I was surprised that a number of the comments on my post about updating opera seemed to assume that updating is inherently a bad thing. If you’re going to update, the argument ran, then update everything: add new music, push the whole thing into a new era. But if you only update the setting without updating the music, you’re creating something that’s artistically flawed.
I’d certainly be intrigued to see more people play around with that kind of updating in opera. (And one of the best stagings I’ve seen of Mozart’s “Entführung aus dem Serail,” by François Abou Salem in Salzburg in the 1990s, did actually interpolate other music into the opera -- though that was less about bringing the opera into the present than about contrasting East and West, very powerfully and tellingly.)
(read more after the jump)
But there are dozens of ways to go about updating something. You can play with the time period, waking the audience up with flashes of anachronism (think Sofia Coppola’s film of “Marie Antoinette”). You can respond to the period in which the opera was written rather than the period in which it’s ostensibly set -- in my opinon, one of the best ways to deal with a lot of 19th-century Italian opera, which was often attempting to clothe contemporary situations in putatitively historical settings in any case. (I find it a little ridiculous to do extensive research into historical facts about druids when staging Bellini’s “Norma,” or into medieval Scotland for Verdi’s “Macbeth;” I doubt such facts have much bearing on what the composers had in mind when they wrote the works.) And you can simply set the work in a period other than the one that was originally intended. It’s almost silly to say that this is somehow a betrayal of the original - film and theater directors have been doing it for years. (I mentioned, in the comments, Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Leonardo di Caprio: Shakespeare’s language, modern setting, big hit.)
It’s a truism, but it may need repeating, that it’s virtually impossible to present an “original” staging of an opera. What does “original” mean? In Baroque opera, using candles for illumination, for starters. Well, no, you might say, we use the technical benefits of today in the service of something historically informed -- but then where do you draw the line? Furthermore, however faithfully you try to reconstruct a historical period, the production is still going to reflect the period in which it’s created. (Witness some of the televised opera productions of the 1960s.)
And what are we being faithful to, anyway? Would a “faithful” production of Wagner’s “Ring” mean recreating the staging Wagner himself saw mounted, with which he was profoundly dissatisfied? Is a “faithful” production one that recreates the way something looked at the time it was first staged, or is it one that seeks to recreate the kind of effect it had on the audience at the time, the way it felt (which may entail updating the setting to some extent)? There's not a right answer to any of these questions, but they are questions that directors have to ask.
The point is: staging opera is always going to involve interpretation. It can be done well, and it can be done badly, but updating an opera to the present day doesn’t automatically make the production bad -- or good.
I think that sometimes what opera fans are really objecting to is the idea of challenging their own status quo. Washington National Opera’s current “Ballo in Maschera” is a traditional production in that the characters are wearing outfits that could represent historical Sweden. For the titual masked ball, the chorus is dressed all in gray, executing stylized gestures and conversations, holding up masks to their faces, looking not at all disguised. This has become a standard way to put on “Ballo”; in many if not most productions I’ve seen, the main characters stick out like sore thumbs, and the idea that they are “disguised” is a pleasant fiction. Is this really what Verdi intended? Isn’t the idea of a masked ball that it swallows up the individual, transforms people through disguise, like Halloween night? But however hokey the masked ball may seem, nobody’s protesting that this non-dramatic, formalized, rote presentation is going against the whole spirit of what the composer intended -- because the production is, after all, “traditional,” and therefore, somehow, allowed to do whatever it wants.
Posted by: ianw2 | September 15, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ScottRose | September 15, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: grergorysisaacs | September 15, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: prokaryote | September 15, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ianw2 | September 15, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: prokaryote | September 17, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse