On opening night of the opera season, on two different continents, war was declared between the audience and the director. In New York, at the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Tosca, director Luc Bondy was greeted with boos for the minimalist sets and a scene in which the villain tries to become intimate with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, in London, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, began the 2009-’10 season with a staging of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde by director Christof Loy, who used an all-white stage and almost no scenery except a table and chairs; during curtain calls, the audience gave Loy the same reception Bondy got. It’s normal for music lovers to complain about what directors do to their favourite operas. What’s new is that the audiences are moving from quiet grousing to open revolt.
Not that audience reaction will change anything; seasons are planned out years in advance, and most companies are throwing out their old productions. The new Tosca replaced a 24-year-old production by the beloved veteran director Franco Zeffirelli. For the first act, Zeffirelli provided a spectacular representation of a church; Bondy’s version of the same scene had an almost bare stage, and in act two, the villain’s mansion was almost devoid of furniture. It felt like a slap in the face to those who enjoy great production values. One of those people is Zeffirelli, who grumbled to the New York Times, “I belong to a generation where being faithful to the authors was the automatic rule. Now you have to be unfaithful to be interesting.”
In 2010, the Met will similarly replace its literal staging of Wagner’s Ring with a new production by Canadian director Robert Lepage, whose productions are the furthest thing imaginable from traditionalism. His latest, a Stravinsky festival at the Canadian Opera Company, fills the orchestra pit with water and makes singers operate puppets. Far from being scared off by such ideas, the Met is giving Lepage free rein, allowing him to bend union rules and have sets built in Quebec. Opera companies once did anything to please star singers; if Luciano Pavarotti didn’t want to move around much, the director had to accept it. Now the director is what Alexander Neef, general director of the COC, calls the “driving force behind the actors, behind the singers, who puts it all together,” and companies will back them at the cost of alienating singers—or viewers.
Critics have mostly taken the side of the directors in this skirmish; even those who didn’t like the specific productions were appalled by the booing. Tim Smith, music critic of the Baltimore Sun, summed up the critical viewpoint when he wrote that “by removing the typical trappings of Tosca, Bondy has made a world where the characters seem more important, more central than ever.” The biggest argument for giving directors a free hand, and not making them stick to the stage directions, is that old-fashioned productions can be boring, particularly to younger people. Neef says that in some traditional productions, “you go out and you’ve seen nothing; you’ve only seen beautiful costumes and sets.” A symbolic, stripped-down staging might grab these viewers because it’s so different from the literalism of movies and TV.
But some of the booers may not even care about traditionalism: they may be upset that they can’t see what’s going on. By taking the huge Met stage and putting very little scenery on it, Bondy’s Tosca could have looked like a blur to people in the balcony. And Kevin Rogers, a writer for the British website Classical Source, says that Loy’s Tristan “had a lot of the action taking place at the extreme edge of the stage, back from the front, meaning that those who sat on the same side could not see the action.” If critics have been quicker to embrace these productions, it may simply be because critics have good seats.
Producers like the Met’s Peter Gelb are not going to give up on director-centred opera; it has helped attract more young viewers, particularly for HD theatre broadcasts. And even older audience members may enjoy a good non-traditional production: Lepage’s Nightingale did so well that the COC added an extra performance. Neef says that if a director “puts on stage what he understands in the story, as clearly as possible, that will always make it accessible to an audience.” Rogers thinks some directors don’t care if we know what’s going on or not. “It truly is directors’ theatre, and they inflict their version because of their belief in their own ideas.”