An opera “production” can be many things. It can mean big realistic sets and costumes, it can mean a meticulously directed masterpiece of acting, it can mean a conceptual extravaganza later summarized as “the [opera title] with the [weird thing].”
But if it was created it for a repertory theater–an opera house that alternates different operas on different nights–it’s most likely going to be revived. (If it isn’t, it was probably really, really bad.) After that nice four- to six- week period of rehearsals and first run of performances, the costumes go in the closet, the sets in the warehouse, and the big binders of blocking on the shelf. They will emerge later and be used to reproduce the production, usually with much less rehearsal time, different cast members, and sometimes without the presence of the original director. Pro singers are good at getting everything together in a hurry, but it’s understandable that a cast with longer bonding time is generally more polished.
In a big repertory house like the Met or the Wiener Staatsoper, the majority of performances are such revivals. Vienna in particular is notorious for rehearsing its revivals for only a few days, often not onstage at all, before pushing everyone in front of an audience. (There is even a German expression for this: the Viennese Schlamperei.) So I thought it would be interesting to look at how this process effects different sorts of productions.
The repertory of the Wiener Staatsoper contains many ancient productions of little ambition, with realistic sets and schematic blocking for everyone. There is a lot of parking and barking, and points when someone purposefully walks from one side of the stage to the other. An example of this is the Lucia di Lammermoor that I saw in January. Theoretically, these productions offer minimal interference for singers who brought a complete interpretation in their suitcase. While individual performances can be striking, collaboration between the various cast members is often not a factor, nor is any overall vision of the opera’s meaning. And these productions often end up with no one really doing much in the way of theatrical interpretation at all, though they can be eminently worth hearing.
But Regietheater doesn’t always revive well either. Take Peter Konwitschny’s Traviata, which I recently saw in Graz. The set consists of some curtains and a chair, the costumes modern street clothes. The center of the production was the Personenregie–the acting, particularly the interactions between the characters. That’s not easy to recreate with new singers in a week or two, especially if the new Violetta isn’t ready and inclined to play the character in the same way that Marlis Petersen did. Because Petersen’s interpretation of Violetta was an important and integral part of the production, unlike any of the performances in Lucia, and a major reason for its success. You can’t necessarily copy and paste this performance onto a new soprano, who won’t have the time to immerse herself in the production and will understandably want to create the role for herself rather than just imitate another performer step by step. The results are almost always a good notch below the original run.
Of course it’s not that black and white. Sometimes a boring production’s cast can unexpectedly come together and sometimes replacements in Regietheater can work out well too, even improving on the original cast if they fit the director’s concept better than that hopeless baritone from the prima. And Lucia and Traviata are extreme examples; most productions fall somewhere in between. But Regietheater is still best seen in revival in opera houses where rehearsal is not a foreign word and/or some of the original cast members are present. Absent those things, productions can become incoherent in a hurry (the fate of Christine Mielitz’s Holländer in Vienna). Maybe for this reason, many of the theaters who perform the most and best Regie are those with strong regular ensembles of singers who are present from season to season, such as Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and the Komische Oper in Berlin.
|1930’s, but basic Carmen drag.|
The Met’s attempts to appear modern without offending anyone has led to a series of updated but fundamentally conservative productions such as Carmen, Hoffmann, Tosca, and the new Ring. They do not depend on detailed Personenregie like Konwitschny does, but their visuals do more to interpret the story than a plain traditional Lucia does. Of course there are still problems, like in the Carmen, all the Don Josés after Alagna attempting to find a rationale for pulling out a cross in the final scene like the production makes them do (though that move was only somewhat more convincing when Alagna did it). But these productions have been underthought, their transposed settings chosen at random (why is Carmen taking place in the 1930’s?). They seem to be created consciously for repertory and changing casts, and their hesitation to put any individual stamp on the characters makes them decorative and boring. Even with a good cast, they rarely have the overall impact of a successful production that takes more interpretive risks. This is why I prefer a hot Regie mess over something as middlebrow as what the Met often puts out. Even if it didn’t work, I saw something new.
The moral of the story is, if you are choosing between two operas, one a new production and one a revival, pick the new one. And some opera houses that may be located on the Ringstrasse in Vienna should be more responsible about rehearsing revivals and maybe not schedule quite so damn many of them. The Met has been improving on this front, bringing the original director back to rehearse revival casts, but the best Vienna has done is to exhume Otto Schenk to retouch something after 40 years. (Met performances are more dependably professional than Staatsoper ones, though many of the same people are involved.) Perhaps the real solution to this problem is the stagione system, in which only one opera is performed at a time, such as at the Theater an der Wien. Almost all the productions are new.
On vaguely the same topic, if you have seen the current Aida at the Staatsoper, please leave a report below. I am suspecting it will be a revival of the worst sort and am not planning on going. Given good reviews I may change my mind, but so far I have not seen a single report.
Also related, I will be in Munich later this weekend and will be seeing the brilliantly programmed double bill of L’Enfant et les sortilèges and Der Zwerg at the Bayerische Staatsoper, a new production. The Bayerische Staatsoper is currently my favorite opera house (despite not being immune to sloppy revivals themselves), and I’m looking forward to it!