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Teaching moment

“After putting off for a week trying to make some sense of the horrific mess that is the Met’s new Faust, I’m finally just going to give up. There are some disasters that bear writing about as what you might call teaching opportunities: this season’s Don Giovanni, for example, as a cautionary tale about the perils of timid conservatism. But there’s nothing to be learned from this Faust besides, perhaps, ‘never hire Des McAnuff to direct another opera under any circumstances’.” [Musical America]

48 comments

  • 1
    Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    BRAVISSIMO -- In the MA article JJ wrote: “if it is indeed true that McAnuff is signed to helm a new Falstaff at the Met, for heaven’s sake pay him off, send him packing and find someone who’s actually up for the job. But please, please, don’t turn him into the new Bart Sher!”

    Bart Sher has absolutely no business directing opera.

    • 1.1
      Donna Anna says:

      And neither does McAnuff. Judging from his sorry Tempest at Stratford, in which Christopher Plummer didn’t appear happy to be there, he’s not one to plumb the surfaces or to build on originality.

      • 1.1.1
        Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        Maybe Sher and Des should be plumbers.

        • 1.1.1.1
          FlorezFan says:

          The last time I saw MetFutures, Jack O’Brien (Il Trittico) was listed for the new Falstaff. That seemed like a great choice. What happened?

  • 2
    floridante2k says:

    gees… MetHD this Saturday .. Should I even go :( and have all my hair pulled off watching this trainwreck ?

    • 2.1
      bobsnsane says:

      Absolutely, go…the orchestra and chorus will be magnificent (as usual) and from many reports the singing is quite good too.

    • 2.2
      louannd says:

      I had planned to go, but the trip to see Don Giovanni and JJ’s fine review I think have changed my mind. I think I will just wait for the Met player.

      • 2.2.1
        jim says:

        Then you missed a treat. Much of the criticism is, I think, misplaced. It’s true that McAnuff fights Gounod every step of the way. But Gounod ought to be fought. His politics, his morals and his religiosity are all unacceptable. McAnuff is not completely successful. There are passages that one can do nothing with. But it’s worth seeing. And even more worth listening to. Poplavskaya is amazing. Pape does what he can with a downplayed part (McAnuff, I think, was determined not to present a religious melodrama leavened with snark). Kaufmann is miscast. The part really requires someone better at projecting weakness — think Lucien de Rubempre with Mephistophele as Vautrin — and Kaufmann is nothing if not strong. But he sounds great.

        • 2.2.1.1
          louannd says:

          thank you jim. I am glad you enjoyed it. There is still the encore to consider. I know nothing about “Lucien de Rubempre with Mephistophele as Vautrin” but will definitely find out.

  • 3
    arepo says:

    That is such a fine analysis and one that I relate to so completely, that reading it only exacerbates my guilt about that puppet that everyone seems to love but me. (bah humbug to me!) But I certainly did love the beautiful Minghella production so very much that I am going back again over Christmas for yet another go — this time with Zhang.

    I expressed this feeling of mine even more thoroughly over at Opera-L where I am known as Idia Legray. (To complicate things further, someone here stole my user name, in case you think his comments are mine).

    • 3.1
      IdiaLegray says:

      Well, I didn’t exactly steal your user name as I didn’t know it had been used before. But it isn’t the first time someone has stolen Idia Legray’s name.

      • 3.1.1
        bobsnsane says:

        Idia Legray?

        ‘son io!’

      • 3.1.2
        Regina delle fate says:

        I think Maddalena di Coigny borrows rather than steals Idia Legray’s name -- and for a very short time. Idia, you have unwittingly borrowed Arepo’s Opera-L name so no opprobrium should accrue to your good self! :)

        • 3.1.2.1
          maddalenadicoigny says:

          Yes, Maddalena di Coigny borrows or switches out with Idia Legray when the authorities act up.

  • 4
    tatiana says:

    Yes, a fine analysis. But I was disappointed to see that there was no opinionating on the musical side of the “Butterfly” revival. How were the singers? What about the conducting? Perhaps I missed this elsewhere and the intent of the piece was simply to compare the stagings.
    For the record, Arepo, I don’t like the puppet either. In fact, I’m less enthusiastic about the Minghella “Butterfly” than La Cieca and many others are. Chacun a son gout!!

    • 4.1
      sterlingkay says:

      LIPING ZHANG is fantastic in the Butterfly revival…by far the best Cio-Cio San that has appeared in the wonderful Mighella production (and I am a big Pat Racette fan!). Truly magical. Robert Dean Smith is miscast and the less said about Domingo’s “conducting” the better. But worth buying a ticket for HER.

