Atlantis Alumni

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mammoth Productions At The Met

The best production of opera I've seen all year was the new Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera. A huge physical production, it features meticulously detailed sets for each of the three operas that comprise Puccini's extraordinary triptych. Not only a complete river barge materialized in Il Tabarro, the first opera, but also an overhead bridge that crossed the Seine. A cloister and 'stone' chapel set the stage for Suor Angelica, which accommodated deft sunlight and subsequent 'mystical' light effects in that powerful opera. Yet the last of the three operas, Gianni Schicchi, contained the biggest coup de theatre, when a large and ornate room in a Renaissance palace sunk into the stage, in seconds supplanted by a terrace overlooking Florence's glorious skyline. This is a photo of the cover of the original score.

The musical values of the three operas were strongly delineated by Maestro James Levine. And the Met cast all three works from strength, with such fine singing-actors as Barbara Frittoli, Stephanie Blythe, Maria Guleghina and Salvatore Licitra. Yet the size of the production, described by the Met as the largest in its repertory, started me thinking about the current peculiar double standards that exist in opera stagings in this country and in Europe.

Usually, realistic productions are decried by the New York press. Is there a single New York Times critic who admires Franco Zeffirelli? If so, I've yet to read such an opinion. Most critics praise minimalism (like Robert Wilson's) and the distortions of countless European regie directors. Wilson's staging is done solely with lighting effects and he forces his actors to stand still as statues for long periods of time. Such practices rarely add anything to Wagner's operas or the other pieces he directs. The other type of staging popular now in theater and opera is called "Regie," from the German word for 'direction.' This usually involves updating the story and tossing in clumsy symbolism. A current example at the Met is this season's new production of Richard Strauss' opera Die Agyptische Helena. English director David Fielding included such distractions and (by now cliches) as a group of warriors in suits who carry suitcases onstage and leave them spread about the floor to no discernible effect. This type of direction has been discourteously and quite accurately labeled "Eurotrash." Though such practices are just as often done now by American directors, as the New York City Opera's unfortunate production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago proves. Certainly it's not impossible to update an opera and make a powerful statement, as the Met's production of the Shostakovich opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District demonstrates.

But a double standard seems to exist, to read the reviews of the Met's new Il Trittico. The Times applauded the production, and rightly so. Yet if the same designs and realistic directing had been created by Zeffirelli the whole production would have been lambasted. It could be that realistic and 'traditional' versions of stage design and direction may be on the way out for good. If that happens, it will be a sad world for future audiences and the masterpieces such directors trash.


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