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Next Season at Washington National Opera

As reported at satisfying length in both the Washington Post and the Washington Times this week, Washington National Opera announced what is going to be, I am happy to agree, a rather exciting season next year. Jens reviewed the concert performance of Bartók's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last month, which I was very sad to have missed. Next fall, WNO will open its season with this opera, one of my favorites in the 20th century. It will be part of a "Jekyll and Hyde" double-bill with Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, directed by William Friedkin, the director of one of my favorite movies, The Exorcist, which by the way, I think, would make a rather interesting opera. The casting -- Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves together in the Bartók -- will have appeal with audiences, although both singers have had troubles recently.

Nicholas MawCan it be two 20th-century operas in one season? Regular readers know that I love the operas of Janáček, and so you can imagine my delight to see that WNO will mount David Alden's staging of Jenůfa, with the specialist Jiří Bělohlávek leading singers Patricia Racette (highly praised in the premiere of An American Tragedy) and Catherine Malfitano. This may not be my favorite Janáček opera, but it's very good. Of course, the WNO's new Ring cycle, directed by Francesca Zambello, which begins this March with Das Rheingold, will continue with Die Walküre, too. Plácido Domingo and soprano Anja Kampe will reprise their appearances as Siegmund and Sieglinde in 2003, and Alan Held will sing the role of Wotan.

What? Two 20th-century operas and a 21st-century opera? Yes, this season will also include the North American premiere of Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, first presented in 2002 at Covent Garden. (See this interview that Gail Wein did with the composer in that year. Maw now lives in Washington and teaches at Peabody.) Marin Alsop, newly appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony, will conduct. This rather daring programming, for which I congratulate WNO, will be rounded out with a reprise of Mariusz Trelinski's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (we loved Trelinski's production of Giordano's Andrea Chénier last fall), Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment (a dippy, little romp we heard from Opera Bel Cantanti this fall), a new production of Verdi's Macbeth. Mini-Critic will have his chance, too, with a new family opera, Dream of the Pacific, about the Lewis and Clark expedition.


Henry Holland said...

Erm, that's *gasp* three 20th century pieces WNO is doing--Schicci premiered in 1918. I think that's the production that Freidken did here in Los Angeles and while the individual operas are well done, the two together simply don't work. Bluebeard's Castle needs to be paired with something like Zemlinsky's Florentine Tragedy or the more common Schoenberg Erwartung.

I love Nicholas Maw's music--I think his Odyssey is a blazing masterpiece--but I was very disappointed with the broadcast I heard of Sophie's Choice. I really hope that the opera has undergone a thorough revision since the London premiere (I've not heard the Vienna performance). His opera The Rising of the Moon is fantastic and I wish some enterprising company would revive it.

so you can imagine my delight to see that WNO will mount David Alden's staging of Jenůfa

I know it's not what you mean, but I wouldn't be surprised that if, by the end of it, you want to seek Alden out and yell at him. Every production of his is the same: 3 bare walls, chairs and lots of lightbulbs. He's everything wrong with modern opera productions.

Charles T. Downey said...

Henry, thanks for that! It's important to keep that in mind about Puccini. I agree with you about the pairing, which is definitely odd. I would *love* to see Erwartung much more than Schicchi. I don't know if Maw has revised or will revise Sophie's Choice for next season, but I will try to find out. As for Alden, I may like unusual productions more than you, but I am excited to see what he does with that opera. I agree with you, however, that the conservative audience of Washington may not be as kindly disposed to it as I am.

jfl said...

It is Christopher Alden who gives more prominence to "bare walls, chairs and lots of lightbulbs". it was also Christopher Alden who has worked at the WNO before - not David.

Henry Holland said...

I may like unusual productions more than you

Oh, that's a guarantee! :) I think the whole regietheatre thing is just totally played out. It's become such a cliched way to work--wow! Nazi guards in Fidelio! Tosca set in Mussolini's Italy! Wow! I mean, Robert Wilson basically does the exact same production for everything and still he gets work. See: the Aldens, among many others. When you have to sit there and go "Why is there a huge trio of puppets at the back of the stage for Lohengrin?" that's not good--puzzling out what the hell is going on should not be a requirement of watching a production.

The worst production I've ever seen was Lenhoff's Parsifal which I saw at ENO and San Francisco (I only went to SF because I wanted to hear Kurt Moll before he retires). Not only was it a brutally ugly set--looking at 3 gray walls for 4 + hours is really wearying--but he screwed with the whole meaning of the opera by having Amfortas die and Kundry live. Awful, awful production and I only wish I'd been there at the opening nights so that I could have booed the crap out of him.

