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“It’s the Wrong Time and the Wrong Place”

ART TIMES October 2006

Picture, if you will, a play about the American Revolution, Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” specifically, in which the characters are dressed in modern combat outfits. Because of lack of communication, the British troops up North do not connect with the British troops down South because the orders were never sent by ship for the northern army to move anywhere.

Well, given the costumes, why were the orders not WIRED across the Atlantic? Or e-mailed? Or telephoned? Obviously because those things did not exist in the 1770s. But neither did the kind of uniforms the director chose for the production.

Now picture—and this should be quite easy, because many of them are on video tapes and discs—a Mozart opera in modern dress. Indeed, the Peter Sellars version of “Le Nozze di Figaro” takes place in Trump Tower. Ignoring the fact that the subtitles read NEW JERSEY when Figaro is clearly singing SEVIGLIA, how seriously is one to take the production when we have a Spanish Count exercising medieval power over his wife a (okay, that’s not too hard to imagine) and over the bride of his servant? When in the history of 20th century New York City was the “droit du seignior” still in force?

So updating the costumes and the setting does nothing but make the entire opera absurd.

With “Cosi fan tutte,” the libretto itself is pretty absurd. But if it is to work at all as a human drama, the production must respect the TIME and the PLACE of the action. Granted, so-called mature men and women do play silly and often cruel games, sometimes by mutual consent, more often unilaterally. Granted too that the audience is willing to suspend disbelief enough to allow the two women not to recognize the men in their disguises. (A current production reviewed in an August New York Times article has the two women know about the bet and the disguises, which makes the story even more absurd by making it pointless.)

But in a modern setting with the time’s quick sex and what have you, the two women being shocked when the men request a simple kiss presents another utterly absurd situation which it would not do were the setting in the time of Mozart. In the notorious Peter Sellars version that takes place in a diner, this request comes after the men have already thrust their hands into the women’s crotches (with a helpful camera close-up lest one miss the moment). The shock about the kiss becomes doubly ridiculous in this case. But Sellars has a reputation to maintain—and logic and consistency have nothing to do with it.

Another concept is to set the entire work as a dream. There is a “La Belle Helene” in which a frustrated wife dreams she is Helen of Sparta, and the satire does not suffer although believable characterization does. Another recent production, this time of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride,” also begins with a bed in which Iphigenie, with a Mardi Gras headmask, is being stabbed by a similarly topped Agamemnon. Then all through the production big-headed doubles of the main characters wander around the stage in a way that only distracts from the music—and of course from any credibility that this story is happening to real people.

If opera is not about real people, then what IS it about?

I really believe the problem lies in the director’s not trusting the work from the start. There is also a good deal of egotism involved, so that each new production (especially recent ones of Wagner’s Ring Cycle) becomes a showcase for the director. When these things find their way onto DVDs, the jacket blurb usually has to hide behind words like “controversial” or “imaginative” to avoid putting the purchaser off.

I have referred in so many of my reviews to “that thrift shop somewhere in downtown Europe that supplies the wrinkled suits and overcoats” to the casts of most modern dress productions. Why do the audiences tolerate the visual boredom of such costuming—never mind the anachronism—in place of the colorful dress of the times of (say) “Nabucco” or “Cosi”?

The argument “You can’t keep doing the same operas in the same way” simply does not hold when the OTHER way simply destroys those human elements that are essential to any drama, not just operas, and that make them as powerful and appealing as they are.

What do you think?

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