Which operas should have beautiful productions?

In the endless debates of regie vs. traditional opera productions, there has been one persistent complaint about regie productions -- that as a rule, they are not as beautiful as "traditional" opera productions. It's unfair to generalize, but regie productions often update the opera to a modern era, or they mix/match periods. Sets are stylized, or explicitly shocking. Stage directions are ... well, often not PG. One of the most beloved features of La Cieca's parterrebox is the weekly "Regie quizzes" in which parterrebox members are invited to guess which opera pictures of a production are taken from. An example of his Regie quiz can be found at the link.

There are valid reasons to prefer one type of opera production to another; what puzzles me is the idea that certain operas need to be "beautiful." I do not think many of the beloved classics were intended to be postcard-beautiful. Rather, they drew from contemporary sources and were intended to shock the audiences. Salome is a classic now, but here is what the critic Henry Krehbiel had to say about it when it premiered in New York in 1907:
A reviewer ought to be equipped with a dual nature, both intellectual and moral, in order to pronounce fully and fairly upon the qualities of the drama by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss...He should be an embodied conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench with which "Salome" fills the nostrils of humanity, but, though it makes him retch, he should be sufficiently judicial in his temperament calmly to look at the drama in all its aspects and determine whether or not as a whole it is an instructive note on the life and culture of the times and whether or not this exudation from the diseased and polluted will and imagination of the authors marks a real advance in artistic expression, irrespective of its contents or their fitness for dramatic representation.

There is a vast deal of ugly music in "Salome"-music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a course file...What shall be said...when music adorns itself with the loveliest attributes and leads them to the apotheosis of that which is indescribably, yes, inconceivably gross and abominable?
Ok, not a positive review. But the point is, upon closer examination, many famous opera stories are not at all beautiful. They are tragic, and contain themes such as rape (Tosca, Rigoletto, Don Giovanni), torture (Tosca), hired murder (Rigoletto, Un Ballo et Maschera), prostitution (La Traviata), obsessive love and jealousy (Carmen, Otello, Pagliacci), sexual harrassment and abuse of power (Nozze di Figaro), matricide and implied incest (Elektra), and dangerous religious zeal (Don Carlo). All of these themes are presented straightforwardly and explicitly. To make a Normal Rockwell-like Rigoletto would I believe be going against the spirit of the work. The Met's current production of Rigoletto by Otto Schenk is so blandly pretty that one hardly senses that this is a work about rape, revenge, and the corruption of royalty. Hopefully the rumors are true that this production will be retired after this season, and a newer, more thought-provoking production can take its place.

Don't get me wrong -- I think certain operas do call for "prettiness" in the production. To "regie" those productions would actually go against the spirit of the work. On the top of the list is the opera buffa or sentimental comedies that were designed to be nostalgic even when they first premiered. Elisir d'Amore, La Sonnambula, Don Pasquale, La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia are the most well-known of these comedies, in which a silly, sweet world is presented to the audience without irony. In later years Mascagni would try to replicate this sweet, uncomplicated world in L'amico Fritz. These works were meant to be pretty, and I believe that to 'regie' these works is indeed a crime.

Another category of works I think are hard to 'regie' are the deliberate costume dramas, like Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani, or Donizetti's Three Queens trilogy, that were deliberately set backwards in a (to the composer) exotic locale and featured lots of women going mad beautifully. I'd categorize Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier as a work that's hard to regie as well -- the sentimentality of a specific era is so engrained in the libretto. Andrea Chenier and Adriana Lecouvreur I'd add also to this list. Can you really regie works that were lavish MGM-type costume dramas before the genre even existed? In those cases, lovely costumes and sets are a part of the experience. Some straight out romances I think have a hard time being 'regied.' Gounod's Romeo et Juliette is one, because it's a sentimentalization of an already sentimental source and La Boheme ia another -- does anyone want to see Boheme as anything but a wonderfully sentimental romance/slice of life? Even updates like Jonathan Larson's Rent are almost sickly in their sentimentality.

