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.