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Interpreting opera through specific directorial visions: two different approaches

June 12, 2019


 Two operas have recently been revived at the Paris National Opera: Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ and Puccini’s ‘Tosca’. Being dramatically different from each other in conception, design, settings and approaches to stage acting, they give material for comparison between two approaches to staging an opera and treatment of composer’s ideas in a modern production. One approach with some generalization could be defined as ‘interventionist’ with new directorial ideas abounding and sometimes imposing themselves on well-known music, while the other would be more conservative, never stepping out of the frame of expected staging of a given opera and creating a conceptual approach where music becomes an integral part of the stage design.

One could start this comparison with ‘The Magic Flute’ in Robert Carsen’s direction. The production was created for Baden-Baden Festival (with Simon Rattle conducting) in 2013, and has been staged at the Paris National Opera a year after, this season featuring its revival, with Henrik Nánási conducting. Carsen from the very beginning announces his wish to re-interpret the familiar opera, to find something new in it that has not been discovered before – in a way he even challenges himself by referring to his search of innovations as compared to his previous production at Festival Aix-en-Provence. Carsen is not content with a kind of conventional reading of Mozart’s opera where Tamino and Pamina go through the series of initations, and where the camps of the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ are more or less clearly defined, with the Queen of the Night and her three lady servants helping the main heroes, while Sarastro and Monostatos being ‘evil’ forces on their way to mutual love. One has to admit, Mozart’s division is never that clear, as it is full of additional symbolism, and the path of the characters could acquire all possible interpretations, hence it is not that obvious from the libretto and the story what actually drives them apart and why they have to undergo different trials in order to be together.

Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris


Carsen makes it even more complicated by deliberatedly erasing divisions between good and bad, light and darkness, start and finish, winner and loser, loving and loved, pursuing and pursued, even low and high, here and there. He states that he got interested in the idea of a constant presence of death in our lives, and the constant insecurity and uncertainty this realization brings to our lives. And indeed, Michael Levine’s design is full of graves (actually, Tamino appears from one of them) and tombs: in another scene of trials Tamino and Papageno find themselves in some kind of an underground cemetery, which in itself is either a parody or an oxymoron. The scenes of attempts at suicide (comical, as is the case with Papageno, and not, as happens to Pamina) are highlighted, and the staging is full of visual innuendos about the impending death once a wrong move is made.


 Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris


The whole set is some kind of a no-man’s land between life and death: it is some kind of a liminal cemetery ground with video backdrop designs of trees (Martin Eidenberger) replicating each other continously in some kind of a geometical illusion of a perspective that could be seen in old etchings, where one smaller picture appears further away once the closer one is lifted. There are graves having been prepared for everyone of main characters, and their routes actually involve just going down the ladder inside some underground hall or a labyrinth of passages where they stay till their trials are over. Here in a very interesting set decision we see both the underground world, and the surface of the earth, as the water thrown down duplicates itself on two levels – witty indeed, but too obviously so. It is indeed a very refined and clever idea, although it does become repetitive, especially the colour scheme and the costumes (Petra Reinhardt) that resemble some kind of village arcadia final - white and shiny costumes make one think of some kind of Jehova witnesses sect members, while during the opera the set has little to offer in terms of visual delights, apart from Papageno and later Papagena’s matching hiking gear. There is another idea that Carsen pursues and that is the uncertainty of bad and good, as the Queen of the Night and Sarastro appear to be tied up in some kind of conspiracy from the very beginning, and it is Sarastro who appears to be a final Godly figure who only wished everybody well. That doesn’t help much to unravel neither the complicacies of Schikaneder’s libretto, nor Carsen’s own complex web of ideas. One follows them, one understands how ideas connect with each other, but one never arrives to some kind of holistic vision of an opera.


Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris

And unfortunately, apart from some really nice moments, as those of three boy messengers, or duets and arias of Tamino and Pamina, or the quirky appearances of Papageno and his final reunion with Papagena, Carsen’s over-the-top cleverness draws our attention away from music, which was supposed to be the starting point and the crux and essence of the evening. The singers – Julien Behr as Tamino, Vannina Santoni as Pamina, Nicolas Testé as Sarastro, Jodie Devos as the Queen of the Night, Florian Sempey as Papageno (although his gesticulation becomes excessive towards the end) – are all fine, but they are too subsumed by the general straightforwardness and dryness of directorial approach. There is no real fun and no real improvisation and lightness of being in this opera renowned for its magic of touch and enjoyability. I remember an evening spent constantly giggling at the Royal Opera House once, and there was none of this during the night, although the audiences did take eagerly every invitation at a laugh. Somehow in my memory musically the moments with three boys stood out, as their voices and appearances suddenly genuinely connected with Mozart’s music, and made one escape from a construction of cemetery gardens and grave-infused courtyards. And apart from a general feeling of mass unification in a white-clad democratic ball, one was left without the sense of purpose of characters’ journeys, as again they were torn from the musical journeys they were supposed to impersonate by interventionist directorial decisions imposing on an opera.

