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

Thursday, October 06, 2011 - 03:50 PM

The new production of Tosca Luc Bondy's production of Tosca (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

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)


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    Comments [12]

    Don from Washington, DC

    Yes, the Met's production of "Dialogue of the Carmelites" is superb, one of the best of any opera! I'd like also to cast my vote to save the Met's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" and current "Ariadne auf Naxos." Both of these are magnificent, fully serving their operas.

    Oct. 19 2011 03:54 PM
    Steve from NYC

    I completely agree about the Rosenkavalier production; it's wonderful and true to the opera, itself. I wish the Met would bring back the old production of Ariadne, though. Its intimate charm captured the essence of the opera, unlike the monolith we see now.

    Oct. 18 2011 09:14 PM
    mainer from Maine

    One of my favorite productions at the Met is the current "Cosi fan tutte" Such wonderful sunny and imaginative touches! The waterfront and ship are magical.

    Oct. 18 2011 08:11 PM
    Fred Plotkin

    SO....Which CURRENT productions should the Met keep because they are excellent and, in so doing, money can be saved in a tough economy? Next week I know readers will name ones they want to discard, but if the Met is to do new productions, it does not have infinite resources. Help it by selecting valid, consequential productions that can be saved. Here are some more: the Jonathan Miller Le Nozze di Figaro; the current Nabucco, Stiffelio, Simon Boccanegra and Otello; the Zeffirelli La Bohéme and Turandot; the current Carmen; the current Fliegende Hollander and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. ADD SOME MORE! And if your home opera company is elsewhere, name some productions worth saving there. The David Hockney Tristan und Isolde at the LA Opera is beautiful, but worn. It needs some refurbishing, but is worth saving.

    Oct. 07 2011 11:18 PM
    David from Flushing

    There seems to be an adversity to doing the same thing twice in a row in opera productions. If the preceding one was "realistic", the following tends to be "abstract." Unfortunately, everyone gets to be disappointed with some production in this course of events.

    Productions do wear out and can be patched up only so much. There is the old trick of turning down the lights so defects are less obvious, but the time eventually comes to say goodbye.

    Opera as much for the eyes as the ears and naturally we all want to see something we like on the stage.

    Tosca was intended to show off famous places in Rome and recreating them on stage makes much sense. While the church procession in the late production tended to be overdone with penitents, etc., the whole exuded the grandeur of Rome.

    The Zeffirelli Turandot was a kind of Brighton Pavilion view of China, but it was fun despite the distracting Peking Opera figures dancing about. The worst of that production was that the Emperor could not be seen above his shoes by those in the upper reaches of the opera house.

    The late Ring production is a treasure in my DVD collection. I have not seen another production of this that I thought was better.

    Oct. 07 2011 09:32 PM
    Etienne from Baton Rouge

    It pains me greatly that the Met is doing away with its wonderful, transporting Onegin production, whose tasteful simplicity of lighting and design give even greater resonance to this gem of an opera. I will mourn its passing.

    Oct. 07 2011 03:04 PM
    concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

    Forgive me but I cannot wait until next week to send comments. Tosca is lurid, melodramatic and WONDERFUL. The new Tosca production is just LURID. I was thinking that if this production was presented in Italy years ago, it would have been greeted with tomatoes and loud boos.
    The Scarpia was just a slob who could not act. Yeah I referred to him as a slob. Felt sorry for who paid to see this piece of garbage. Felt sorry for the other singers who had to share the stage with the truly awful Scarpia.

    Oct. 07 2011 11:23 AM
    meche from MIMA

    Big Vote for saving Der Rosenkavalier and Cavalleria Rusticana. I always feel transported to another time and place. Isn't opera about being transported?

    Oct. 07 2011 01:45 AM

    Wonderful article!
    I must say I disagree about one part. I hate the new production of Tosca... the nudity, unnecessary, the grandeur of Rome, lacking and the awe of stunning sets, gone.
    I didn't see the Racette cast, but I am sure with that kind of singing you can overlook certain things, but this is TOSCA! The cast I saw could not save it for me. I listened with my eyes shut and didn't stay for Act 3. The previous production's last run, while having a Tosca who was under the weather, I attended every performance. I couldn't get enough of the orchestration and the historical feel of it all. I felt like I was witnessing something great.
    Puccini wrote this opera from a very personal perspective. His ancestor, as I am sure you know, wrote a Te Deum for the day Napoleon had this victory and the village's soprano sang a cantata that was also composed by him. I feel that this is more than enough reason to keep Tosca set in the time and place that Puccini had composed it.
    But that is just my humble opinion.

    Oct. 07 2011 01:34 AM
    Fred Plotkin from New York City

    To Ken: I think a strong argument could be made that Tosca is not grand opera. Apart from the Act One "Te Deum" with chorus, the opera is basically about three characters, one of whom dies in the second act. It is an intimate work that benefits from superb stage direction of the story from moment to moment rather than the crowd control in works such as Turandot. Gentle reminder to commenters on this post: This is the one where you can accentuate the positive, indicating productions of value and meaning at the Met and elsewhere that are worth saving. Next week you will have a chance to unburden about all the things you think do not work. Thanks!

    Oct. 07 2011 12:28 AM
    Ken Thompson from New York City

    It is true that Zeffirelli's productions could be overblown (his La Traviata was the worst example) but his gargantuan sets for Turandot and Tosca were definitely a delight for the eye. Audiences expect splendor when they attend grand opera at the Met, and those productions delivered it in spades. My favorite Zeffirelli production EVER at the Met was the magnificent Otello done for Jon Vickers and Teresa Zylis-Gara back around 1971. It was monumental, perfectly expressing the music and the drama. The costumes were as sumptuous as a Veronese fresco. The staging worked beautifully; in this case the principals were never overwhelmed by the production.

    Another gorgeous production from that period was the Schneider-Siemsen Tristan und Isolde that was mounted for Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas. The staging of the love duets was just as hallucinogenic as the music-- the world disappeared as the intoxicated lovers drifted into a deep blue void, surrounded by starry constellations. The Met's current production is ghastly by comparison-- nasty colored lighting, weird perspectives, hideous costumes, and toy ship models inexplicably strewn at the front of the stage. Jurgen Rose, one of the best designers in the business, really shot himself in the foot with this one.

    Oct. 06 2011 11:05 PM
    w.pagenkopf from flushing, ny

    Perhaps 2 exceptions but the directors from Broadway that Mr. Gelb brought in seem to have had no respect for the composer of the opera they directed,
    Explicie directions in composer score, Lucia an example were iignored, diction seemed to be secondary.
    We cut Shajespeare but hopefully not Wagner. I do not want to see Camille in a red dress but in period outfit. Nor the sleep walking lady on a ledge of a loft building and using a cell phone. Put on new operas with updating but stay away from Euro-trash. Those who desecrate a period or dress are not opera directors but hungry to have the word Met on their resumes, So some singers prefer puppet babies. NYC opera had a well behaved child for Butterfly. Expedience did not make opera and will certainly no improve it.

    Oct. 06 2011 08:28 PM

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