When Belts Are Tightened (Part Four): Opera Productions That Have to Go

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In the previous dispatches of this series about staging opera in tough economic times, we explored many choices opera companies can make to do great art without descending into financial disaster, whether it be cutting productions, re-using old ones or sharing costs among companies.

And yet there are times when an existing production simply has to go. This might be because it is falling apart physically. Or its original stage direction has disintegrated with the departure of the person who created it. Too many slapdash revivals put new singers in front of the scenery and ask them to do their own interpretation of their roles. The result feels like a photocopy of a photocopy of the original concept. This often happens at the Vienna State Opera, which offers more than fifty different operas per season and has insufficient time to rehearse them all properly.

Then there are those notorious stagings that were so bad the first time out that little can be done to make them plausible. Graham Vick’s Il Trovatore production at the Met in 2000 is an example of such a fiasco. The bizarre set design and risible stage direction are still clucked about by operagoers who saw it. Vick had done outstanding Met premieres of two challenging works--Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1994) and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1999)--but has never returned to the Met since Il Trovatore. This popular Verdi work needed to be revisited and the 2009 production by David McVicar is generally considered a success.

I believe--and I know whereof I speak--that the minimum requirement of an opera producer (that is, the person who directs an opera based on a concept for the production and engages designers who can realize that vision) must be able to read music and fluently speak the language of the opera’s libretto. This might seem obvious, but many companies engage producers who have no means of really plumbing the ideas to be found in the riches of the music and the subtleties in the original words that no translation can convey.

When, in the third act quartet of Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua sings “Bella figlia dell’amore” he is seducing Maddalena while Gilda (whom he has seduced and abandoned) and her father Rigoletto overhear him. The words literally mean “beautiful daughter of love” and that could suggest Gilda. But it also implies, in effect, “beautiful girl who practices love,” or a woman who is already expert in the pleasures of the flesh. That is Maddalena. The music caresses and emphasizes the rolling L sounds, the humming M and purring R. All of this is found in Luciano Pavarotti’s singing and acting of the part, but it was entirely complemented by the direction by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who always was fully prepared to produce a great opera performance.

There are producers who do read music, speak languages fluently and are steeped in culture, but nonetheless they create an opera production that does not succeed. This does not mean they do not have talent, but sometimes other factors--especially inadequate musical resources or insufficient rehearsal time--intervene. In my first article in this series I discussed Robert Carsen’s Eugene Onegin at the Met. It is now considered excellent but its strengths were not evident at its 1997 premiere.

Five Productions Whose Expiration Date Has Come

I have selected five productions in the Met repertory that, for varying reasons, need to be replaced. I know not everyone will agree with me, and that is fine. Part of the pleasure of being an opera lover comes from the spirited (not mean) discussions that arise among people who are passionate about the art form.

In 1980, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had a sexy, delicious performance starring Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo, lovingly conducted by James Levine and staged by Gian Carlo Menotti. The sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley were a bit too frou-frou, but were suitable for this show. This opera was staged often until 1990 but then was absent for 18 years. When Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordani arrived for rehearsals in 2008, there was little documentation or institutional memory about how it was staged. The result was disjointed and the sets and costumes seemed both tired and too precious. The Met is good about continuity in its productions, but this was an exception.

Otto Schenk directed a new Rigoletto in 1989, with sets and costumes designed by Zack Brown. It starred Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and June Anderson in her debut. Act One’s two scenes each had an imposing set, as did each of the last two acts. It was a lot of scenery. When the production was revived, the set for Act One, scene one (outside the ducal palace) was replaced by the Act Two set (the palace interior). It is not what Verdi called for, but audiences got used to it.

Last season, to my surprise, the original exterior set returned, but the iconic Act Two set was gone--replaced by the exterior set. I suspect this was because the exterior set is smaller and the enormous “Machine” for the Ring cycle took up too much space backstage. As a result, this Rigoletto production lost all dramatic integrity because the second act made no sense when done outside the palace. The singers fared poorly in this setting. I felt that the whole thing was an insult to audiences who paid good money to see a complete production of Rigoletto and got something shoddy in every way.

Robert Wilson’s 1998 staging of Lohengrin had wonderful lighting, but not much else. The stage was almost bare. Performers had to stand almost frozen in place, enacting small poses and gestures that are part of the Wilson aesthetic but do nothing to bring us closer to Wagner’s. If one studies Lohengrin, there really is more action than expected. But this version was stultifying. Some people think Wilson can do no wrong (and I do like the Madama Butterfly he did for Paris and Los Angeles), but his Lohengrin is a boring take on an exquisite opera.

The 1982 Les Contes d’Hoffmann was wonderful but in tatters by the time it was replaced by the Bartlett Sher production of the opera in 2009. The new staging suffered through cast changes and other artistic issues during rehearsals, but Sher’s garish and incoherent take on the opera would have existed even without these challenges. Hoffmann is an opera full of specific moments and settings, but most were ignored. The ailing Antonia and her father live in a claustrophobic apartment in Munich but Sher put them out of doors, living in a sort of meadow with furniture and a piano. The whole production lacks the magic and supernatural flavor it needs.

Julie Taymor’s abundant talents achieved great things in The Lion King on Broadway and a film about Frida Kahlo. Her puppetry and costumes are delightful in the 2004 Die Zauberflöte she did for the Met, but this superficial endeavor is all about fleeting visual thrills. The lumbering, omnipresent set by George Tsypin is a forerunner of the current Ring. The production does nothing to explore the ideas in this masterpiece. If there were not projected titles, no one would have a clue what is going on. Unlike great opera stagings, this Zauberflöte becomes more tedious with each viewing.

Now it is your turn to assess existing productions in the Met repertory or those of your home opera company. Select one that has to go and explain why. I am going to lay down two rules I want you to abide by:

• This is not about naming operas you want your company to stage but focus only on existing productions that must go.

• In talking about the Met, please do not include the Ring now being unveiled. Let all four works in the cycle be presented and then, I assure you, we will talk about it in 2012.

Photos: Piotr Beczala in the Met's production of Rigoletto; A scene from Act I (Olympia act) of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)