The third major category of works that have a hard time being regied in my opinion are the works that deliberately either call for an exotic locale (Aida, Madama Butterfly, Lakme), or touch upon some mythic fairy tale (Magic Flute, Rusalka). I've never been able to enjoy regie Tristans, because, having read the original Gottfried von Strassburg's poem, that work is a medieval fairy tale, and I cannot think of it in a modern allegorical light. Lohengrin and Tannhauser are other works steeped in medieval themes, and although I've longed to stage a Lohengrin that's set as a Western, I feel those operas work best if there's some nod to its medieval origins as well. The particular kind of morality in those operas in my opinion make them hard to update successfully.

But this is a short list. The vast majority of the greatest operas are or should be thought-provoking, even uncomfortable experiences. The emotions and drama they invoke are immediate, and they haven't lost their power or become sentimental and out-dated becuase the issues they touch upon are so raw. To end this on a personal note, the night I saw the Don Carlo premiere at the Met this past fall, I learned that my aunt had lost her long, courageous battle with cancer. I was distraught, and did not feel like staying for the entire opera. But then as I watched the opera, wtih Nicholas Hytner's spare but powerful production, that emphasized the grimness of Inquisition-era Spain, I began to think about my aunt. In the opera, religion is used as a tool to tear apart families. The confrontation between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor is one of the most chilling scenes of opera. And then I thought about my aunt, equally devout, and how when she passed away all her siblings were there to hold her hand, and she said for one last time that she didn't fear death, and would see everyone in heaven. She wanted death to free her as much as Don Carlo wanted death to free him. As Charles V sang these words:
"Il duolo della terra/Nei chiostro ancor c'insegue;/Solo del cor la guerra /In ciel si calmerà" I wiped away tears. I hoped death brought Don Carlo the inner peace he couldn't achieve in life, and at the same time, I had no doubt that my aunt in a way had finally been freed from the horrible disease that had trapped her body for the last four years.

Did I want a "beautiful" production at that moment? NO. I wanted a production that would make me think about the meaning and value of religion, love, life, and death. A purely "beautiful" Don Carlo is a bad Don Carlo.

To see how much more powerful a less traditionally "pretty" Don Carlo is in the final scene:


  1. Excellent post! I would only disagree with the limitations placed on the "medieval" works, since (for example) Konwitschny's "schoolroom" version of Lohengrin is one of the finest opera productions of all time.

  2. I think you have good points. But the assumption here is that "beautiful" =/= modern-dress; and that's not true. There is plenty of beauty in contemporary life; even in modern-dress productions, if it comes to that. (The Adrienne Lobel/Dunya Ramicova designs for Sellars' Cosi and Figaro productions were as beautiful and serviceable as those of any period production I've seen.) For that matter, period productions can get as grotty as any modern-dress Regie production; it's just less troublesome to do period stuff nice and shiny.

    I also would disagree with your strictures on updating opere buffe. I seriously doubt that Barbiere or Cenerentola were designed to be nostalgic when first premiered, any more than Cosi or Figaro; they all belong to the same comic tradition, which assumes contemporary settings. Now whether these settings need to be contemporary with the present-day audience is another question, which has to be answered on a case-by-case basis.

  3. A rational take on the regie wars, a very nice read. Your post made me think of how undefined the term "regie" is in these debates. For example is the Elisir DVD with Alagna and Angela "regie" because its a more modern set and costumes than the puffy pastelles of the Met's Pavarotti, Battle production? I don't think so actually. Maybe we should think about "regie" as productions where the design and direction force us to reinterpret the meaning of the libretto, the motivations of the characters and the major plot points. I think modern dress can serve that goal, but it doesn't automatically produce that goal.
    My only disagreement is with your argument that "period" pieces shouldn't be updated. When I think about Aida, I imagine a regie production set in post riot Detroit or Chicago with Aida as a maid or something in a suburban neighborhood. The "kingdom of Egypt" could very easily be a police district that crosses lines between a suburban and inner city area, the royal procession black men arrested on their way to court, Ramfis a Black Power revolutionary seeking to create a prison break. Such a production would evoke ideas of 1960s black intellectuals who argued that black Americans in the ghetto were part "colonial subjects" to the (white) American nation. Subjection enforced by police power.

    Anyway, thats just one production I'd like to see. But I agree with the claim that I think originated on opera-l, that when people call for "beauty" they often mean "something I like." There is great beauty in something that is thought provoking, beauty is about a powerful emotional response. Perhaps what critics of regie mean is that these productions are not "pretty."