      I agree with many of the points made in James Jorden’s piece but I take issue with calling the DON GIOVANNI and FAUST productions “disasters”. Seems to me they are “blah”, disappointing productions but saying they are “disasters” is the kind of huge, hysterical overstatement that makes for fun posts on PARTERRE but does not make for serious criticism. In fact, they might have been more “interesting” productions if they had truly been disasters.

      Seems to me that’s the problem with what Gelb is doing— he’s trying to appeal to younger, more adventurous audiences while not alienating the traditionalists who hold the purse-strings. In the process he please no one, and we get a series of “blah” productions.

      As a side note: I am told on good authority that the only production that Gelb was really called on the carpet about by the MET Board was the Willy Decker TRAVIATA. I know of at least two big MET donors who threatened to cut off the $$$$ if that was the direction Gelb was taking the MET. And to me, that was one of the best productions of the Gelb regime!

      • 4.1.1
        armerjacquino says:

        I’m sort of surprised to hear all this acclaim for Zhang. I saw her as Butterfly in 1998, at the Albert Hall, and as I left I remember thinking ‘and that’s the last I’ll hear of HER…’

        • 4.1.1.1
          rapt says:

          AJ, all I know of Zhang is this video of her Vissi d’arte, but it seems lovely to me.

      • 4.1.2
        Regina delle fate says:

        Liping Zhang -- discovered by Raymond Gubbay in his English-language Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall -- amazing that she has gone on to sing the role at both Covent Garden and the Met, but she’s heartbreaking.

    • 4.2
      kashania says:

      JJ’s series for Musical America is strictly about opera direction.

  • 5
    Feldmarschallin says:

    hasnt the Met or Gelb heard of Herheim, Guth or Kriegenburg?
    Kriegenburg has done an amazing Wozzeck and is doing the Ring here as well.
    Here a highlight of the Wozzeck
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTaO61OLJxo

    • 5.1
      sterlingkay says:

      Of course Gelb has heard of them! He just would NEVER hire them given the old fossils that call the $$$$ shots in our non-state-subsidized system. And please notice that no other American opera house hire them either! It would be financial suicide…..just ask Domingo about the Achim Freyer RING that critics loved and audiences/donors HATED. It’s put LA Opera in a financial hole, they’ll never dig themselves out of.

  • 6
    Talk of the Town says:

    Minghella gave an interesting interview (interesting to me, anwyay) for an ENO podcast in 2007 or so in which he explained the rationale behind the opening (pre-overture) scene.

    Minghella describes a discussion with the casting director, who wanted him to meet a particular soprano.

    “I said ‘Is she 15?’ And I said it half as a joke but also half seriously. ‘Shouldn’t we go to Japan and find a very young singer?'”

    “Do you know how much it takes to sing this role?”

    “There is no twenty-five year old who can sing this role. So how do we tell — what is the point of this story? Isn’t it about a girl?”

    “Two or three years prior to doing it, I said I can’t do it. I cannot find a way to make peace with the fact that if I were telling this story, and believing this story, I’d want to see a child. It’s about a child and a young man. It’s about a guy who’s probably 22 or 24, encountering a 15-year-old Japanese toy.”

    “The idea I had was maybe you create a kind of cocoon, you take this 15-year-old Japanese girl, you cover her like a cocoon, and the next time you unravel that cocoon, there is our singer. Instead of hiding what’s happening, you celebrate what’s happening. It’s not that we don’t know she’s not 15, we know, but she has the voice that can create 15.”

    Grappling with this “problem” appears to have given Minghella the inspiration for the puppet. In a separate NPR interview, he said:

    “For me, the issue was very simple, which was that if you are saying that there is no requirement or expectation on the audience to see a young Japanese girl singing the part of Cio-Cio San, why is there a requirement to see a two-and-a-half year old Eurasian?”

    • 6.1
      Talk of the Town says:

      How annoying, I used angle brackets to describe the interviewer’s reactions and they didn’t show up. Here it is again:

      Minghella gave an interesting interview (interesting to me, anwyay) for an ENO podcast in 2007 or so in which he explained the rationale behind the opening (pre-overture) scene.

      Minghella describes a discussion with the casting director, who wanted him to meet a particular soprano.

      “I said ‘Is she 15?’ And I said it half as a joke but also half seriously. ‘Shouldn’t we go to Japan and find a very young singer?'”

      [interviewer laughs]

      “Do you know how much it takes to sing this role?”

      [interviewer says yes]

      “There is no twenty-five year old who can sing this role. So how do we tell — what is the point of this story? Isn’t it about a girl?”

      “Two or three years prior to doing it, I said I can’t do it. I cannot find a way to make peace with the fact that if I were telling this story, and believing this story, I’d want to see a child. It’s about a child and a young man. It’s about a guy who’s probably 22 or 24, encountering a 15-year-old Japanese toy.”