And chairs, what is it with freakin' chairs? I saw a production of Reimann's great Lear in Dresden and during the searing scene on the heath, the stage was bare except for.....dozens and dozens of chairs. Totally absurd.

I love modern, serialist operas and am always on the lookout for recordings of obscure stuff but I'm utterly conservative when it comes to stagings. I want the production to be set *exactly* when the composer set it, with appropriate costumes and staging. When the libretto says "Tosca reaches for the knife on the table", I want her to reach for a knife on the table, not pull a .45 out of her cleavage (which caused all sorts of giggling when that happened in a production I saw years ago).

People talk about why opera is supposedly in trouble and I've argued for years that obtuse, wilfully non-literal stagings have a lot to do with it. This is especially egregious for new or unfamiliar pieces.

jfl said...

i understand (to the limit of my ability) what you say more than i can emphatize with it. i am actually working on an article on what 'conservative means in the arts' for a cultural/architectural journal - and i'll be sure to post relevant material here... but my basic point is that the most important part in opera is 'relating to truth' - which i take further to "getting to the intent, the message". in pikova dama, for example, the point is NOT to show it exactly as Tchaik. did, but to work out the social critique that was the essence of the original and to transpose that message so that todays' audience gets it. we cannot, cannot see art the same way now as it was seen 100 years ago (Tosca) - because we cannot unlearn the collective, cummulative experiences since. i mentioned this earlier in a comment when i wrote about ross' mistaken point about the Pierre Menard story of Borges'. understanding that the Menard character actually writes a completely NEW novel is key to understanding why traditional opera productions are only rarely successful.



p.s. you were right: BOTH Alden brothers love, love, love CHAIRS. :)

Henry Holland said...

but to work out the social critique that was the essence of the original and to transpose that message so that todays' audience gets it.

And there is the crux of the bisquit (tm Zappa), the nub of the gist (tm Monty Python). I find that attitude pervasive with the Aldens of the opera directorial world and I find it utterly condescending and completely insulting. I don't need to be handheld to find out what Puccini meant in any overarching sense, if I'm interested in that what was going on in Italy at the time the opera was written, I can find out for myself. I don't need one of the dwarf Alden brothers to tell me "Wow! They live in a police state and times are bad!".

I'll use Tosca as an example. I couldn't care less what Puccini's political/socialogical motivations for selecting the play as source material were (I doubt he had any; he just knew it would work on stage). Was it a critique via time travel of the political/social situation in Italy in the late 1890's? If so, so what! That is totally irrelevent to what it is actually taking place in the libretto and the stage directions.

All I need to know: Napoleon invaded Italy, Tosca and Cavardossi are living in a semi-police state run by Scarpia and that some of them are pro-Napoleon, some aren't. That's it, and it's all there in the fantastic libretto or in the program note that I can read before the curtain goes up.

So what does transposing the action to Fascist Italy, say, do? It imposes the director's biases on the piece and worst of all, there's a disconnect about what is being sung, which as I note with disgust, is usually left out of the supertitles in updated productions: they're singing about Napoleon and a very specific time and on stage we see Mussolini's goons. It's jarring and totally unecessary. The appropriate sets, recognizable as such (a church, a room in a palace and the roof of tower), appropriate costumes and decent acting get the story over perfectly well. The libretto needs no apology and it's themes are pretty timeless. Well, OK, except for jumping off a parapet after singing a high B. :-)

The idea that audiences in 2005 need to be handheld and hit over the head with the obvious is pathetic. Maybe I'm alone, but I don't need--and I certainly don't want--to have Scarpia portrayed as Dick Cheney (sure to happen soon) to get the piece.

To be honest, I think it's a grave insult to the composers and librettists who wrote these great works that totally inappropriate stagings are foisted upon them. To me, it often says "Well, what you wrote is pretty crap, so let ME, the almighty director, help your little piece out".

Then there's the whole issue of stage sets. So many of them now are just plain ugly and boring beyond words to look at . I know that unit sets are cost effective but to be at a Parsifal, for example, and have Guernemanz extolling the beauty of nature while I'm looking at 3 gray walls and some railroad tracks on stage is lame beyond words. The Met's ultra traditional staging was not only beautiful to look at but it helped tell the story better than Lenhoff's abomination, because when Parsifal is talking about the Grail, we *gasp* actually see the Grail. I'll never forget being at another Parsifal in Berlin at the Staatsoper in Kupfers production that's on video and the way that the throwing of the spear by Klingsor was so inept that the crowd laughed. Laughter at one of the greatest moments in Wagner. But hey, all those TV sets on the stage that represented the Blumenmadchen while they sang off stage sure connected the story to my time!