  4. I think I agree with much of this, but Krehbiel's review is, in a way, an argument against some elements of regie -- without a contemporary setting, Salome was not merely "relevant" but genuinely shocking to the audience. It was understood, through the music and the stage action, that this wasn't just a naughty look at a decadent world gone by; it was supposed to shock us right here and now.

    Now, it may be that Salome needs something more to shock or horrify us now that Strauss's music is no longer modern: the work that the music could do then, simply by being so violent, may have to be done by something else. (And it's also true that much of the audience did view the show as just titillating rather than relevant, but that's arguably true of many regie productions as well.)

    But the fact that these stories are not "beautiful" does not, in itself, translate into the idea that their ugliness can only be communicated through modernization, minimalism, or other regie tools. The contrast of the story with the setting is a very effective theatrical tool when done right -- think of W.S. Gilbert's famous trick of making the settings as authentic-looking as he could, the better to create laughs from how completely ridiculous the story was.

    And I think on a more serious level, a lavish period setting (which is what a lot of people do seem to mean by "beautiful") can actually point up the story's relevance to our lives more than just giving us a setting we personally might recognize. The shock, in this view, is seeing a story that seems to belong to a different time and slowly realizing that nothing has changed, that the issues in the piece are as relevant now as they were then.

    On the other hand, I think anything, no matter how light or nostalgic, can be updated. Many updatings obviously do not make sense, if only because the director doesn't have the nerve to change the music and the text -- which, in fact, I would advocate. (In my opinion directors should be willing to make cuts, change words, or even re-arrange the order of numbers until the text fits in with the conception.) But, for example, most of what happens in Rosenkavalier isn't particularly era-specific, the waltzes are a deliberate anachronism, and the Silver Rose ritual is made up. I think the story and relationships would make sense in another era.

  5. Well I feel with opera buffa that they might have been contemporary at the time, but the regie treatment, which tends to go for highly radical stage movements and stark, "shocking" scenery, doesn't work in those works because the point of, say, Barbiere, is to have an evening of light fun. The productions can be "updated," but the light touch and tongue-in-cheek approach have to be there.

  6. About the "medieval" Wagner operas, they really IMO require an understanding of the notions of courtly love, singing minstrels, the belief in the supernatural (love potions, people turning into Swans and vice versa). Productions can be stylized but (I'll get killed for this) the operas seem terminally silly if taken out of their medieval mindset. But put in a medieval mindset, they became transporting experiences to another time and place, magical and surreal and Wagner becomes a Merlin of sorts.

  7. I guess I'm stuck on the word "beautiful" here. Some plots benefit from updating in a way that makes an ancient war, conflict, family feud, or religious intolerance more immediate and less distant (in time or place). And there may be a way to incorporate some of the medieval facets as well. But of course beauty or regie has to be done with good singing and characterization. I've sat through too many excruciating yet "beautiful" Barbers where Rosina sets my teeth on edge with her "I'm smarter than the rest of you combined," characterization. (You'd think that a very young woman who had been pretty much sequestered all her life would be a tad more like Gilda than, say, Gloria Alred).

  8. Well I talked about "beautiful" productions I didn't mean that regie productions can't be beautiful. I personally find the Willy Decker Traviata to be one of the most beautiful productions of Traviata I've ever seen. But there are certain types of operas that call for pretty painted backdrops, lavish period costumes, old-fashioned three dimensional sets, and certain operas where I think that kind of approach is fatal. I think Otto Schenk's "pretty" production of Rigoletto really undermines the drama at every point, for instance. On the other hand it works beautifully for "Don Pasquale."

  9. In your post you seem to be equating Regietheater with updated settings of operas set originally by their creators in earlier historical periods. While just about all Regietheater stagings seem to do just that, that's not really what Regietheater is about, and not at all what it is that makes Eurotrash Regietheater so utterly contemptible. You really ought to make a distinction, I think, between updated settings of operas per se (which is what you've here addressed) and Regietheater or Konzept stagings wherein the updated settings are merely a part of the apparatus of the Regie's Konzept.


  10. Omg, the famous ACD has shown up. He, the king of condemning operas and productions he's neither heard nor seen, and has no intention of hearing or seeing. I feel so honored. Lemme ask you a question, ACD, have you seen ANY of the productions you condemn on your blog? But thanks at least for not using the royal 'we' here.

