When Belts Are Tightened (Part Two): Opera Productions Worth Saving

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In the first installment of this post about economic decisions facing opera companies -- in which I focused on the Metropolitan -- I raised the issue of whether a company should keep certain productions to save money rather than replace them in the interest of creative variety and experimentation. This issue becomes more sensitive when a beloved production is replaced by one that presents a new, more controversial interpretation. People feel possessive, after all.

A prominent recent example came when the Met retired its famous 1985 Franco Zeffirelli Tosca and replaced it with one by Luc Bondy on opening night of 2009. Many traditionalists disagree with me when I say that the Zeffirelli, while beautiful to look at, was often dramatically inert. If an artist such as Hildegard Behrens, Eva Marton or the young Maria Guleghina occasionally enlivened it, this came despite the badly planned playing spaces in which they had to sing and act.

The Bondy has its severe drawbacks, particularly the entirely misconceived third act, but it did provide a context (unsightly though some may find it) for the unforgettably thrilling performance that Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and Fabio Luisi gave in April 2010. With them, few people complained about the sets. The next month, another cast (Daniela Dessì, Marcello Giordani, George Gagnidze) did not quite reach the same level but were also excellent. One could say that the physical elements of the Bondy receded from view, leaving a good playing space in the first two acts, and superb artists stepped in and made the most of what they were handed. But the sets did not get in the way, as they did in the Zeffirelli.

The Met has many productions in its warehouse that are outstanding, memorable and valid. A lot of these are quite old and perhaps in disrepair. Maybe some of them could remain viable if restored. This would cost less than mounting a new production, which often runs to the millions of dollars. 

There are other productions that might be in such poor physical condition that they are beyond saving. For example, the marvelous 1982 Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Otto Schenk’s direction; Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s brilliant design) was a huge hit that played about 100 times (including on tour in Japan). It began to wear out and some performances had to be halted to repair things in front of the audience. Other productions (such as Zeffirelli’s famous 1981 Bohéme) have gotten much more mileage, but this Hoffmann probably could not be salvaged. It could either have been built anew, or retired. That is what the Met did, and the Bartlett Sher Hoffmann was premiered in 2009.

Here are some Met productions I believe still excite and inspire audiences and seem to work for the artists who appear in them: John Dexter’s 1977 staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (below), with sets by David Reppa, is as nearly perfect an opera production as can be found anywhere in the world. Economical in design and gesture, it allows the music, story and singers to shine. We hear nowadays about a new, more relevant way of staging opera, but this production set the gold standard nearly 35 years ago.

    In my earlier post I mentioned that the 1997 Robert Carsen Eugene Onegin had a production that was better than its first cast. Tchaikovsky fared better in the 1995 Elijah Moshinsky Queen of Spades that had a stupendous cast (including Karita Mattila, Leonie Rysanek, Ben Heppner and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, led by Valery Gergiev). The direction and design (marvelous sets and costumes by Mark Thompson) captured perfectly the elements of realism and the supernatural in the story and music. Scenery moved with the music, giving the whole opera a thrilling forward propulsion. In its revival last March, the overworked Met stage crew had trouble with the set which needs to be repaired before it breaks.

    The brilliant Jean-Pierre Ponnelle conceived a scenic design to present Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1982 and then, with not too many changes, the Cretan settings of that opera could be transformed into ancient Rome for La Clemenza di Tito. This is good value for money. In addition to its visual harmony, the set was designed to accommodate Ponnelle’s Enlightenment-inspired rationalism in stage direction.

    Few scenes in all of opera were as exhilarating as the last fifteen minutes of Clemenza as staged by Ponnelle, with one coup-de-theatre after another, perfectly matching some of the last music Mozart wrote for opera. These two productions still ravish the eye but have lost much of the precision and genius Ponnelle gave them in the staging. If his original production book can be located, these operas will be restored to greatness.

    The 1969 Der Rosenkavalier (director Nathaniel Merrill; designer Robert O’Hearn, pictured right) has had nips and tucks through the decades, but its staging has been lovingly maintained and its slightly faded feel perfectly captures the 18th-century Vienna of this beloved opera. Most recently done in 2009 (with Susan Graham and Renée Fleming leading a strong cast), the continuing stageworthiness of this production was evident. 

    David McVicar’s coherent account of Verdi’s Il Trovatore earned him acclaim in 2009 because it finally broke the skein of risibly bad productions of this musically sublime work. It is in every way a keeper.

    The late Anthony Minghella’s vision of Madama Butterfly opened the Peter Gelb era at the Met in 2006. It is visually dazzling but never, for a moment, gives up focus on the drama, as Zeffirelli productions often do. Many audience members did not embrace the use of a wooden Japanese puppet as the child of Cio-Cio-San, but singers I know who have worked with it are unanimous in their approval. I have one small change I would make that no one else has pointed out: On the sides of the stage there are large spotlights visible to the audience. This makes things look too technical and clinical; they remove us from the total magic of the staging. With simple black draping they will be out of sight and out of mind, and the splendor of this production as theater magic will be even more palpable.

    I have written before about the many strengths of the 1997 staging of Berg’s Wozzeck. The revival last April confirmed my admiration of the direction of Mark Lamos, the designs of Robert Israel and the perfect lighting design by James F. Ingalls. As I observed in July, the work of a talented and sensitive lighting designer can save an opera company many sacks of money.

    The 1977 Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen Tannhäuser has sets that seem realistic and traditional, but it was directed and lit (by Gilbert Wechsler) with such subtlety and care that it evokes the moods of the music and the situations. After all, do we really know what the Venusberg looks like? This staging took fantasy and made it flesh. As with the Ponnelle Idomeneo/Clemenza, this Tannhäuser was wonderful because it did not call attention to its genius but allowed it to be revealed. Nowadays, so many opera directors underline and reinforce their few paltry ideas rather than really do the work of trying to present the genius that resides in an opera. While the Ponnelle/Mozart pairing needs to resurrect its stage direction, the Tannhäuser can return to its glory if the original lighting design is restored with great care.

    I don’t claim that Schenk and Schneider-Siemssen got everything right. Their 1986 Die Fledermaus has lovely costumes (Peter J. Hall) and sets. These should be preserved as they make for delightful visuals. But the book (spoken dialogue) that was adapted by Schenk and translated by Marcel Prawy did not convey what might have been funny in Viennese dialect. In the days before projected titles, singers had to speak as would actors and most jokes landed with a thud. This production was sung in German but spoken in English. It never worked. So the sets should be saved and a book that is faithful but funny should be written. Or perhaps the whole thing should be done in the original Viennese German, with titles in humorous, sophisticated English. But don’t throw away those sets and costumes!

    I would like readers to post comments about productions at the Met and other opera houses that are treasurable, stageworthy and merit presentation, both for their theatrical value and to save money on new productions. Next week, we will deal with productions that have to go, so please do not post about those now. Accentuate the positive!


    Nathaniel Merrill's staging of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (Sara Krulwich)
    Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's Metropolitan Opera production of Tannhäuser (Marty Sohl)