A little reality can be a dangerous thing, points out Geoffrey Smith, who questions whether overly contemporary opera staging pleases the director more than the audience
WHEN I think of the perennially vexed question of the director’s place in opera, I’m reminded of an exchange between Gilbert and Sullivan. As the creators of the Savoy Operas worked on the next in the series, Sullivan expressed misgivings about the mounting cost of the production, which was overseen by Gilbert in his twin roles as librettist and stage director. Although sympathetic, Gilbert refused to give way on what staging the piece properly would require. As he put it: ‘The cast must be dressed somehow.’
On that simple declaration hangs a seminal issue in the history of music theatre. Any production that goes before the public demands to be presented in a certain style, to a certain effect. However, determining the specific nature of that remains a battleground where each element of the creative process wants to have its say.
Should a production aim to express and enhance the original character of a well-loved classic or bring it fearlessly, even prov- ocatively, up to date, showing that its stature as a classic means its dramatic core can and should be relevant to our time, holding a mirror up to the world we see on the 10 o’clock news?
Supporters of these competing tendencies co-exist in any opera house and on either side of the footlights. Although audiences might prefer more traditional approaches, the production side wants to press forward, pushing the boundaries to stimulate expression and appeal to a new generation.
Accordingly, opera houses try to pitch in both directions. The current bill at Covent Garden is John Schlesinger’s classic production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’hoffmann (until December 3), a feast of opulence first performed in 1980. In what’s billed as its last revival, it remains a dazzling experience; Schlesinger captures the fantasy and romance with the eponymous poet pursuing his vision of love from a Parisian salon to a Venetian palazzo and a Munich apartment.
The sets are sumptuous, crowned in Act II by a gorgeous evoc- ation of a Venetian carnival, so sensuous it took 1980 audiences slightly aback, that creates the perfect background for the Barcarolle delivered by sultry courtesan Giulietta. Christine Rice is irresistible in the role, with Sofia Fomina and Sonya Yoncheva similarly excellent as Hoffmann’s other ideal ladies. Vittorio Grigolo makes an ardent poet and Thomas Hampson plays the Four Villains who thwart his dreams.
Those who think opera should live more dangerously may be drawn to two other revivals by the Royal Opera House. Jonathan Kent’s contemporary staging of Manon Lescaut (November 22– December 12) transplants Puccini to the world of sex trafficking, barbed wire, reality TV and brothels. The production has an in-yourface energy that I found a little bludgeoning first time around, although Sir Antonio Pappano is clearly committed to the score.
Verdi’s Il Trovatore (December 1–February 9, 2017) is similarly hard-edged. David Bosch updates the action to what seems like the Balkan civil wars, with caravans, paramilitaries and tanks. Il Trovatore, opaque at the best of times, is not illuminated by the frisson of current events. Verdi’s searing music, however, will be compelling when conducted by Richard Farnes, with Roberto Alagna and Gregory Kunde sharing the role of Manrico.
Over Christmas (December 17– January 24, 2017), Covent Garden (020–7304 4000; www.roh.org. uk) will offer what promises to be an ideal blend of traditional splendour and contemporary imagination in Robert Carsen’s new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Known for his rich, ingenious feeling for atmosphere, Mr Carsen updates the opera to the time of its composition, the anxious, nostalgic years before the First World War. Led by Renee Fleming in her signature role as the Marschallin, the cast boasts Alice Coote/anna Stephany as Octavian and Sophie Bevan as Sophie, conducted by Andris Nelsons.
Der Rosenkavalier was produced with the Metropolitan
‘It’s a battleground where each element wants to have its say’
Above left: A traditional Les Contes dõhoffmann dazzles. Above right:
Jonathan Kent’s contemporary production of Manon Lescaut