  11. Typical "progressive operagoer" knee-jerk response, and hardly a response to my comment. Make a thoughtful response to my comment, and I'll be happy to answer your question.

    See how that works?

    Oh, and just FYI, I never use the royal "we" -- ever.


  12. Oh jeez! It just hit me. "Poison Ivy" = the poisonous "Ivy Lin" of Opera-L fame; she who responds to Opera-L posts by accusing the poster of things he never said.

    All now is clear and no surprise -- that is, clear and no surprise as regards myself. What was a surprise was the high quality of this blog; so high quality that I several days ago added it to S&F's very exclusive Culture Blogs listing. My compliments -- on your blog, that is, not your Opera-L rubbish.


  13. Well ok then I'll ask you -- what's the difference between "updating" and "contemptible" regie concepts? According to your blog you approve of neither.

  14. Well ok then I'll ask you -- what's the difference between "updating" and "contemptible" regie concepts? According to your blog you approve of neither.

    Well, first off, if you've actually read S&F then you have to know that my comments on Regietheater have almost exclusively to do with Wagner's music-dramas (i.e., the works from Rheingold forward) and in that special case there is no difference between merely "'updating' and 'contemptible' regie concepts" as any updating of the setting of a Wagner music-drama (and by updating I here mean a moving forward in time to a more modern era) makes the resulting staging ipso facto Eurotrash Regietheater. The organic unity of music, text, and setting in a Wagner music-drama simply prohibits any such postmodern or deconstructionist diddling of the setting without the result being, at very least, an ironic commentary on Wagner's Konzept. Generally speaking, any staging of any opera that's at bottom a commentary on the vision or concept of the opera's original creator, no matter how achieved, is by definition Eurotrash, and Eurotrash of the very worst sort. So much the worse when attempted with a Wagner music-drama.

    Now let's take an entirely different case; an example from Italian opera like the one that today you're probably listening to at the very moment I'm typing this: that ol' reliable "shabby little shocker," Tosca.

    Although there would be no dramatic or aesthetic gain or benefit whatsoever from doing so, one could, without doing any real or meaningful violence to the opera, have it take place in, say, turn-of-21st-century New York instead of turn-of-19th-century Rome with all the necessary time and place changes made to the sung text — a 21st-century New York where, say, Cavaradossi is a programmer of software games, Scarpia a powerful and exploitative electronics venture capitalist, and Floria Tosca herself a flaming rock star and all that implies.

    Considering the updating itself, such a staging would in no way qualify as Eurotrash Regietheater as the updating leaves intact in all its essentials if not in all its details the original creator's concept as made manifest in the score (music and text).

    Understand the difference now?


  15. Yes I understand perfectly. To you Wagner's music dramas are holy, and therefore every single description in the libretto must be followed to the letter, down to the very part where "In einem mit zwei Widdern bespannten Wagen langt Fricka aus der Schlucht auf dem Felsjoche an, dort hält sie rasch an und steigt aus." So ... you expect Fricka to arrive in a carriage drawn by two rams?

    I understand very well though how you hold Wagnerian music dramas to a totally different standard than any other music. And if this isn't the use of the "royal we" I don't know what is:

    "When the Met's plan for simulcast HD movie-house showings of live Met productions was first announced we thought it a swell idea. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic's plan for simulcast HD movie-house showings of live LAP concerts was first announced we thought it not so swell an idea. Is this just us going all elitist on everyone again with our snob engine operating full-out on all twelve cylinders? We think not (although we take unashamed pride in our elitist view of things). Consider, please..."

    Who is "we" if it's not just you and your scribbles on S&F?

  16. You understand perfectly? By your answer you give proof positive you understood nothing whatsoever and, worse, have no desire to understand.

    So much for any intelligent discussion between me and thee.


    P.S. Oh, and the "we" I use on S&F as any literate person would know immediately she knew it was not the plural "we" is called the editorial "we". Look it up, sweetie.

  17. Me and thee? Ok not to get territorial but this is my blog and if you're determined to spam the comments with your usual diatribes please go away.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Will the Real Apollo Please Stand Up?

NYCB Waves Goodbye ... and Says Welcome Back

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" Reopens Met