Modern opera stagings too often work against singers and musicians. Transposing Lady Macbeth to 1970s Russia is striking, but confusedby Stephen Everson / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Covent Garden gets it right The Royal Opera is having rather a good season. There has been a proper balance between operas of different periods and nationalities, and also between the familiar and the less familiar. So we have had Aida and Madama Butterfly, but also Simon Boccanegra, Orlando and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, but also Arabella and Samson et Dalila. Casting has often been starry, but as often intelligent and satisfying. Intelligent too has been the choice of conductors: Christoph von Dohn?nyi lithe and lyrical in Arabella, the young Philippe Jordan controlled and sensual in Samson, Charles Mackerras idiomatic in Der Rosenkavalier, Antonio Pappano himself terse and dramatic in Lady Macbeth. The orchestra, two years on from Bernard Haitink’s departure as music director, remains a fine instrument – and sounds better now than it did just after Pappano took over, when it sounded as if it still grieved for Haitink.
As ever, what doubts there have been about the productions have been directorial rather than musical. The debate about whether one can or should up-date the settings of operas is no doubt an idle one, put in those terms. There is no reason at all why changing the setting of an opera should not pay real dramatic dividends. What is dubious is when such updating becomes a kind of default, and directors decide that it is just too boring to stage an opera as it was intended. At that point, the danger is that the director begins to think that he owes his public something new and arresting – for which the opera becomes the vehicle – rather than deliberating about how most effectively to present the opera itself without distortion.
Often the distortions are minor, but cumulatively they easily work to distance the audience from the work. Take, for instance, Richard Jones’s production of Lady Macbeth, which was moved from 19th-century Russia to 1970s Russia. This allowed for some striking visual effects, but it also made the moral attitude of the opera more confused. For instance, a major subsidiary character is the village priest, drunken and lecherous beneath his veneer of piety. The up-dating, however, turns him from a 19th-century priest into one facing the dangers of working under communism, and so a very different object of ridicule. Again, Peter Mussbach’s production of Arabella moved the setting from a residential hotel in 19th-century Vienna to an extravagant contemporary hotel. For the plot, the point is that Arabella’s family has used up its money, so that she needs to find a husband – but in Mussbach’s staging, it is simply mysterious how a family in this state of genteel poverty could live in that hotel. The audience deals with this by suspending disbelief – in effect by responding to the characters as 19th-century people in a strangely contemporary setting.
A trio of Strauss-Hofmannsthal’s So, too often now, the task of the singers and musicians has become to secure the dramatic and emotional impact of the opera despite the staging rather than with its help. And in those terms Arabella succeeded brilliantly, not least because of Karita Mattila’s performance in the title role, which stands in the great tradition of Lisa della Casa and Julia Varady. The voice has remained pristine, and she is able to achieve emotional intensity without sacrificing technical control or beauty of tone. Barbara Bonney was an impetuous, stylish and poignant Zdenka, and if there were signs that her voice is not as youthful as it was, these rather gave concern for the future than discontent with the present. Diana Damrau had just the right kind of virtuoso elegance as the coloratura cabaret singer Fiakermilli – as indeed she had as Zerbinetta in this month’s production of Ariadne.
After Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier, this was the third Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration of the Covent Garden season – a revival of Christoph Loy’s 2002 production, now conducted by Colin Davis. Four years ago, in the previous revival of the John Schlesinger Der Rosenkavalier, Susan
Graham showed herself to be one of the great Octavians. Now, as the Composer in Ariadne, she duly confirmed her place as the leading Strauss mezzo of the day. This, of course, was the production that hit the headlines because of the decision to ditch Deborah Voigt on the grounds of girth, and so there was great interest in her replacement, the now famously svelte Anne Schwanewilms. Singing is not a profession with a reputation for sisterly solidarity, but for a soprano to take over a role in these circumstances still takes an impressive degree of moral confidence. Sch-wanewilms undoubtedly made for a leaner Ariadne than Voigt could have done. But while Voigt would have had more difficulty fitting gracefully into the little black dress that was supposed to have been an essential part of Loy’s conception of the role, she would have found its vocal demands considerably easier to meet, and that is hardly unimportant. Happily, Loy’s dramatic conception placed no sartorial constraints on Bacchus, the god who saves Ariadne, and that role was well sung by a portly middle-aged tenor. Maybe underneath the production’s glitzy contemporary aspirations, there were some rather more old-fashioned attitudes in play.