Watching people perform an opera is like… watching people perform an opera! It might seem tautological, but the frame narrative of a theater within a theater is probably the No. 1 most popular production concept among opera directors today. It’s most often used a form of lampshade hanging: an acknowledgement of the heightened reality of the operatic form. This can come in the form of random images of the theater you’re sitting in or some other relevant theater, or a full-blown “we’re a bunch of singers putting on [name of opera]” contrivance.
Sometimes the frame works and adds to the production–though I’ve not seen too many of those–but more often it is either forgotten after ten minutes or renders the action hopelessly confusing and convoluted. Sometimes you feel, in the audience, like you are trying to skim a badly written version of Pale Fire. Most direly, these concepts often seem to indicate a director’s lack of trust in the emotional depth of his or her material. No one would take this shit seriously if we didn’t acknowledge it’s all a show, right?
Now, to show how popular this trick really is, here’s my list of productions that use this device, only some of which I have seen. Please leave additions in the comments.
Vienna (Wiener Staatsoper, yes, there are enough of these to organize by city):
Tannhäuser, dir. Claus Guth (premiere 2010). Out of the ones I’ve seen on this list, this was most successful, probably because Guth uses images of curtains and the above Wiener Staatsoper Pausenraum as only part of a broader scheme.
Alcina, dir. Adrian Noble (premiere 2010). Lady Georgina Cavendish puts on Alcina in her drawing room. This would be a case of pointless and depth-robbing.
Traviata, dir. Jean-François Sivadier, Aix/Vienna co-production (premiere 2011). I haven’t seen this, and I’ve heard it’s good, but I groaned when I heard about the concept because, yes, another one?
London (Royal Opera):
Adriana Lecouvreur, dir. David McVicar (premiere 2010). This technically impressive little 18th-century theater (based on one in Bayreuth, yes I’m going there very soon) was not terribly insightful, but considering that the main character is an actress it served a literal function as well.
Tannhäuser, dir. Tim Albery (premiere 2010). The theater is, of course, the Royal Opera itself.
New York/Metropolitan Opera:
La Sonnambula, dir. Mary Zimmerman (premiere 2009). An opera company rehearses in an anonymous rehearsal room in this annoying, convoluted production.
Le Comte Ory, dir. Bartlett Sher (premiere 2011). I haven’t seen this one.
Lulu, dir. Stefan Herheim (Copenhagen, 2010). I haven’t seen this but James Jorden’s piece on it makes me think it’s probably fantastic. The theater is the old Copenhagen opera house (the production was in the new one).
L’Enfant et les sortilèges, dir. Grzegorz Jarzyna (Bayerische Staatsoper, premiere 2011). Here, everyone was making a film for a change. It was more than a little convoluted, but it was interesting.
Ariadne auf Naxos, dir. Neil Armfield (Canadian Opera Company, 2011) Thanks to reader John for pointing out several productions in Toronto that belong on this list. He says this Ariadne takes place backstage in the COC’s own opera house, which sounds like a cute idea, actually, and a backstage setting is not really high concept when the opera is Ariadne.
The Magic Flute, dir. Diane Paulus (Canadian Opera Company, premiere 2010?): John also mentioned this one, which looks like it is more along the usual theater-within-a-theater lines.
Rusalka dir. Barrie Kosky (Komische Oper Berlin, premiere 2011). This was very vague, but I don’t think it added very much, or I didn’t understand it if it did.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, dir. Robert Carsen (Opéra nationale de Paris). Commenter Bogda contributes this production, which she/he says works. It reminded me of one I forgot…
Tosca, dir. Robert Carsen (Opernhaus Zürich). Just because the main character is an actress doesn’t mean she’s always onstage… but to be fair, I haven’t seen this one either.
Pushing at the boundaries between singer and character can be fascinating–Peter Konwitschny’s productions often make great drama of this–but this particular method of doing so might be due for a little break; I think it has jumped the shark. I’m sure I have left other productions out, but I hope there won’t be too many more of these in the future.