      [Interviewer returns to the “jaw-dropping image at the opening. … To start in this stunend silence, this extraordinary image of this young girl coming over the rise of the stage …”]

      “The idea I had was maybe you create a kind of cocoon, you take this 15-year-old Japanese girl, you cover her like a cocoon, and the next time you unravel that cocoon, there is our singer. Instead of hiding what’s happening, you celebrate what’s happening. It’s not that we don’t know she’s not 15, we know, but she has the voice that can create 15.”

      Grappling with this “problem” appears to have given Minghella the inspiration for the puppet. In a separate NPR interview, he said:

      “For me, the issue was very simple, which was that if you are saying that there is no requirement or expectation on the audience to see a young Japanese girl singing the part of Cio-Cio San, why is there a requirement to see a two-and-a-half year old Eurasian?”

  • 7
    Tristan_und says:

    I didn’t HATE the doll in Butterfly, but it didn’t do much for me and by trying to insert a totally different dramatic language and tradition into a very Western opera it appeared more mannered than effective to my mind (and my ex HATED it, fwiw).

    • 7.1
      SF Guy says:

      For me, having the 60-something Howdy Doody play a 2-1/2 year-old Eurasian stretched suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. But that’s stunt casting for you. (Perhaps it worked better in the house, without close-ups…)

  • 8
    Sanford says:

    Two things off topic…

    First, if anyone has been wondering where I’ve been, tonight is opening night of Barber Of Seville and I’ve been in rehearsals for a couple of months.

    Second, you all know how much I love Moffo, so imagine my delight when someone emailed the link for the following:

  • 9
    zinka says:

    Yes,the Met is making new productions really are crappola..What they need is THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Would you make a BEE line for the Met to see this????

  • 10
    Arianna a Nasso says:

    While I agree with much of what JJ writes, I wonder if an unsuccessful debut production is reason enough not to invite a director back, especially one who has had success elsewhere. Even great directors have their failures. Falstaff probably will suit a theater director like McAnuff better than Faust -- stronger text and characters, no supernatural elements. Grandage probably would have had better luck with Figaro rather than Giovanni.

    • 10.1
      ianw2 says:

      I think the bigger issue is contracting. McAnuff presumably signed the two contracts simultaneously. I can’t think any director of sane mind would sign a contract offering two productions, provided the first production gets favourable reviews.

      (coincidentally- you can get your wish. I believe Glyndebourne is doing a Grandage Figaro next season)

  • 11
    arepo says:

    Hi Idia Legray! I didn’t mean to say that you “stole” my name, it’s just that I get private e-mails telling me they agree (or disagree as the case may be) with something I said, and I have to tell them it wasn’t me.
    Are you also on Opera-L? If so, what is your user name? Maybe I can change to that one, and then all will be equal with the world! LOLOL
    Signed: Arepo (formerly Idia Legray)

  • 12
    LeperEllo says:

    I agreed with a lot of JJ’s article, until this:

    “…after all, it would seem intuitively obvious that the skills of a theater director should be mostly transferable to the opera house.”

    I think it was meant rhetorically, but it seems to me that this statement gets at the very heart of the problem the article addresses. Why should it seem intuitively obvious that a theater director’s skills should be transferable (even with that qualifier “mostly”) to the opera house? Without fleshing out that thought, one might find a parallel statement in saying a painter’s skills should be transferable to sculpting: both work with malleable materials to create an expressive output that might (hopefully) end up on display in a gallery or a museum or a private collection. I can’t imagine for a moment that is what JJ meant but I am left wondering.

    Maybe some impresarios do think along those lines…

    It has never seemed obvious to me that a theater director’s skills would be equally at home on the opera stage. They are different forms of expressions, different art forms with different requirements. Granted, both work with live performers, lighting, costumes and both presumably exist to tell a story but doesn’t the opera director need much more? An opera director also needs to include specific items in his toolbox: awareness of musical form (otherwise, what is one to do with all those ritornellos and da capos), sensitivity to musical cues and emotional content, an ear for musical balance and sense of line and proportion, and a trust that we in the audience will “get it” if compositional aspects of the art form are allowed to take center stage now and then. We don’t need every moment filled with stage movement; it’s perfectly okay with us if Donizetti or Mascagni gets the limelight now and then. It is part of the art form, and we expect it.

    Staging Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is a vastly different undertaking than taking on Robert Ward’s opera of the same title and subject. I would not expect a “theater” director to necessarily be able to transfer his skills from one version to the other. Kudos to him if he can pull off both, but the needs of one are not the same as the other.

