I carry no torch for Fidelio: it’s not an opera I love, and I certainly wouldn’t want to direct it because I’m not sure it works. But that’s the issue. If you don’t believe in a piece you shouldn’t do it. Calixto Bieito clearly doesn’t believe in this opera, and it would be better if he’d left it alone.To which we dutifully responded:
But what Michael White wrote of Calixto Bieito in his article for _The Telegraph_ is true of almost every Eurotrash (_Konzept_) Regietheater Regie. It's practically what defines a Eurotrash Regie. Eurotrash Regies have zero interest in what the original opera's creator intended, and even less interest in the music. They care only about what the original opera's *story* (i.e., the story as set forth in the libretto) *suggests* to them for a story of their own invention that they want (or would want) to tell. As far as the music and all that singing goes, it's for them merely an intrusive annoyance they have to put up with because part and parcel of, and unavoidable in, fraudulently misrepresenting their resulting new stageworks as "new interpretations" — or, worse, "new stagings" — of existing, mostly canonical operas. And, no, I'm not being in the least hyperbolic or rhetorical in any of the above.As always in such cases, we reprint the above merely to make a record of it here on S&F.
⚫ Act I finished. Bravissimo!, @NicoMuhly. Riveting, deeply affecting, and darkly beautiful. I need a full score — and a DVD!While we readily if somewhat embarrassingly confess that our two "Bravissimo!" were more than a smidge over the top, we put that down to a momentary instant access of enthusiasm brought on as much by what we heard as it was by its being measured against what we'd expected to hear and those über-superlatives were, after all, part of two instantly written and posted tweets as opposed to soberly thought out, well-considered critical commentary and as such were, to some degree at least, forgivable on that count alone. The next day, we began reading the MSM reviews of the work and were disbelievingly astonished. Almost all were largely (but, except for Martin Bernheimer's jaw-dropping, parallel-universe review, not entirely) negative (see this Ionarts post for a sampling). Searching our mind for some possible explanation for this wholly unexpected (and, to our mind, wholly unwarranted) critical response, the best we could come up with was a lame, "There must be something seriously distorting about the staging that somehow managed to insidiously overwhelm both music and text." We need to hear this work again (better, several agains) — this time with at least a beforehand look at the vocal score and a hearing with vocal score in hand. When so many experienced professional ears hear that which is in opposition to what one's own ears have heard, one has no choice but to revisit the work in question before again placing full trust in one's own initial judgment.
⚫ Act II over. Commedia finita est. A deeply affecting, soul-deep journey that works. Once again, @nicomuhly: Bravissimo!
And last, the more contentious singer/opera matter.Mr. Douglas: How about if we change T____'s sentence just a little bit - like - Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case. For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.For all opera (i.e., for all _dramma per musica_) — from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama — the music and its performance are the work's _sine qua non_ and central dramatic element. There can be no argument concerning that point. But the libretto is of utmost importance as well, as, again, from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama, the libretto acts as armature of the drama providing as it does those critical narrative and concrete details music alone is incapable of expressing. Great voices can make a weak and/or clumsy libretto more convincing and lend it more weight than it otherwise would have, but if a libretto is truly distasteful then distasteful it will remain no matter how great the voices singing it or the music accompanying it — that is, if one is actually paying attention to what the libretto is saying. And if one is not, such a one is missing a critical part of what the opera is about no matter how superb the music and no matter how deep one's enchantment and involvement with that music might be. The synergistic dramatic coupling of text and music — a genuine organic unity in a Wagner music-drama (as opposed to his operas); something less, sometimes even much less, in ordinary conventional opera — is principally what makes opera the unique dramatic artform it has grown to be.