If this is something that could be considered a future way of interaction between music and stage design and directions, it definitely poses too many questions, as it is prone to breaching the natural ways that music can establish between itself and the listener. When insights ingrained in Mozart’s music become not good enough, or one reaches the artifiical level of over-saturation and seeks for new approaches to classical operas, the danger of over-interpretation and over-complication is lurking out there, and unfortunately The Magic Flute did not escape the trap this time. If there was a passage through an underground world of Mozartian hidden gems there for Carsen, he might not have passed it with the same glorified results as his characters did.


 Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris


The approach to the stage interpretation of a famous opera was completely different with Tosca, a revival of Pierre Audi’s 2014 production at Opera Bastille. Audi also emphasized his wish to treat the opera differently, and move away from the naturalism suggested by Victorien Sardou’s 19th century melodrama written as a star vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. Although Audi speaks about naturalism, for a modern viewer all these desires, fits of excessive jealousy, possessive drives and outrageous deaths would never seem true any more as the scenes in a modern film would. So indeed melodrama of Tosca should be raised to some new level to avoid our following just the melodramatic curves of its plot, as we could never truly empathize with some of its moments unless they are elevated to give the well-known new and hitherto undiscovered meanings.


Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris

Pierre Audi manages to achieve just that, unifying the development of the plot with an ever-present symbol of repression, tragedy and power: a huge cross that spreads its wings like an eagle over the stage. Audi also introduces the sphere of illusory, dream or nightmare-like, starting with multiple faces of a model on a fresco that Cavaradossi is painting in the beginning to a blurred, filled with fog scene where the final shooting takes place. Set designer Christof Hetzer also manages to create a spatial multi-layeredness on stage, where the choir sings below, while Scarpia and his circle appear in a procession above, with light streaming from behind (lighting design is exquisitely thought through in each act by Jean Kalman). But there is not only this – there is also lushness, beauty and visually overwhelming sensuality in the second act created by Hetzer together with costume designer Robby Duiveman. In a very clever representation of powers of desire, we see a cabinet of a man of intellectual pursuits (there is a telescope and a globe, and books) overthrown by passion, with fruits on the table, colourful costumes, and general disarray ensuing after the scene of attempted blackmail into sexual obedience and murder that follows. It all becomes suddenly Caravaggesque and wonderfully as far from verismo as possible – exactly as operatic world of Puccini suggests. And final act again brings us into the realm of some deterministic obedience to the powers of the cross, which nevertheless can be escaped by mingling with the colours of the rising sun into nothingness. This is what Tosca does in this production, never jumping from the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo, but just standing there and becoming an eternal, symbolic, fully operatic figure.


Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris


And such a production, while seemingly not interfering with the possibilities of Tosca interpretation – everything is there – minimizes the possible ‘noise’ that could surround the music in another stage design and brings the music to us achitecturally intact and suddenly fully three (or even four)-dimensional. Sardou’s melodramatic plot acquires new depths, with even Tosca’s jealousy becoming a somewhat higher matter than just a woman’s passion, and Angelotti, Scarpia and Cavaradossi being killed do not look any more like a succession of cheapish 19 th century melodrama deaths, but become the steps towards inescapability on the path towards human tragedy in this world. The tragedy is there in the richness of fresco colours, in the
luxury of Scarpia’s loggings, in the beauty of Tosca and her clothes, in the light of dawn over Rome. Puccini’s music only wins out of such a union, and is heard as never before in Dan Ettinger’s musical directorship that combines muscularity and sensuality. Such an approach also helps the listener to focus on particular arias, and Martina Serafin’s and Marcelo Puente’s appearances as Tosca and Cavaradossi, as well as Luca Salsi’s Scarpia received deserved ovations that never stopped and reflected that genuine rapture that their voices brought to Opera Bastille that evening. This was indeed an evening that brought aesthetic pleasure and revelation, while allowing the audiences to follow their own journeys through Puccini’s opera – a luxury of our own interpretation that Carsen’s straightforward and intellectual reading did not allow at all.


Photo: Svetlana Loboff/ Opera National de Paris

Thus, it seems, the comparison of two approaches to involvement with opera gives a clear preference to the second one, and hopefully there will be more exquisite evenings similar to the one spent in attending Pierre Audi’s Tosca at Paris National Opera this season.



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