Saturday, April 01, 2006

Fuddy-duddies all

I could not believe myself to be reading in the last chapter of Divas and Scholars:

"An important part of the audience for Italian opera in the United States and Italy tends to be exceptionally conservative when it comes to the staging of works they know and love. There are others in attendance with an appetite for more adventurous productions, to be sure, of the kind readily accepted in stagings of Wagner or Handel operas, not to mention the plays of Shakespeare or Goldoni. But a hard-core constituency wants nothing to interfere with the pleasures--musical, dramaturgical, and emotional--it associates with the works, pleasures reinforced by listening to the same recordings over and over. For this constituency, stage directors are an unfortunate necessity, and should limit their interventions to directing traffic, as they largely did in the nineteenth century. The emotion and the drama are in the music, and anything that seeks to provide another perspective on the work is a distraction. There are many music critics and scholars who agree. Writing in the New Yorker during the Verdi centennial, Alex Ross suggested that Verdi operas resist radical staging:

"'The greatness of verdi is a simple thing. A solitary man, he found a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and his method was to sink himself completely into his characters. He never composed music for music's sake; every note has a precise dramatic function. The most astounding scenes in his work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass--like a human wave that could carry anything before it.'"

There's more. Before I saw the film of the Salzburg La Traviata, I would have at least been prepared to entertain the idea. After all, one reason for all the bad Verdi I have seen has been bad productions.

I always feel that there is a place for production design. Ask those same people if they would prefer to just see the same production over and over. I always feel the problem is that people are hired to do productions of Verdi who don't actually like Verdi. They find his operas boring and incongruous and try to make them more interesting.

The purpose of the production is to explain the opera. Who are these people and what is going on between them? What the Salzburg La Traviata proves is that less is more. In this production we didn't merely hear who Violetta is, we saw her plying her trade. We didn't just hear about the love affair, we saw it in action. The humiliation was visibly complete and disgusting. It was a creative, modern production far divorced from tradition, and it worked.

They may be correct in saying that the modern opera goer has spent hours listening to the operas on recordings, but we must also remember that when we look around us these days, we see a lot of empty chairs. If opera is to survive, it must attract new audiences, audiences who don't own any recordings of Renata Tebaldi or even of Placido Domingo.

Verdi is a problem, but for me the problem isn't bad stagings, it's bad singing. Fabulous singers will carry any production. Well, maybe not the Planet of the Apes Rigoletto, but .... Leontyne Price can sing "O patria mia" in any outfit with any set, and we promise not to complain, as long as we can hear that fabulous phrasing again.

In San Francisco the staging most complained about was Handel's Alcina. I liked it.

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