this is not Moscow – and so on. You can smooth out the rusticity, just as you can smooth out rustic tannins. But every time you do that you lose something.

It might be that what you smooth out, what you lose, is something that modern audiences no longer get anyway. We understand the claustrophobia of villages and families, but the finer points of dress and social mores of rural Russia 100 years ago might be lost on us. If works continue to speak to us it is because we see things that touch our modern situation. The neoplatonist jokes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, will go straight past most of us, but the partner-swapping makes us sit up and take notice.

With wine, we’re seeing some of the modern refinements of the last seven decades gradually reversed. Some of those terroir aspects, chucked out in the race for modernity, have been rescued: indigenous yeasts, concrete vats, organics, biodynamics, even horses, the last sometimes paraded in Bordeaux Primeurs week with all the casual ostentation of stage extras.

What I’m getting at is that it is terribly easy to discard aspects of terroir; less easy to know, except with hindsight, which bits we want and which bits we don’t. We don’t want rusticity? Fine. But if you take out all the rusticity, will you end up with sterility?

Great operas, and great wines, have to live anew each year: they are not museum pieces. So what we call the signature of a great terroir is nearly always terroir-plus-winemaker. And it is the winemaker, like the opera director, who decides what the terroir is saying. I remember at the Bordeaux Primeurs one year, tasting Latour beside one ultra-distinguished taster who declared that the wine was ‘very Latour’ – a statement which impressed me mightily for being at once redolent of years of experience, and blindingly obvious. Would Latour release a wine that wasn’t ‘very Latour’?

Yes, I know the Latour terroir is remarkable, and the greatest terroirs dominate the grape variety. But what we recognise, in most wines, is not precisely the terroir; it is the interpretation of that terroir. It is impossible, now, to know what any vineyard might taste like stripped of its familiar interpretation. In blending any such wine, the winemaker will reject the lots that make it taste less like itself. It is an aim that opera directors would not necessarily recognise.

Wine is a performance art, just like opera. You open the bottle, the wine struts its stuff, and is over. The next bottle might be the same, or slightly different. Some bottles give you the feeling that the understudy has taken the stage. Some bottles give the performance of their life. But what if a given wine were made by several different people in the same year, so that you had, as it might be, Peter Sisseck’s Latour, and Angelo Gaja’s Latour, and Tim Mondavi’s Latour?

It’s been done, in a sense – all those different bottlings in different countries, before château-bottling became the norm. Whether the merchants concerned had the talent of Sisseck, Gaja or Mondavi is another matter; but they knew what their customers liked and they made sure they delivered it.

Wines have been schooled into predictability, partly because that’s what suits everybody, from producer to consumer. We rely on the idea that a particular terroir gives a particular style from year to year, even allowing for the vagaries of climate. Opera, though, has to be strongly, even radically different each time there is a new production. Different aspects are explored: a new opera production can set out to shock.

What if wine did the same? What if it abandoned any attempt at consistency and took an operatic approach, with each year’s vintage wildly different from the one before, and abandoned a year later for a different approach?

Inconsistency is already being embraced to a small extent, with moves like that of Roederer, ditching Brut Premier in favour of Collection. But this inconsistency is miniscule compared with operatic extremes. Imagine the tearing of hair at Berry Bros or Corney & Barrow or Armit, if consumers started saying, as they might of an opera production, ‘No, this year’s Lynch Bages is far too minimal for me. And last year’s Cos tasted as though it was made in an East German car park.’ But opera directors – and audiences – crave novelty, whereas winemakers crave the best possible expression of the place crossed with the year. And even the most novelty-seeking opera audience wants its interval Champagne to taste the same, performance after performance.

Photo by Gwen King and Unsplash

Leave a Reply