Even non-operaphiles might find it interesting what’s going on at the Metropolitan Opera as they unveil their 2010-11 schedule. Basically, the opera house most associated with “traditional” productions has made a decisive move toward, let’s say, what was traditional about 20 years ago. Zeffirelli was the Met’s most popular director in the ’70s and ’80s, creating productions with huge sets, lavish costumes, and lots of stuff going on around the stage. But the company has been, as the article says, “phasing out” his work in favour of stagings where the sets are spare (or nonexistent) and the director tries to focus attention on the overall concept or his/her interpretation of the lead characters.
So last season, the Met replaced Zeffirelli’s Tosca, one of their most lavish productions, with a starker, harsher Tosca by Luc Bondy. I wrote about this last year. Bondy is hardly a revolutionary and his Tosca was not a particularly shocking production. But at the Met, the production got boos, and it became the basis for another battle between the Met traditionalists, rallying behind Zeffirelli (who isn’t happy about being shoved aside, and has said so) and Met anti-traditionalists, who feel that his kind of production gives the audience a lot to look at but not much to think about. Anyway, the phasing-out of the traditional stuff is continuing: Zeffirelli’s Tosca won’t be brought back as previously rumoured; his La Traviata will be replaced with a Eurotrashy, minimalist, modern-dress production that already played at the Salzburg Festival (modified a bit for the more conservative New York audience). The Met’s Ring by director Otto Schenck, which was the most literal staging to be seen at any opera house in the world, is being replaced with a Robert Lepage production — which hopefully will be as good as his Nightingale at the CoC rather than as disappointing as some of his others. And Peter Sellars, the maverick American opera director who in the ’80s was the antithesis of the Met (staging Mozart in modern-dress productions that attempted to find a modern equivalent for everything that happened in the stories), is finally being invited to work there — albeit just to re-stage an opera he directed in the ’80s, John Adams’ Nixon in China. The traditionalists are pretty much on the way out.
Here’s the “traditional” Zeffirelli Tosca that won’t be coming back:
And here’s that same scene in the “modern” Bondy production that replaced it (shot by someone who apparently didn’t turn off his/her cellphone in the theatre). The scenery is much less detailed, the stage action is less crammed with naturalistic detail; it’s trying to be a stripped-down, focused interpretation of the scene.
It’s not as simple as that makes it sound, of course, especially because Zeffirelli’s approach (and that of his imitators) isn’t exactly “traditional”; his mentor, Luchino Visconti, helped to give opera a combination of spectacle and psychological insight that was similar to the movies (Visconti was one of a number of directors in the ’50s and ’60s who did both opera and film, and helped to bring cinematic techniques to the opera stage). As a movie director, Zeffirelli is no Visconti, and it might be that his opera productions aren’t in the same league either (I’ve only seen still photographs of Visconti’s). It seems like Visconti’s work might have been a little more spare and less overstuffed with detail. But his aim is the same, to present opera the way a film is presented, where every detail on stage matters just like every detail in a cinema frame. Zeffirelli’s production of La Boheme is still huge at the Met — they haven’t changed it since the ’80s and they will be throttled if they do — because it is like a movie, a spectacle with a point to it.
I think it is true that spectacular sets and literal interpretation of the story can sometimes get in the way of making us think about the story. On the other hand, I have a basic sympathy with the traditionalists. One complaint, which is also heard about theatre in general, is that as ticket prices go up you’re paying more to look at less. I felt that way when I saw the production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin that replaced the one the Met used to have (which I saw in the ’90s). The current production isn’t anything daring, but the direction (by Robert Carsen) strips everything to the bare minimum of sets and props. The idea is to focus us more on the story and characters — but for me, I was much more focused on the story and characters with the more literal, representational sets they used to have. Watching a bunch of people cavort around an almost-bare stage was deeply distracting.
Of course, it all depends on the director and the production, and any approach can be made to work, no matter which one you prefer as a rule.
On the other hand, things change, and one big thing that changes is that the Met has that HD simulcast program, where some of its productions are shown in movie theatres. And a production that tries to be “cinematic,” oddly enough, doesn’t always play great in an actual cinema. More minimalist set design, more emphasis on lighting effects, fewer extras in the background; all these things might actually help a production play better in the cinemas, where the cameras focus your attention on what the main characters — and only the main characters — are doing.
One other detail from the Met announcement is that their capitulation to the Rossini cult is almost complete. Rossini was not a standard-rep composer in most non-Italian opera houses (except for The Barber of Seville, which he himself predicted was the only complete opera he wrote that would still be performed after his death), but the ’80s and ’90s produced so many outstanding Rossini singers that most houses pretty much had to take up his work. But the Met didn’t even stage Rossini’s Cinderella opera La Cenerentola, one of his most popular works, until 1997, and even then they probably wouldn’t have done it if Cecilia Bartoli hadn’t insisted. But Rossini has slowly taken hold at the Met, and the next season will feature another Rossini that’s never been performed at the Met: Le Comte Ory, his last comic opera and next-to-last opera. It doesn’t have much of a plot, mostly because half the music was re-used from another opera, but every number is absolute gold and it’s good to see it getting more of a foothold in North America.
The Met is bringing it in as a vehicle for the star Rossini tenor Juan Diego Florez; here he is doing a number from it in 1998 with soprano Annick Massis. And yes, he does spend the whole second act disguised as a nun.