Oh wait, it didn't. It just looked dumb and provided another bit of alienation. Ooooohhhh, how Brecht! Ooooohhhh, how dreadfully tedious.

jfl said...

"after all, it is better to be angry than to be bored!" said winnifred wagner to patrice chereau when he finally got to meet her in 1980 after the very last curtain of his centennial ring. i agree and that is why i welcome the fact that we could not disagree more about opera as a living art form. although we probably agree more than you might think on the ineptitude of execution of many modern productions.



Princess Alpenrose said...

Henry, you're KILLING me! I cannot stop laughing and agree TOTALLY with everything you've been saying! I just could not agree more, and to have it put so directly and, well, you're saying exactly what I've been thinking, every word of it. I'm for traditional yet creative and interesting sets with good program notes.

Witness the poor villagers (aka the Chorus) in Baltimore's recent Sonnambula who, having had their all white linen and summer hat and relentlessly folding and unfolding picnic blanket filled "Sunday in the Park with George" Act I ("Where's Bernadette Peters?" I kept wondering) while standing [or limping] around on a badly & raggedly astroturf covered set floor that was sloped like the pitch of a roof, then in Act II find themselves standing either in bleak profile or sitting forlornly on some rocks wearing long sleeved floor length black coats and big hats waiting, it seems, for the next train to Auschwitz.

Seriously. Seriously BAD!

Makes me wonder whether some of the performers want to commit directricide.

How about this: Maybe that Tosca would take the .45 out of her cleavage and knock off (in quick succession) the set designer, the director, the marketing guy and *then* Scarpia before making her final leap to her own death. Props manager better check that pistol for live ammo!

Methinks many a modern Toscas would rather die than be stuck having to PERFORM in even one more such production!

Garth Trinkl said...

And chairs, what is it with freakin' chairs? I saw a production of Reimann's great Lear in Dresden and during the searing scene on the heath, the stage was bare except for.....dozens and dozens of chairs.

Right on, Henry! I also saw the Dresden Lear and wondered about all the chairs. But you didn't mention the HUGE kitchen table with the HUGE chairs, spoons, and knives!!

Have you seen the new Baden Baden Parsifal, which will be seen in Berlin, San Francisco, in London (with the ENO), and I think Chicago? The set features a skate-board sloped wall and .... you guessed it, more chairs attached to the slope...

(I enjoyed the Munich/S.F. version of Reimann's Lear more...).

Welcome back Andrea!

jfl said...

i'll take oversized spoons over the old-fashioned shlock that is devoid of new ideas for hundreds of years that the others here seem to prefer. but you all make a wonderful point in the difference between conservative (me) and reactionary (you people). there is nothing inherently good about presenting opera "as 100 years ago" or "as 50 years ago" (in more conservative towns) or "as at the MET" (at the MET) nor is it in any way 'authentic' or "as the composer wanted it". in fact, that's bullshit and an absurd claim. those who are too timid to find new ways of bringing old fucking operas back to life because - god beware - they could come across a couple directions that don't work all that well should find a nieche in the field of taxidermology, for crying out loud. i am so sick of that whineing about replacing knifes with guns... as if that mattered in the least bit. literalist trifles for those who care about costumes more than about truth... for those who rather play it safe than ever take a risk. ultimately you types are the second worst thing to happen to opera right after the people that set opera houses on fire but still ahead of those who don't go in the first place.

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens's rant reminds me of the discussion I had with an opera fan about last year's production of Tosca. She was upset because after Scarpia's death scene, Tosca did not place candles around the body, as if that were the only way to stage that scene. Who would want to see the same operas -- because the conservative programming of most American houses especially means that we see a small number of operas way too often -- again and again exactly the same way? The mere thought of it bores me to tears. I agree with Jens: I would rather have a new take on a familiar work and possibly end up angry rather than bored.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Wo, Jens take it easy there! I don't mind new settings, not at all. I'm all for artistic risk and creativity.

What I object to is new settings that diminish of the actual plot line or that twist the characters beyond recognition, in the futile search for something "new" and/or "hip".

Pulling a gun out of her cleavage says that Tosca *planned* to kill him. Loaded the gun and figured out where to stash it until she needed it. She does not plan to kill him, in the original libretto, she sees the knife on the table and snaps. Period.

What I hate the most is what I call the "Schprockets" school of opera staging. (remember that old Saturday Night Live skit?)