It is elsewhere that we find singers who sing today, enjoying their prerogatives as complete and unencumbered artists, but never in the opera world. To hear singers sing the way Patti did, with sovereign command and the complete control of what they want to do and without the barest hint of interference, one has to go to the world of pop, to rock, and to country western....And that's precisely where such anarchic, individualistic performance practices belong. They have NO place in opera. Ever since the first public opera houses opened in the mid-17th century in Italy where pimping theater owners/managers understood that pandering to the tastes and sensibilities of opera-going groundlings was the way to make the most money, singers became the dictators of what appeared onstage in those houses because they and the pimps understood what the groundlings valued in opera: spectacular voices singing spectacular songs amidst spectacular sets and stage effects. About opera as a new and unique dramatic artform the groundlings couldn't have cared a rat's ass worth and so opera as _dramma per musica_ all but died almost at its very birthing a mere half-century before. It's been a long, hard, bumpy ride from that time to this, but finally today, with the help of a few extraordinary geniuses, opera has managed to reestablish itself as the unique dramatic artform it was intended to be by its late-16th-, early-17th-century innovators, and singers now understand their proper place in the artform: as another part of the musico-dramatic machinery whose every effort must be focused on achieving the most vivid and compelling realization of the opera creator's concept and vision as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions) under the direction of first-rate conductors and stage directors devoted to achieving that end.
I've been reading Sounds and [sic] Fury for several years now, mostly because I like the way you write, but I think that's going to stop now as I still don't understand your blog's purpose. It's short on information but long, very long, on criticism, especially against the work of print classical music critics, yet you never post reviews of your own. In fact you've admitted to not attending live performances of concerts or operas for decades now, and even seem to brandish that as some kind of mark of distinction. Even when you write about televised opera performances or DVD or YouTube recordings of performances you still don't do actual reviews but comment in a general way about some aspect or other of the productions, mostly about the stagings which you almost always hate. It's getting to be more than a little annoying and I don't need to come here to be annoyed. I commend you for your writing skill, but other than that, reading Sounds and [sic] Fury is getting to be a waste of my time. Sincerely,Honest, straightforward, and right to the point, and we mean to answer in kind. First off, and perhaps most important of all, S&F is NOT written to be informative or for the delectation of others. It is written for ourself alone to provide us "a more satisfying alternative to arguing with and raging at insensate objects such as books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, [DVDs,] computer displays, and TV sets in respect of their wrongheaded, in-error, or otherwise imbecile content," as we once (but apparently not often enough) put the matter some years ago. It's always gratifying to learn that others find S&F worthwhile reading but that's nothing more than a mere side benefit for us. If we wrote S&F to be informative and for the delectation of others we would, of course, insist on being paid meaningful amounts of hard cash for our efforts as writing the blog gratis in that case would make us little better than Dr. Johnson's blockhead. And in that, you have as well your answer as to why we don't do actual reviews on S&F (although we've made rare exceptions to that rule in the past). Doing a proper review is bloody hard work and unrewarding in itself (not to even mention the trouble and expense of attending a live event when required) and none but a slave works for no pay justly commensurate with the time, talent, and expense involved. Lastly, we don't at all mean to "brandish ... as some kind of mark of distinction" our nonattendance in the last couple decades or so of live concert and opera performances. It's merely a fact of life for us due to constraints financial and logistical. The only exception to that is the case of performances of known Eurotrash stagings of canonical operas which performances we would never attend were we a multimillionaire and the opera house immediately next door our abode both as a matter of principle and because one's attendance at such performances serves only to fatten the wallets of and encourage the perpetrators. We trust you will find the above response to your correspondence as honest, straightforward and to the point as that which occasioned it, and we thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet if you’re a pickpocket.This is must-read stuff — for MSM professionals as well as for us mere blogger amateurs.
