Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Opera Wednesday

By Mitchell Hadley

Now here's a group I could join! David Pryce-Jones outlines exactly what's wrong with today's opera producers:

The destruction of opera has been the aim of opera-house managers and producers for a good many years now. It isn't too difficult an objective. Ignore the composer's intention in order to insult and offend the audience, which in any case has no right of reply. Recast the setting to make some present-day social point, most usually to do with sexuality. Design brutalist sets, for instance furnishing a Renaissance palace with tank traps or oil drums, and if at all possible getting in some reference to Auschwitz, with barbed wire or striped prisoner garb. The predictability is boring beyond boredom.

The house managers and producers do all this for fear of being taken as elitists, catering to people with a taste for an art form requiring appreciation and knowledge, and therefore not for everyone.

Predictably, Pryce-Jones didn't think much of the Met's new Tosca, about which we opined last week:

The poverty of imagination at work here is truly stupefying. Puccini was famously angry with whoever took liberties with his scores; he made clear how he wanted this supreme opera to be staged, and small-minded men like Gelb and Bondy do not know better than the great composer. Tosca finishes with a firing squad and a summary execution. My Association is taking note.

This isn't to say that opera has to remain static. I must disclose an idea I've had for some time, that of staging Romeo & Juliet in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. As it is, the actions of these two often seem particularly folish as I've pointed out before, young people have always been impetuous but Shakespeare's young lovers have to be two of the dumbest in literature) - but if you put them in the middle of a dull, lifeless Communist dictatorship that impetuousness starts to make sense. After all, why not take a mad chance at love, they might reason, when there's really nothing else worth living for? And the two warring families, who always seem little more than petty and vindictive, perfectly symbolize the crumbling corruption of the Soviet regime. Throughout the opera the Berlin Wall is seen, from different angles, far away or close up.

In fact, the final scene could take place inside the tunnel through which the two had planned to escape to the West. We chuckle ruefully when Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and takes the poison, knowing that what he really needs is for someone to remind him that there are other fish in the sea. However, if he feels her death leaves him lost in the grey sea of hopelessness that is Communist Germany - well, who couldn't blame him for feeling as if there's nothing left to live for?

The political subtext is there - an indictment of the dehumanization of Communism - but I like to think that this staging really does bring some logic and clarity to what is (in my opinion) one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts. It's still all about the trials and tribulations of young love, but at least we've given them some motivation for their actions. Call it method opera, if you will.

Alas, I have little hope that this production will ever see the light of day; not when Communism is implicitly the heavy. If I'd found a way to make Ronald Reagan the villain, I'm sure it would be snapped up in a moment. Although having Anna Netrebko in the cast would certainly help.


Speaking of Tosca, two things: first, a particularly good piece on what's wrong with the Met's new production. (Money quote: "The failure is basically the result of a supremely talented star soprano, a director, and a designer set to work on a piece for which they are intellectually, aesthetically, and temperamentally unsuited. The result is a dull hodge-podge of unconvincing effects in an unattractive package.")

Second, we were in Chicago over the weekend to review the Lyric Opera's production of Tosca, starring Deborah Voigt and James Morris in the original Zeffirelli staging (including the sets). You'll be reading about that shortly, along with a look at the Minnesota Opera's new staging of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and the Minnesota Orchestra's Russian Festival.

1 comment:

  1. And that reminds me after attending the Claflin University lyric theatre production of Die Zauberflöte Thursday night, I was extremely critical of their performance. They recast Zauberflöte set in New York City of 1991, in a nightclub. Aaarggghhhh! It just doesn't look right. Bad move to attend this. Paging Dr. Hill!


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