Academic journal article German Quarterly

Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky

Article excerpt

Levin, David L. Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 272 pp. $35.00 cloth.

For decades controversy has dogged the most outrageous manifestations of "director opera." Are these unconventional productions the savior of an art form that has become ossified by its own traditions? Are they arbitrary violations of the works themselves? Or is this controversy itself the liveliest aspect of an art that no longer admits new operas into the performance repertory? A sometime dramaturge, a sometime opera director, and a full time professor of German, David J. Levin is well-qualified to take this dispute out of the popular realm of performance reviews and opera magazines and introduce it into academic discourse. Levin's defense of innovation, however, is a grave disappointment. His paper-thin thesis-that operas are open to multiple interpretations-only hides behind a façade of scholarship.

For Levin, traditionalist productions are a danger to the future of opera. This traditionalism is rooted not so much in the fixed texts of the score and the libretto, but rather in an unwritten set of expectations-shared by audiences and most directors alike-as to how an opera should appear on stage. By contrast, Levin consistently champions innovation: in his comparison of three productions of Wagner's Die Meistersinger; in his praise of Peter Sellars's realization of The Marriage of Figaro; in his own interpretation of Verdi's Don Carlos; and in his advocacy of Zemlinsky's Der König Kandauer.

Instead of the usual scholarly approach of making an argument and supporting it with evidence, Levin uses three strategies to give his book the semblance of credibility: the constant repetition of pseudo-concepts, excessive documentation, and the ostentatious use of jargon. Levin knows the technique of the Big lie: repeat something over and over again until it is believed. We meet up with "unsettledness," used with mindnumbing frequency, in the introductory chapter. All that it means is that an opera is open to multiple performance realizations, but Levin pretends that he has discovered something heretofore unknown about the aesthetic structure of opera. "Unsettledness," in all of its noun, verb, and adjective forms, turns up at crucial points in the book, including Levin's tour de farce. …

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