Dear friends and readers,
Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.
So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.
Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.
When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):
There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.
What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:
Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.
Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.
While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:
But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.
I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:
Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.
Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.
This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.
This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot
At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.
The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:
Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.
In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:
Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.
In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.
I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.
The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.
Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.