Saturday, November 21, 2009

Opera Productions – Reflection on an article about Gary Lakes

Last night I decided to watch the Met Otto Schenk production of Die Walkure, since I had not seen it recently and I was really taken with Gary Lakes. He is a wonderful Siegmund and sings the role beautifully and sensitively – along with Jessie Norman as Sieglinde. (my favorite moment: Siegmund to Brunnhilde – Greet Wotan, Volsa and the maidens for me – I won’t be joining them in Valhalla! – send shivers through me to remember it). Anyway, I was curious as to what Gary Lakes is doing now so I googled him and discovered an article from 2001 from Pittsburg in which he discussed learning the role of Herodes, and also about semi-retirement. I suspect he is now retired. And I wish him all the best. But he said something in the article which got me thinking. He talked about doing great operas like Tannhauser and Damnation of Faust and having them ruined by stage directors. (see the article:

Opera productions!!! I have seen many. Some worked – some didn’t. There is a post here on this blog about a Frankfurt “Carmen” which I considered to be pretty bad. What makes a bad production? It isn’t just the updating. I think it is possible to update an opera and have it work – examples: the Met’s (and LOC) Fideleo, The Met’s Macbeth (I thought both of them were stunning). (Sorry, I really don't like the much vaunted "Hansel and Gretel"). I participated in a production of “L’Elisir” last summer at Sugar Creek where the action was updated to late 19th century. It worked great and was a riot! Bill Swain did a brilliant production of “Cosi” for Opera Illinois where everything was updated. Last summer Illinois Shakespeare did a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in New Orleans, and perhaps one of the greatest theater experiences of my life was Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “Comedy of Errors” set during the time of World War II (actually the play was enclosed in another play – it was genius and magnificent).

Updating doesn’t always work though – the Seller’s Don Giovanni I thought did not work at all. I saw a Rigoletto at LOC a number of years ago where the opera was updated to a 19th century “Gentleman’s Club.” It was idiotic. The Met production of “La Sonnambula” did not work – but “Daughter of the Regiment” did work. So some updating can work – but the problems begin to arise in my opinion when the stage director begins to replace the original concept of the drama with his or her own. Last night I was looking at clips on YouTube and I found of clip of Natalie Dessay singing Olympia’s aria from “Hoffmann.” (Actually there are about 10 versions of her singing this aria.) Most are fine and she sings beautifully in all of them – but there was one production from Germany (I think) where the action was set in an insane asylum. Olympia is wheeled out on a cart and then – the big sin is this – the tempo is reduced to a crawl to emphasize the insanity I suppose. This is unacceptable in my view. When directors start re-working the music and the tempi then they have over-stepped their bounds.

The new Met Tosca is a new production which attempts to be modern and contemporary. There have been many insightful articles written about this production, so I won’t review all the problems. Except to say that for me, I did not mind the stark sets. I thought some of it worked. But the gratuitousness of the girls at the beginning of Act II was over the line – unnecessary and foolish. I hated all the firing squad drilling at the beginning of Act III – there is something sublimely beautiful about allowing the lighting designer bring day from night while the shepherd boy sings off stage. But I really missed the candles and the crucifix a the end of Act II. What was the point of removing those actions – which Puccini himself had specified. The result: the end of Act II did not work – it was silly and anti-climactic.

Stage directors need to treat to scores to these operas as holy writ – and respect what the composer is trying to convey. Green naked bodies populating the Venusberg in Tannhauser simply do not add anything to the opera; laying Turandot inside a piano and pushing her around adds nothing to this opera; neither do the zombies in the Frankfurt Carmen which replaced the children’s chorus (ok so they were Jose’s demons – I get it) – but do we need to see zombies on stage in order to understand that Don Jose is psychotic; or do we need to see prostitutes servicing Scarpia in order to understand that Scarpia is depraved. Hardly, the composer’s and librettists have already handled this – thank you very much. Now I like creativity and cleverness. I just cast a vote for respecting the artistic vision of the composer and librettist.

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