Cher Public

The grandeur that was Rome

Some thoughts about the perishability of opera productions follow. Not necessarily a new argument, but let’s see what you think.

I think there is absolutely a place for “classic” productions in an opera house with the condition that the original director or a designated “revival” director be on hand to customize the production to new casts and the changing tastes of audiences. After about 20 or 25 years, though, I question whether even the best productions can speak as directly to an audiences as they did when new: the world changes and people have different standards of what is true and what seems phony.

If you screen films from the 1970s, there are a handful that hold up really beautifully today, e.g., The Godfather and Chinatown. But the majority of films from that era, including some that were very popular and well-reviewed at the times, feel mannered and artificial. We have moved beyond the 1970s Zeitgeist, and so those conventions we all accepted unthinkingly in the 1970s now seem as obvious as Faye Dunaway‘s false eyelashes.

This happens with opera productions too: not just the visual but the more broadly thematic. Franco Zeffirelli‘s Tosca is a very 1980s production of the opera: big, expensive, proudly gaudy. I would say that this Tosca is as much a product of the Reagan presidency as Dynasty was. The concept, if you can call it that, was that visual splendor and political power are intertwined: the might of the Church, for example, seemed to derive from the sheer numbers of supers and banners and incense burners Zeffirelli could pile onto the stage. And Scarpia’s office was absurdly (and illogically) oversized as a visual metaphor for the absolute and unyielding might of an oppressive government. The Zeffirelli Tosca was immensely glamorous, but that “glamour” was not purely aesthetic: it was a function of absolute power.

I would go farther and say that, in the mindset of the 1980s, “grandeur” and “power” were so symbiotic to become practically synonymous: grandeur derived from power and power from grandeur. But we don’t think in exactly those terms today: “Reaganesque” is now a dirty word. However, the “Reaganesque” qualities of that Tosca were immutable, right down to how Tosca was directed to grab the knife. The production was frozen in the 1980s, and meanwhile the rest of the world entered the 21st century.

Now, I realize that all this doesn’t mean much to people who go to the opera to hear pretty voices and looks at pretty sets. But that cadre of opera fans is dwindling rapidly, and at the Met (as it has already happened everywhere else in the world) the audience has to expand to include people who appreciate opera as a form of theatrical performance, i.e., as a drama created through music. It is a slow process building this audience and it started very late at the Met for various reasons. But I think it is an absolute necessary process, which means that the Met needs to experiment, not just recycle stuff that might have had some meaning 40 years ago.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    To me, many “traditional” operatic productions are like the Symphony No. 2 by John Knowles Paine (Ulster Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta), which I’m listening to at this moment: Pleasant, competent, well-designed, and utterly forgettable. I’ll say one thing about Regietheater and other “controversial” opera productions. They aren’t forgettable, that’s for sure. They often force you to approach the libretto and the music with fresh eyes and ears. It’s not such a bad thing to keep the audience a little off-balance in the performing arts. As one firmly in the “Why can’t we have both?” school, I say bring ’em on, the more the merrier. Time has a nice way of separating the wheat from the chaff. I suspect opera lovers a generation from now will lament the passing of Willy Decker’s classic “red dress” Traviata.

  • javier

    The singing is the most important thing. It is nice when there is perfect harmony between great singing, acting, and production, but without great singing the other 2 don’t matter. While good acting can compensate for bad singing, like when the soprano doesn’t sing a high note in “sempre libera” because her acting is so great (poplavskaya???) , a good production can’t save terrible singing.

  • olliedawg

    La Cieca hits it on the head: Productions reflect the zeitgeist, but times and tastes change (not always for the better).

    I remember all those Ponnelle Mozart productions, and not always happily. “La Clemenza” still holds up well, but for me, that’s because Ponnelle pushed the action closer to the audience. It’s kind of a mixed bag of grandeur and intimacy (or as intimate as anything can be on the Met stage).

    But, oh boy, that Marriage of Figaro. I remember HEARING Te Kanawa singing “Dove sono”, but had a hard time finding her all the way at the back of the stage, somewhere near Amsterdam Avenue. With the gigantic-ness of everything on stage, the singers had all the grandeur of the Lollipop League. I saw the production at least twice, with bang-up casts (don’t get me started on how fabulous Flicka, Ramey, Hyninnen, Upshaw, and Te Kanawa were — even Kathy Battle was great). I just couldn’t SEE them half the time.

    I really disliked the overblown Zeff productions, particularly Turandot. Again, saw it twice with wonderful casts, but it was so screamingly over-the-top, nearly ridiculous in its poofiness.

    The only production that went on and on and on at the Met was Rosenkavalier, although it never offended or bloviated. It was pretty, functional, nicely stuffed. It just seemed right on the money for what it served. The crying and moaning when it was retired after 25-30 years seemed weird. As mom used to say, “Schoen, it’s time.”

    • ” Productions reflect the zeitgeist, but times and tastes change (not always for the better).”

      It would probably behoove a fan of classical music not to attribute too many magical powers to the “Zeitgeist” fairy, lest they find their favorite repertoire dismissed as no longer “of the times”.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    On the other hand, experiencing opera the way prior generations might have, the more ossified the better, is a method of time travel. As the graying opera audience attends what might be their fifteenth Aida or Traviata, thoughts of years gone by surely touch some. “Off with the old, on with the new” is not what they are looking for. A way to revisit 1955 might be.

  • My hair is not just grey, it’s white and has been for years. But I want to see the opera of today, in today’s productions, not opera as it was (or is, it often seems, at the Met).

  • LT

    Some pictures from the new Zurich Traviata. Looks like a tawdry production. Last minute einspringerin Yoncheva got great reviews with some saying that the very limited rehearsal time with the director was a boon lol
    Pictures are at the bottom of the page in what looks like a video, but it isn’t.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    For subtilties, when singing in German, it helps to be German!