Magazine article The Spectator

Production Values

Magazine article The Spectator

Production Values

Article excerpt

In the absence of any operas to attend, I've been reading the most recent defence of 'director's opera', a book with the characteristic title Unsettling Opera, by the American academic David J. Levin. Anyone braving one of these books - there are plenty of them now - needs to have a high tolerance for jargon, indeed for deformed prose of many kinds. They tend to rehearse the same basic argument, in Levin's case with close attention to a small number of operas and (usually) DVDs of some productions.

The idea is that 'literalist' productions, which set an opera in the period indicated in the libretto, and have the characters behaving as described there, or as you would expect given the context and the action, most often fail to arouse any fresh or interesting responses, in fact, are scarcely more than a ritual, the main variables being the singers and the conductor, and the main purpose of many opera-goers being to attend the performance to see how it compares with ones that they have seen in the past or know from recordings.

If opera, with its limited repertoire of familiar works, is to survive as a serious artform, it needs to be kept alive by new interpretations, which make us see works in a different light from what we are used to. Of course in contemporary writing on the subject this view is couched in daunting terms and elaborated at great length, and with the suspect support of 'theory', but I haven't yet been persuaded that it amounts to much more than what I have just outlined.

The risks of 'routinization' (a word that actually crops up in Levin's book) are obvious, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you should think of something outre each time you produce an established piece. One wonders how long 'director's opera', as we have become familiar with it, can continue, if it involves incessant novelty of presentation.

How many planets can Aida rewardingly be set on? How many homoerotic interpretations of Cosi fan tutte are available?

Levin admits that there can be invigoratingly 'literalist' productions, just as there can be pointless 'figuralist' ones. Isn't the time fast approaching when innovative productions themselves produce the fatal yawn of recognition? When the curtain rose on Act II of Tannhauser at the Royal Opera last month and one had the familiar scene of upturned chairs, the detritus of war, and everyone in shabby greatcoats, wasn't the reaction of regular opera-goers, 'Oh, God, not this again! …

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