Běda, Rusalka, běda (Poor Rusalka)

I’ve been on a blogcation for reasons related to work, as well as some concern that the world will not in fact exist in a few weeks so why am I writing about Bellini? Also, the opportunity to avoid both Gounod and Bartlett Sher at the same time was a proposition too efficient to resist. But as longtime readers may know, if a new production of Rusalka isn’t going to get me back, nothing is going to get me back. I’m back! Alas, this new Met Rusalka is not good.

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I tell you we must die


If you’ve ever seen a production directed by Calixto Bieito, imagine what his take on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny would look like. Congratulations! You are correct. If you haven’t seen any Bieito, imagine the Florida Man Twitter feed as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq. Take out all the gators, because local color isn’t on Bieito’s agenda. However, somebody’s face is perpetually in danger of being eaten.

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The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam


Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.

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Big Bregenz Turandot

The Bregenz Festival’s main attraction is an opera performed on a stage anchored in Lake Constance (in it!) to a huge amphitheater. They’re probably best known for their appearance in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. That may not sound like a setup for quality musicianship or aesthetic risk-taking, but you might be surprised–that Tosca glimpsed in the Bond movie is actually pretty interesting if you watch the whole thing and nightly something approximating the Wiener Symphoniker is in the pit. (Note: not actually a pit.) Nothing against Verona, but this ain’t Verona.

Not quite, that is. There’s plenty of fire juggling as well. Bregenz wobbles between the largest, heaviest Regietheater you will ever see and the Cirque de Soleil-type spectacle the dramatic setting and mass audience suggests. New intendant Elisabeth Sobotka seem acutely aware of the challenge; in an interview in the festival’s own publicity she calls their Andrea Chénier of a few years ago an artistic triumph but very difficult financially, while she simply calls the most recent production, of Zauberflöte, very economically successful, leaving its artistic virtues or lack thereof tactfully undescribed.

This tension is acutely visible in their new production of Turandot, which opened on Wednesday night. Director Marco Arturo Marelli tries to problematize the opera’s exotic cake and eat it too. While at times he succeeds by brute force, the result is mild indigestion.

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Guillaume Tell in London

“Staging opera means interpreting a score’s ambiguities, and each
performance must bridge the space between operatic history and the
present. Inevitably, modern anxieties and prejudices fill the gaps. And
few issues are more personal and contentious than the representation of

I wrote about the Royal Opera’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for the New York Times. You can read my piece there, or in the July 19 Arts and Leisure section.

photo copyright Clive Barda

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Nuremberg’s Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.

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The Death of Klinghoffer

When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film,or an artwork, the eventual performance ofte n fails to equal the furor that preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox. But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.
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You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

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Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or, Men Who Hate Women

Martern aller Arten

I had a few extra days in Europe, so I decided to hop over to Berlin for Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. If your reaction to this decision is not along the lines of “well, of course,” then continue reading with some caution.

For staging fundamentalists, this production and its supposed desecration of Mozartian purity have become a synecdoche for all of Regietheater. This is basically dumb: you can’t reduce so much diverse work by so many people to one production, and while I haven’t actually seen Calixto Bieito’s do-do list I doubt that “despoil our sacred cultural heritage” is the first thing on it. So I want to talk about this production, not its reputation. But before seeing it I assumed that none of its critics had actually seen the thing, since their litanies of complaints have the snapshot quality of description obtained through photos and others’ reviews rather than seeing an actual performance. But after seeing it myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily correct.

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Donna Anna Wore a Short Skirt

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a glow from Hell, had cast its reflection over her senses and she was powerless to resist. Only he, only Don Juan, could awaken in her the erotic madness which she lavished upon him.”
-E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Don Giovanni” (1812), trans. Chistopher Lazare (A.A. Wyn, 1946)
[“Das Feuer einer übermenschlichen Sinnlichkeit, Glut aus der Hölle, durchströmte ihr Innerstes und machte jeden Widerstand vergeblich. Nur er, nur Don Juan konnte den wollüstigen Wahnsinn in ihr entzünden, mit dem sie ihn umfing, der mit der übermächtigen, zerstörenden Wut höllischer Geister im Innern sündigte.”]

“Towards all her fellow-creatures [Donna Anna] presents a coldly correct personality… it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.”
-William Mann, The Operas of Mozart (1977), page 468.

This post is apropos the upcoming new production of Don Giovanni at the Met. There’s one thing I will be watching for very carefully.

Donna Anna, the noblest of the three women in Don Giovanni, tends to have a bad reputation. She is “self-absorbed and aloof” (Edward Dent), “has etiquette where her feelings should be” or is “cardboard” (these citations are from Kristi Brown-Montesano’s excellent Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas). Moreover, whatever happened offstage with Giovanni, no one seems to think it was actually rape. The more you look at the text, the more convoluted this reading looks, and its grounding in the assumption that no woman alive could resist Don Giovanni (ignoring the fact that Zerlina ultimately seems to as well) is pretty offensive.

The action of the opera really begins when Donna Anna cries for rescue from a strange man in her bedroom. Her screams attract the attention of her father. He and Don Giovanni (for that is who it is) fight a duel and Don Giovanni kills the old man, thus setting off the opera’s plot. Here it is. (This staging isn’t the best but I chose it because it has English subtitles.)

