Headshot of La Cieca

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A distinct odor

“’I’ve almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian,’ muses merry murderess Abby Brewster early in the first act of Arsenic and Old Lace, and to tell the truth I’m beginning to think I’m almost as far behind the curve as she was. Recent new productions at the Met suggest strongly that Peter Gelb either doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or else, if he does know, has some wildly inappropriate ideas about what music drama is supposed to be.” Our own JJ (not pictured) muses on “Peter’s Principles” at Musical America.

72 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    This is a great start thank you so much. And the Netherlands Opera has benefitted for that job description. Now what about the reality of the dramaturgs in Germany? Are they in France? In Italy?

  • phoenix says:

    Interesting article.
    -- If the director knows what he is doing, I don’t see the need to hire a ‘dramaturg’ = more expenses to bring on another phony… hasn’t the Met got enough of them already? That glorified accountant masquerading as General Manager, the arrogant old New Zealand witch in the Casting Department… go right on down the line, you’ll find them all dancing the same menuet.
    -- What the above article doesn’t address (and what hasn’t been objectively dealt with comprehensively enough in any article I’ve come across) is why the Met in recent years have made it a tradition to hire and promote singers way past their prime vocal estate. Do N. Dessay, F. Furlanetto, V. Urmana, K. Mattila, D. Zajic, D. Voigt, W. Meier, M. Guleghina, etc. give ‘deep’ discounts in return for riding the great Met Media-Hype-Merry-go-Round as contenders for cult figure status? I don’t include Domingo or Fleming in this group, since they have already achieved bonafide cult figure status, thus they can look forward to their 90th birthday galas at some well-known venue. I wonder how disappointed audiences at the Met & Chicago Lyric are because they are not currently experiencing the artisty of Edita Gruberova? Obviously most of the patrons are more concerned with media reputation and don’t really care whether these once competent singers have ‘stayed too long at the fair’ or not (particularly since nowadays most patrons themselves are at the age of teetering on the edge of senility… myself included, of course). After all, who wants to admit to buying into the bad taste of singers giving authoritative ‘personality’ performances whilst indulging in simulated vocal technique to masquerade dried-up tonal resources.

    • ianw2 says:

      Singers like Dessay, Furlanetto, Mattila, Meier and Zajic all may not still have the bloom of youth in their voice, but they’re certainly still strong performers and can certainly move tickets.

      How dare Gelb and Billinghurst cast such has-been singers like Kweicien, Mattei, Costello, Netrebko etc. Ragged voices and box-office poison, all of ‘em. Such a disastrous “tradition”.

      If you can somehow cast a season exclusively of singers who will be exactly at the apex of their vocal prowess in five years time with not a single scheduling, health, pregnancy, repertoire or box office concern, please do write to Opera America. You could do a keynote.

    • Arianna a Nasso says:

      “If the director knows what he is doing, I don’t see the need to hire a dramaturg”

      You don’t need to put dramaturg in quotes. It has been a real job in theater for quite a while. Think of it as outsourcing. Research is very time consuming, and if one utilizes a dramaturg on each show, the time savings will allow a director to do another production each season. As long as the director makes use of the research in preparing a production, why should it matter who actually did the research?

      • phoenix says:

        -- And which wet suit did you snorkel in on from Nasso this morning, dear Arianna?
        -- Did Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Donizetti, etc. have dramaturgs? For exactly how long has a dramaturg been an essential requirement for an operahouse? It must have originated in postwar Europe when they had a great of subsidy funding for the arts from their governments AND they had to come up with a POSITION for somebody’s current trick.
        -- It doesn’t really matter what a dramaturg says or doesn’t say or does or doesn’t do. Audiences come to live performances of opera for the visual aspects, i.e. what they see and perceive. Listening to broadcasts from the Met & Bayreuth over the last few years it has become evident to me that most patrons consider vocal resources & singing technique secondary to their visual perceptions of the production.
        -- The author of the ariticle above has hitched his wagon to the only star remaining in the operatic performing firmament… almost all of what he has written since he started there has been concerned with regie and production values.

  • phoenix says:

    And which broomstick did you fly in on, ianw2??? or did you borrow Billinghurst’s original kauri?

