Interesting always from Bernheimer: “The Director’s Cut”
Opera – the director’s cut
By Martin Bernheimer
Published: July 19 2008 02:24 | Last updated: July 19 2008 02:24
Europeans call it Regietheater, or director’s theatre. Americans call it Eurotrash. It’s a matter of priorities and perspectives.
Once upon a time, opera performances were essentially about singing. Scenery was something decorative in the background. A tree looked like a tree. If it was wrinkled or faded, no one cared as long as the tenor sounded loud and the soprano sounded sweet. Drama became part of the equation only if the singer on duty happened to care about acting. The stage director was a traffic cop, often anonymous.
Eventually, the focus shifted to the conductor. Such benign tyrants as Mahler, Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan needed strong casts, of course, to carry out their whims and wishes. They didn’t need theatrical counterforces, didn’t explore interpretive concepts.
Now we have the age of the director. For most impractical purposes it began with the abstraction and symbolism of Wieland Wagner in postwar Bayreuth. It reached a second plateau in 1976, same place, with the sociopolitical Ring envisaged by Patrice Chéreau. Both directors reinterpreted Richard Wagner for a contemporary zeitgeist while reinforcing, never contradicting, the music. Not all their inventive successors have been so sensitive.
Opera in conservative New York has usually tended towards a concert in costume at one extreme, silly spectacle at the other. The public applauds the scenery, also horses, donkeys and falling snow. Thank Franco Zeffirelli. Now picturesque excess is becoming passé. Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager since 2006, boasts of bringing Broadway sensibilities to the Met, and some progressive European directors too. Meanwhile, the Belgian avant-gardist Gérard Mortier is preparing a competitive revolution next door at the New York City Opera, starting in 2009. Supporters call him a visionary. Detractors call him a proponent of work that distorts and degrades, ergo Eurotrash. Shudder.
When Gelb arrived in 2006 he spoke derisively of the latest trend: “Eurotrash is infamous for its misplaced settings – more often than not, a large underground lavatory or subway station where most of the characters are dressed in trench coats and carry suspicious-looking attaché cases.” Opera, he added, “is first and foremost about the music.” Actually some authorities might disagree – Mozart, for instance, or Verdi or Wagner. They embraced a balanced fusion of music and drama.
It is unlikely that the Met under Gelb will harbour the most outlandish contemporary deconstructions. At the English National Opera, Calixto Bieito’s raunchy Un Ballo in Maschera began with the male chorus seated on toilets. The production is not a likely candidate for import. Nor is his Berlin version of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which turned Mozart’s Singspiel into a bloody diatribe about rape and torture. Doris Dörrie’s Rigoletto, which moved Mantua to a planet of the apes, is bad enough in Munich, let alone New York.
Gelb says he is revitalising the Met without trash. “We can’t operate like a museum that only presents existing works in old productions.” He seeks “directors who have earned their reputations for being imaginative while also being faithful to the original librettos, honouring the music with their intelligent and inspired stage direction and designs”. That sounds nice, though a bit optimistic. Some of his upcoming directors – Willy Decker, Robert Lepage, Luc Bondy and Peter Stein – have been known to take drastic liberties with time, place, tone, mood and narrative.
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At the Met in 2010, Decker’s ultrastylised La Traviata, borrowed from Salzburg, will serve as a vehicle for Gelb’s favoured glamourpuss, Anna Netrebko. Her Violetta courts death in an empty arena surrounded by unisex choristers. Traditionalists have described the not-so-high concept with the E-word. Gelb demurs. “If Eurotrash is nonsensical, antitheatrical, antimusical in concept, this definitely is not Eurotrash.” Oh, OK.
Despite Wieland Wagner and Chéreau, the Met still plays Wagner’s Ring as a naturalistic fairy tale in which gods sport winged helmets and warrior-maidens model breastplates. Naive, quaint and immensely popular, the 20-year-old relic returns next season. In 2010, however, Lepage, whose Hollywood transplant ofThe Rake’s Progress recently befuddled some viewers at Covent Garden, will move mythological Valhalla to what Gelb heralds as an “environment inspired by the volcanic topography of ancient Iceland”. Can’t wait.
Meanwhile, Mortier intends to turn the City Opera into a platform for the wild (certainly) and the wonderful (maybe). There seem to be no plans for aFledermaus with cocaine-snorting Nazis or a Così Fan Tutte in which the heroine leads near-naked men on a leash. The impresario permitted those perversions when he ran the Salzburg Festival. Still, he is planning Messiaen’s sprawling Saint François d’Assise, staged by Giuseppe Frigeni, at the Park Avenue Armory, an unorthodox locale that recently turned triumphantly operatic for Zimmermann’sSoldaten. New York certainly did not find that too radical.
“There is a big difference between what is popular and what is populist,” Mortier insists. “I don’t want to be populist.” Also on his popular agenda are Einstein on the Beach staged by Robert Wilson, and Death in Venice (borrowed from English National Opera) staged by Deborah Warner. Ever provocative and irreverent, Mortier wants to out-Gelb Gelb in banishing complacent routine.
Will New York embrace this brave new operatic world? If so, how far, how often and how much? Even if traditionalists complain of trash, the experience won’t be boring. For better or worse, New York is catching up with Europe.
Martin Bernheimer covers music in New York for the FT and for Opera magazine