|Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011|
So, does opera need: a) raised expectations of theatrical staging, b) a suitability ratings system akin to that of cinema, and/or c) a whole new approach for a new century?
First of all, why are expectations of operatic productions so low? Many opera-goers are familiar with the works they are about to hear and are likely to know the stories. Lucia is about a woman who is forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love and on their wedding night goes mad and kills him before dropping dead herself. That is pretty bloody violent. If a film director such as Quentin Tarantino tackled such a tale, and you went to the cinema to see it, you'd be fairly astonished if all that happened was that Lucia sang a nice coloratura passage accompanied by a flute and then mysteriously keeled over.
Katie Mitchell, one of today's most brilliant theatre directors, is known for her ruthless, forensic interrogation of character and drama (I've just done a big interview with her for the American magazine Opera News, which will be out soon and explores all of this) and if you only want crinolines and ringlets you probably don't go to her productions. Yet crinolines and ringlets, in dramatic terms, can be awfully boring - unless handled by an exceptional director who can bring such matters to life through evocation of character and nuance.
Operatic music and the stories it illustrates are of necessity extreme - opera at its finest reaches the moments of human experience in which words become inadequate and only music can capture the emotion at hand. (Tosca: "Vissi d'arte". Wotan's Farewell. The Countess in Figaro. And so on.) Why are expectations, then, so leery of extremity?
|Rigoletto: Planet of the Apes (Munich, 2007)|
Next question: is it time to introduce mandatory "suitability" ratings for opera productions? We have them for cinema, so why not opera as well? It would, however, be up to each theatre to assess its own roster - but there's no reason why every opera should be suitable for children no matter what story it tells. Besides, just imagine: Lucia di Lammermoor is X-rated and teenagers try to smuggle themselves in as a badge of honour...
This system would mean no need for grovelly, late-notice, apologies-in-advance and no refunds. People would know a bit about what they're signing up for from the start and that is fine. You don't go to a Tarantino movie expecting soft-focus romanticism. And you don't expect that from Katie Mitchell either.
Anyway, I'm more worried about this production's conductor, whose Robert le Diable was so dull that it made an iffy opera pretty much intolerable. Perhaps he'll be more comfortable with Donizetti.
When I went to Budapest last week I interviewed a very different conductor, Iván Fischer, about his glorious Budapest Festival Orchestra and especially his semi-staged production of The Magic Flute, which is coming to London soon. His idea is to explore "organic, integrated opera" which brings the drama and the music together - the latter having to be performed dramatically, the former being scaled down somewhat. Fischer, one of the most genuinely creative minds on the podium at present, drew heavy criticism for a venture into this when he brought one to Edinburgh, but his idea is well worth exploring. His take on it is that for 40 years now there has been a polarisation between stage and pit: the former expected to be radical and innovative, the latter expected to be deeply conservative (with "original instruments" et al). This polarisation has become a trope, a cliché effectively, and besides it doesn't always make for a satisfying overall experience. It's time, he says, to try something new. More about this when the feature comes out. I find his analysis cogent and agree with him that it is time to look for a new way forward, rather than just chugging along in the same old tramlines.
And meanwhile I can't wait to see what Katie Mitchell has done with Lucia di Lammermoor. It opens on 7 April.