  • tancredipasero says:

    JJ puts his finger on it without realizing:

    “People whinge all the time about directors “distorting” opera, as if there were some ideal set of meanings just sitting there on the surface of any given work, all of them ready to be grasped by the casual passer-by. But if this were true, a routine musical performance could reveal all the profundities of a Mahler symphony: so sorry, Otto Klemperer and Leonard Bernstein, your services are no longer needed.”

    Nobody who argues against directors “distorting” opera really does so “as if there were some ideal set of meanings just sitting there on the surface” -- that’s a caricature whose only utility (such as it is) is to suggest that those who don’t agree with the author are unqualified to participate in a discussion.

    But just after that comes the real reason Regietheater is so problematic: the core content of opera is located in the same place it is in a Mahler symphony, the score. Stage production goes wrong when it starts to displace, or circumscribe, the moment-to-moment exploration by the performers of the emotional and dramatic content embodied in the score. That doesn’t mean it’s OK for the visual side to be boring, or inert, or unattended to -- and it doesn’t mean everything has to be set in the period of the libretto etc etc. It just means the visual side shouldn’t take the lead, shouldn’t close off paths that interpreters of the score might want to follow, shouldn’t disinvite musicality and musico-dramatic responsiveness from being the main energy-source of the rehearsal process. Shouldn’t create a situation in which “a routine musical performance,” as JJ puts it, might seem adequate, or might happen through inattention because people are mostly focusing elsewhere.

    The best production is the one that gives good shape and focus to the visual drama while energizing and freeing the actors to access their fullest resources of musical and vocal inspiration -- because that’s where, in this art form, they are in closest touch with the core content and, if they succeed, are likeliest to convey it in the most meaningful way.

    That’s not to say this CAN’T happen in a highly interventionist “Regie” production, or that it never has happened there, but just that there are reasons why it might happen more rarely there. It’s all a matter of balance -- if you feel we’re getting plenty of the kind of musical inspiration that makes opera great, but the visual side is failing to live up to that, then yeah, full speed ahead with focusing on productions as the defining element of a season and the most important forum for discussing how opera works. Some people are not convinced that’s the best path -- why condescend to them?

    • iltenoredigrazia says:

      PERFECT. Absolutely perfect exposition of the issue. Anything I could add, tancredi has said it better.

  • opera-cake says:

    La Cieca — EXCELLENT article!

    I just finished watching Don Giovanni. It is scenically beyond bad on any and every account. Even the dancing numbers become annoying, pointless, and add to the overwhelming dumbness of the show. I believe the infamous London production by F.Zembello (available on DVD) is better than this one.

    I also saw new Anna Bolena a few days ago, and sorry but it is no good either. There, at least, one can blame it on the weak libretto. But to screw up Don Giovanni this badly is hardly excusable.

    As for The Ring, I did/do not want to comment much… except that every time I listen to the presenters boasting about the millions of dollars The Met invested to stage new Ring I feel uncomfortable: isn’t that precisely a reason to be ashamed of?! Invested millions to say nothing! I could even argue that the mammoth machinery works to the detriment of the storyline.

    Decker’s installation would have been much much cheaper, and while not disturbing to traditionalists, it would’ve most certainly added a few fine ideas to the already passionate libretto.

    Cheers

  • David says:

    Oh well, it’s probably just me, but I liked the Don Giovanni. I don’t think it was just the fact that it wasn’t the train wreck that the critics had made it out to be. I thought it told the story relatively simply and clearly and allowed for some great performances -- singing and acting. And surely the skill of a good director is to elicit great performances from his or her cast?

    • CruzSF says:

      It’s not just you, David. But those of us who liked it were out-commented by those who disliked it. Good thing most people here didn’t see the new Don Giovanni at SF Opera…

    • Bluessweet says:

      Fortunately, I grew up with St, John Terrell’s Music Circus. Theater in the round gives one the sense that the scenery is not necessary, since it all must be see through, and the audience’s imagination is. The set was wicked bad but the story is the story. Some fine singing and extra fine acting; along with some just of the make do nature. I’d put DG down as an ok performance with a wacky set design four hundred shutter doors?? Dim to the point of miner’s lamps needed??? (Perhaps to hide the shabby set. The same concept, equally bad, was employed in Damnation but at least we got rappelling down the front of the set.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Exactly the same could be said of the Marthe Keller production which I caught in New York and thought handsome if not especially challenging. The big question is why the need to change it so soon, for another, apparently equally bland.