    • 12.1
      Indiana Loiterer III says:

      It depends on what sort of spoken drama a stage director is used to directing. Not all spoken drama demands that every moment be filled with stage movement. Think of all those big speeches in Shakespeare (or in Racine, or Sophocles), which demand “an awareness of [rhetorical] form…sensitivity to [rhetorical] cues and emotional content…and a trust that we in the audience will get it if [strictly poetic] aspects of the art form are allowed to take center stage for a while.” Part of the problem here is that we in the States don’t get much in the way of non-naturalistic theater except the occasional Shakespeare festival; we don’t get much of a chance to deal with those parts of the spoken-theater canon that are actually closer to the way opera behaves than the current naturalistic mainstream.

  • 13
    parpignol says:

    I saw Madame Butterfly last night, and Liping Zhang gave a very fine and moving performance; the production does require one singing actress at the center of it, everyone else can be a puppet; and the production is wonderful, still makes me gasp at moments; love the horizon panel in the back where the performers ascend to the hilltop, love the mirroring above; the lanterns in the love duet; the brilliant costumes; great death scene; one hesitation: the brilliant descent of the curtain of blossoms at the end of the act 1 love duet: wouldn’t it be even more fitting at the end of act 2, following the flower duet? instead of the current act 2 ending with bouquets of poppies harvested from the backs of the prostrate ninja stagehands? and a direction quibble: on the climactic phrase of Un Bel Di “per non morir al primo incontro” the soprano collapses between the sliding panels, as if to demonstrate too literally her death, at a moment when the music actually soars rather than collapses, so she isn’t quite able to bring out the big note to fullest effect--
    and re Mr. Jorden’s essay on new productions in general during the Gelb era, one might have noted the fact that McVicar, an opera director after all, produced an excellent Trovatore for a company that seemed unable to manage that, but then a very disappointing Anna Bolena production; and perhaps one might also have mentioned Richard Eyre, a theater director, who had reasonably good success replacing the Zeffirelli Carmen. . .

    • 13.1
      suzyQ says:

      Parpignol, I was there too last night and I agree that it was Zhang was fantastic! The production is so stunning and I am so moved every time that I see it. My husband said that he couldn’t hear Robert Dean Smith too well and we were in the grand tier. I like Smith very much and had no complaint with him. I’m thinking of going again to see Racette.

    • 13.2
      iltenoredigrazia says:

      “…an excellent Trovatore..”? Are we grading on a curve now?

  • 14
    suzyQ says:

    I want to say “that Zhang was fantastic”

  • 15
    Perles75 says:

    I also was at the HD yesterday evening (in Paris). I’m not really a fan of french opera and that was my first Faust, but I had fun!

    I didn’t find the staging as horrible as some say. It had interesting ideas with a couple of missed shots (the mummies in the sabba). I liked the idea of assimilating hell with nuclear fallout, but frankly I wouldn’t have thought at Faust as a nuclear physicist if DiDonato hadn’t mentioned it in the presentation. I would have considered him more generally as a disillusioned scientist of the XX century -and perhaps it’s better this way (also because the mass scenes with the soldiers and the women were closer the the first than to the second world war, in style).

    From the broadcasting all singer sounded really good with the exception of Poplavskaya (sorry for the probable misspelling) that had a too fragile voice for me, even for the role of Marguerite. I liked very much some “acting color” in her voice though.
    I didn’t consider Kaufmann’s voice strained at all, I enjoyed his performance. The acting also was good, even if perhaps a bit subdued. Pape was the star of the day though. Good secondary roles, and in general very good acting from the whole cast.

    Special mention to the orchestra and the conductor, with a very engaging approach and phrasing.

    Before the show I was a bit skeptical about HD but I think I will repeat the experience. It was exciting for me to think that I was listening live in Paris together with a friend of mine in Munich something performed in New York!

  • 16
    Perles75 says:

    By the way, is it true that American audience is more conservative, with respect to the mise en scène, than its european counterpart, hence the critics to very modern settings?
    I was quite surprised, for example, at how many times DiDonato stressed the modernity of the staging in the interviews… I saw much worse here in Europe!

  • 17
    FragendeFrau82 says:

    Regarding directors of opera: NC Opera is presenting Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles, which is described as a dance opera.

    The director (and choreographer) is Robert Weiss, the artistic director of Carolina Ballet, music direction by Wilson Southerland.

    Based on the film of the same name, it is described as featuring “a quartet of young singers along with dancers”. I’ll give this a try if I can, out of sheer curiosity.

  • 18
    floridante2k says:

    I enjoyed the singing :) MP was a little tentative for the jewel song but overall in the latter Acts everyone was singing well.

    No big complaint and I enjoyed it. The director should have taken a solo bow… If he had the guts and drive to fight Gounod’s music all the way, HE should have the guts to face the audience.

    I had my share of ‘European’ regies in my students days in Europe… some of them were brilliant and some of them were not… DM’s direction IMHO belongs to the latter case.