Magazine article The New Yorker

Shock Tactics

Magazine article The New Yorker

Shock Tactics

Article excerpt

This year, opera on the East Coast has taken a turn toward the lurid, the sordid, the subversive, and the cryptic--in short, toward theatrical values that are more commonly found on European stages than on American ones, where patrons still expect Tosca in a tiara. The Met mounted a "Rigoletto" set in a Rat Pack Las Vegas and a "Parsifal" set in a blood-drenched wasteland. New York City Opera augmented its production of Thomas Ades's high-society satire "Powder Her Face," at BAM, with twenty-three stark-naked male extras. The company's take on "The Turn of the Screw" transported Britten's Victorian chiller into nineteen-eighties suburbia, with a television displaying "Poltergeist" static. The Curtis Institute of Music, staging Britten's pacifist opera "Owen Wingrave" in league with Opera Philadelphia, invoked gun-control debates. (On a screen, we read of the "cold, dead hands" of Charlton Heston.) And Gotham Chamber Opera, one of America's liveliest small companies, presented Cavalli's 1667 work "Eliogabalo" at the Box, a Lower East Side burlesque house, with shenanigans suitable for the space.

Traditionalists will cry, "Eurotrash!," and to some extent they will have a point. Upon reflection, the twenty-three penises in "Powder Her Face" may have been too many penises all at once. The "Owen Wingrave" production, conceived by Daniel Fish, was a case of a hot-button concept causing a dramatic short circuit: Britten's opera is a claustrophobic study of a hidebound English military family, antithetical in tone to the crass bravado of American gun culture. City Opera's "Turn of the Screw," for all its horror-film references, was more quirky than spooky. Still, the injection of a mild strain of Regietheater--the German word for "director's theatre" has become a catch-all for nontraditional approaches--is a healthy development, because it forces American audiences to see opera as something other than a nostalgia trip.

Certainly, a shot of Regie has been a pick-me-up for City Opera, which in the past couple of seasons has seemed on the verge of collapse. Opera Philadelphia deserves praise not only for investigating offbeat styles but also for promoting opera of the post-Puccini variety; three of the five works in its current season were written in the past fifty years. (The proportion at the Met is one of twenty-eight.) If opera houses paid more heed to new music, Regietheater would be redundant; it's because we endlessly repeat the same old pieces that we feel the need to reinvent them in ever more drastic fashion.

Opera has scandalous roots. Seventeenth-century Venetian theatres, where the genre first flourished as a public entertainment, were not especially wholesome places. The scholar Eugene Johnson has shown that the architecture of the Italian opera house had its origin in a pair of comedy theatres that flourished briefly in Venice around 1580, before being shut down on moral grounds. "Apparently, Venetians quickly figured out how to use these rather cramped palchi"--boxes--"as if they were modern motel rooms," Johnson writes. So there was nothing too farfetched in Gotham's decision to stage "Eliogabalo," a classic instance of Venetian opera, in a burlesque house.

And, of course, Cavalli's opera is devoted to the most scandalous of Roman emperors, the one who was put to death because, it is said, the Praetorian Guard could not abide the fact that he called his charioteer his husband. The libretto omits the most eyebrow-raising details of the Elagabalus legend--for example, the information that he "welcomed lust at every gateway of his body"--but includes a scene in which the emperor convenes an all-female Senate while dressed in women's clothes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.