Saturday, October 02, 2010

Staging Wagner (and Verdi)

I got asked privately about this response to Alex Ross's Wagner Op-Ed piece, which ran about a week ago. Had I seen the response, did I think it was a valid criticism?

If you don't feel like clicking through to the Times web site to read the response, I'll summarize for you: why do directors feel the need to modernize Wagner when he says right there in the score what he wants?

So, first off, the new Lepage staging is apparently pretty traditional in how the singers are blocked and how the characters relate to each other. The costumes look like they could have been designed any time in the last 50 years; they are traditional and kinda dull, compared to, say, the famous 1970s ENO Ring, the Mariinsky Ring, or the Freyer Ring. They are dull compared to the beautiful and ultra-traditional costumes of the 2001 Seattle Ring.

Yeah, the stage machinery is modern and circusy, and so what? You got yer river Rhine, you got yer Nibelheim (and descent thereto), you got yer rocky places.

More to the point, I rolled my eyes at that letter.

Nobody thinks we should always stage Shakespeare the way Shakespeare expected his plays to be done - in Elizabethan dress, on an outdoor stage, with men and boys playing women's roles, and apparently hurrying through the text. (See the timing given for the play in the prologue of Romeo and Juliette.)

Pretty much any 19th c. and earlier play you can think of has been updated (or backdated - Julius Cesar in togas instead of doublets), relocated geographically, made abstract, etc. Only in the opera world is there a significant coterie of fans who scream when Tosca isn't wearing an Empire gown, when Wotan doesn't wear long robes and carry a spear, when the Duke of Mantua's court becomes Fascist Italy in the 30s, when unusual staging techniques are used (see Wilson; see Freyer). (Note: I saw only one opera in Freyer's Ring, but it was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life despite underwheming singing.)

These people essentially claim to know what the composer would have wanted if he were alive today. Nobody knows what Verdi or Wagner would want if they had 21st century theaters and technology in hand. We have no idea what Wagner would have thought of Wieland Wagner or Acheim Freyer' stagings.

It's crazy. It's part of the reason so many people have problems relating to opera: fans who want operas to be performed as if it were still 1890. Wagner and Verdi were experienced and (mostly) practical men of the theater. They were also great musical reformers. Of all people, they knew that stagecraft is a living, changing thing, not a fossil frozen in time.


Henry Holland said...

Ardent Wagnerians are a scary bunch to me.

I was recently taken to task on Parterre Box for claiming that Schreker is a greater composer than Wagner. I'd written no such thing of course, because, well, I don't think that. Turns out, I wasn't being sufficiently gushing in my praise of Wagner's music --I'd mentioned that I never want to hear Die Meistersingers ever again-- and I was doing my usual Schreker puffery, which obviously = Schreker is a better composer than Wagner.

As for productions being like they were in 1890, I'm a little sympathetic to that. The further reaches of regie that La Cieca puts out there for mockery are pretty bad, but I'm equally tired of the set design trend of 3 walls and minimal props for the whole opera instead of interior of church > the room of a palace > outdoors on a castle top. Somewhere there's a balance between the ghastly Lenhoff Parsifal and Zefferelli's La Boheme.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oy, well, Parterre Box posters range from the smart/knowledgable to the just plain nuts. However, the worst thrashing I ever got over this kind of thing was on Opera Chic, where I was attacked for saying, well, no, I see no reason for the U.S. Congress to vote funds to buy certain Callas materials that were going up for auction. Nor should the Met, where she sang a big 21 performances.

Lehnhoff Parsifal, you mean the one SFO did in 2000? I liked it a lot. :)

Anonymous said...

As someone who goes to a lot more Shakespeare plays than operas, I can say that there are complaints about inappropriately modernized settings, but they're so prevalent now that complaints are like shouting into the wind.

In actual practice, "inappropriately" is the key word. If the director and designer can make it work, the results can be brilliant (McKellen's Richard III film a few years ago is a fine example). Much of the time, though, they don't, and they fail to realize that updating the setting is no substitute for thinking through what you're doing.

Some traditional settings are dull, some aren't. Again it depends on thinking and on dedication. But better a dull traditional setting than a clanging modern one from directors who think they've rescued the plays from "irrelevance" but haven't. Dumping a pot of "relevance" over the play is no substitute for the hard work of real directing, and I expect the same is true for opera.

Henry Holland said...

In actual practice, "inappropriately" is the key word

That's it. To use the Lenhoff Parsifal as an example, he had a Konzept and the actual opera that Wagner wrote be damned. I actually saw it twice: once at ENO and the second time at SFO (I only went because I wanted to hear Kurt Moll sing Amfortas before he retired).

When I went to the SFO performance, I thought "Surely, that bit at the end where Amfortas dies and Kundry lives has been changed", but no. My eyes nearly rolled out of my head when about a year later, at the Staatsoper Berlin, I saw an old Harry Kupfer production from the 80's where....Amfortas etc.

It wasn't even an original idea to totally screw with the plot!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I liked the Lehnhoff because it was so weird (not to mention, Kurt Moll, Christopher Ventris, Donald Runnicles). Not long before it opened, I'd suffered through the video of a well-sung (Siggy J.!), miserably-dully-staged Bayreuth production with friends, and it was like seeing another opera. :)