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…