The entire disturbance is touched off by Anna herself, with her line “Unless you kill me, you have no hope of escaping me.” (“Non sperar, se non m’ucidi, ch’io ti lasci fuggir mai.”) This has been often reinterpreted as, “I want you so bad.” But her following lines, crying out for servants to help catch Giovanni (which, as she must have anticipated, also catch the attention of her father), seem rather to make a secret tryst rather implausible.

The second scene contains this dialogue:
LEPORELLO: Bravo, two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter and kill the father!
DON GIOVANNI: He wanted to fight.
LEPORELLO: But Donna Anna, did she want to?
DON GIOVANNI: Silence, don’t bother me, away unless
you want something too!

Later, Donna Anna recounts the events of the night to her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Her journey through various minor keys in the recitative gives it a tense cast; Don Ottavio tends to respond in a reassuring (or, according to some, gullible) major. She then goes into her aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” wishing for vengeance on her father’s killer and, most importantly, resolving the tension of the recitative in a heated pledge of revenge for the wrongs done onto her.

E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the earliest and most influential of the “Anna wanted/needed it” school. In his “tale” based on the opera, quoted above (full text in a different translation available here), Anna has both a passion for Giovanni and the potential to become his redeemer. Far from a a villain, the nineteenth century’s Giovanni was a tragic hero, independent, virile, charismatic, etc. Donna Anna receives a Katerina Ismailova-like awakening courtesy of his invasion. (This is generally not seen onstage. Thank goodness for small favors.) In Hoffmann’s telling, Anna then feels massive guilt after her father’s death, which sparks her lust for vengeance:

Even the raging love that consumed her soul with hellish flames, flaring up at the moment of highest gratification, was aglow, now, with annihilating hatred… she feels that only the destruction of Don Juan can bring peace to her mortally troubled soul.

Hoffmann claims to interpret the opera “purely in terms of the music and ignoring the text.”

The idea that Anna just must have felt some passion for Don Giovanni persists in both criticism and staging, though usually in subtler form than William Mann’s astonishing pronouncement that she should be “pleasantly raped.” Funnily enough, some of these analyses also claim to rest on an interpretation of the music rather than the text, but reach very different conclusions from Hoffmann. Alfred Einstein and, most convolutedly, R.B. Moberly (Three Mozart Operas, 1967) read Donna Anna’s narration to Ottavio as deceptive and dishonest (the music supposedly betrays her), and interpret her ambivalence towards Don Ottavio not as grief or trauma but as a telltale sign of her secret passion for Don Giovanni. This analysis was thoroughly demolished by Julian Rushton in his Cambridge Opera Guide to Don Giovanni: “The real indecency here [that Anna cares for Giovanni rather than Ottavio] is to suggest, in line with the worst present-day mores, that she could not care so deeply about her father, nor be horrified by the attempt upon herself.”

Stage productions today often show a Donna Anna secretly in love with Don Giovanni. But they do this with an air of Freudian mystification as to the impulses of Woman. Anna turns up as an enigma who has no idea what she wants. To me this confusion seems quite directly contrary to her portrayal in any part of the opera text. This is a lady who knows exactly who she is and what she wants to do. Making her indecisive and infatuated reinforces a value system where the Don is a hero and woman is weak. I think there’s also a lot of pseudo-empowered “she is uncontrollably attracted to dangerous men and that makes her sexy,” which is all grounded in a big pile of patriarchy, as well as the mind-blowing assumptions cited by Rushton. Besides, isn’t her righteous anger pretty badass already?

To echo Rushton, the real indecency here is how contemporary society just doesn’t take the word of a woman who says she’s been raped seriously. Donna Anna enjoyed it and is just feeling guilty because she revealed herself as a slut. This kind of rape denial shit is an enormous problem for women today everywhere, and this particular interpretation seems to be in line with the worst present-day mores.

For example, consider Anna’s actions here in Martin Kusej’s Salzburg production. I’m aware I’m considering this out of the context of the production, but it is the first scene.

This seems to be fairly typical these days with the exception of some by-the-books traditional productions. Francesca Zambello’s production when I saw it in London had Anna kissing the Don (though it’s done differently on the DVD, interestingly enough), and Jean-Louis Martinoty’s Viennese train wreck last December (pictured at the top of this post) gave her an S&M thing. I find it very disappointing that some productions that seem to have a lot of thought put into them (I am not including Martinoty here) still default to such a reflexively patriarchal portrayal.

Or take Calixto Bieito:

I can’t tell if Renée is entertaining second thoughts here or if this is just poorly staged:

Can’t we consider the Occam’s Razor of emotional decoding, the simplest solution, which is that Don Giovanni attempted or succeeded in raping Donna Anna and she was very angry about this? Apparently it’s not that easy.

Recommended non-patriarchal Don Giovanni reading:
Kristi Brown-Montesano, Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 2007.
Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 1990.
Julian Rushton, Don Giovanni. Cambridge Opera Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Lydia Goehr and Daniel Herwitz, eds. The Don Giovanni Moment. Columbia University Press, 2008.

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