The fact is, Jens, that a lightbulb, a chair and a black turtleneck in and of themselves do NOT make a new and/or interesting artistic interpretation of say, Tosca.

A lightbulb, a chair and a black tutleneck WITH SOMEONE SINGING WHO IS TECHNICALLY EXPERT AND ARTISTICALLY UNIQUE might, on the other hand, do just that.

ps I don't think we deserve to be lumped into a category of "you people"! [As for the traditional stuff, you try taking a bunch of 13 year olds to their first ever opera (say Figaro) and explaining that usually, there is a real set with some connection to what the composer & librettist intended (ie Mozart/DaPonte), instead of what they're seeing (their FIRST OPERA!!), ie the lightbulb, the chair and the black turtleneck ... That's a near surefire way to lose a couple of generations of potential operagoers, in my book anyway.]

Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, we were talking about chairs!! ... I can't speak for Henry and Ariadne, but I myself am hardly a reactionary. Some know me as a flaming... Moderate!

I loved the San Fransisco Opera avant-garde production of Reimann's "Lear", as well as the avant-garde Dresden production of the Mussbach - Ruzicka "Paul Celan" that featured the work of an avant-garde local video art collective.

I also loved the Koln production of Nono's Intolleranza which enlisted computer-video projections from the local graduate school of Media Studies.

Oh yeah... and there was also the great Daniel Libeskind production of Messiaen's Saint Francois, in Berlin. I'll challenge the WNO or the MET to stage that beautiful production!

Charles T. Downey said...

It occurs to me as I review this comment thread again that the root of this problem is that we have so few new operas being staged. As I suggested earlier (Productions Instead of Premieres, January 7) in response to a post by Alex Ross, "the energy and money spent on creating and defending radical new productions of old works should probably be spent instead on creating and defending new operas." Are both the rejection and embracing of director-driven opera ultimately about the lack of new operas?

Garth Trinkl said...

I think that premieres and twentieth-century repertory are signs of a progressive spirit..."

-- Alex Ross

I couldn't agree more. I guess its OK if you call me a progressive, rather than a moderate!

Charles, people have been discussing whether "directors' opera" has risen to international prominence at the expense of premieres and a core American operatic canon for at least the past 25 years!!

That is one reason why I have so strongly felt the importance of all American opera companies -- including the MET, the SFO, and the Chicago Lyric -- doing one American opera, or one premiere, each and every season -- season in, season out!

(Where is Apollyon... I mean Henry Holland?)

jfl said...

i am glad that my rant (i got a little carried away there, to the end - even if i stand by what i said) didn't offend all-too-much. the chairs and lightbulbs and turtle-necks (welcome to sprockets - you may not touch my monkey..... Klaus! it's time to daanz now!) are red herrings . they are used to indict modern productions as a whole without offering a solution beyond a return to the old fashioned. my position, however, is that a mere return to the old fashioned is guaranteed failure and a modern production is - depending on the director - just likely failure. and a failure of a type that i'd much rather see than the predictable.

absolutely superb singing and acting, in any case, can always rescue a production - no matter how "Brecht" or dusty.


Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, I do not think that more than 5 or 7 years ago, one would have seen the Washington National Opera do a Zambello "Ring", a David Alden "Jenufa", or even a Mariusz Trelinski "Madame Butterfly" (which I generally liked but found a little fussy; and which my guests liked even more than I did). (The Washington Opera Verdi MacBeth, of 1981 under Christopher Alden, was, I recall, a pretty tame affair. I was in it as a super.)

[The MET started its journey into "directorial opera" a few years earlier than did the WNO, after some Paris Opera Ballets staged by Robert Wilson were a huge success, and when the MET realized that they didn't want to follow up Philip Glass's and David Henry Hwang's "The Voyage" with a serious commitment to American opera and American operatic premieres.)

And where is the WNO's promised American opera in 2006-07???

... Oh, I almost forgot -- there is the Lewis and Clark work for families; and for which Charles didn't even give the name of the (American) composer or librettist. :)


(Was it Henry Holland or another poster here who wanted my "Animating American Opera" (TM) concept to fail?)

Anonymous said...

Bluebeard's Castle needs to be paired with something like Zemlinsky's Florentine Tragedy or the more common Schoenberg Erwartung.


Somewhere, recently, I suggested a pairing at the MET of "Bluebeard's Castle", followed by Karol Szymanowski's "King Roger" (which the Wolf Trap opera once did, in concert version, after the terrible fire there of the early 1980s.) The Bluebeard is about an hour, and the King Roger is a little over 80 minutes.

-- gt