A few years ago [MSM music critic] Martin [Bernheimer] noted ... that it has been 30(?) years since an opera figure had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Why has opera lost its status as news? [...] My first thought was that American managers had not taken the course of their European colleagues and adopted a more adventurous course for staging along with expanding the repertory. By being boring, the charitable contributions, critical to America's artistic lifeblood, were shrinking. A financial slump was clearly happening with symphony orchestras and major opera companies cutting back. But, in a larger sense, it doesn't seem entirely to be related to donors. With the loss of so many local music critics around the US and so little media covering classical music is America's interest in "cultural" in the larger sense in a gradual decline? [...] Is there a solution for the Bernheimer Conundrum?To which we responded:
America's interest in matters "cultural" (meaning, of course, "high cultural" as opposed to "pop cultural") in "gradual decline"(!)? Precipitous decline, you mean: the snowballing toxic fallout from the equally toxic and imbecile equalitarian ideology of the Sixties. The postmodern answer to that circumstance has been an ever increasing surrender by the MSM "smart set" to those imbecile equalitarian notions and the resulting championing of the even more imbecile notion that high culture ought to embrace popular culture and erase the distinctions between it and high culture by making pop culture an integral part of high culture thereby making high culture (and you should forgive the contemptible locution) "more relevant". Is there a "solution" to this noxious trend? Only one I can think of that has any realistic chance of actually being effective: simply wait until the current postmodern lunacy dies of its own imbecility. The wait may be a relatively long one but, thanks to our present digital age, not nearly as long as such waits used to be.
Advance word on the new Bayreuth Ring, staged by the Berlin-based director Frank Castorf, promised a sharply political interpretation, one in which the curse of the Nibelung’s gold would give way to the curse of international oil. Photographs from the rehearsals showed such settings as a gas station on Route 66, an oil rig in Baku, and the façade of the New York Stock Exchange. Leftist approaches to the Ring are nothing new: Wagner designed the libretto as an allegory for the corrupting forces of nineteenth-century capitalism, and late-twentieth-century productions by Joachim Herz, Götz Friedrich, and Patrice Chéreau articulated that agenda onstage. Still, the time seemed ripe for a radical Ring set in the twilight of the American empire.Say what(!)? By what perverse reasoning or logic would "the time [have] seemed ripe for a radical Ring set in the twilight of the American empire"? Rather, given the occasion — the bicentennial celebration of Wagner's birth in The House That Wagner Built — the time would have seemed ripe in our modern-day world to have Wagner's magnum opus set for once as Wagner himself envisioned it: in a timeless, universal, largely place-less world (the pre-historic — literally — Rhine Valley being the only identifiable location) wherein his timeless, universal, mythic (music-)drama could play itself out. By his above introductory graf, Mr. Ross betrays his surrender to and even tacit approval of the pernicious malignancy of Konzept Regietheater known more familiarly as Eurotrash and one cannot but mourn this shameful surrender by one of our otherwise most thoughtful and perceptive classical music critics.
How have we allowed this to come about? How has one of mankind’s most glorious achievements [viz., opera] fallen into the hands of this freakish band of directors that seeks only to demean the form in its own narcissistic, solipsistic image? How have we come to be beholden to such as one of the most outré of this ill-begotten breed who can trenchantly assert that he is ‘faithful to Mozart’, a claim that carries as much validity as would Richard Dawkins declaring he is faithful to God? It is my firm conviction that no part of the operatic world, from administrators, to conductors, to singers, critics and audiences can escape censure.*The essay is well worth one's time reading in full. (Our thanks to Opera-L member Peter Bollard for the above Early Music World link.) * To which compare our,
And what sort of respect should be shown singers and musicians — the sine qua non (literally) of an opera performance — who were too cowardly to adamantly refuse to take part in such butcheries? That's right. None at all. They deserve to share the full weight of our censure along with the butchers initially and ultimately responsible for the butchery.
Anyone who can read German will discover that the review under the inflammatory headline is, in fact, mixed rather than negative. "Not to be taken seriously" in context means "treated lightly and ironically." But I forgot: this is [an opera forum] where very few read reviews even in English let alone go to the trouble of actually seeing any of these productions they're all up in arms about.In response to which we butted in by writing:
And lest anyone forget, the above is [written] by __________ who has something to praise about all Konzept Regietheater opera stagings unless, of course, that staging bears any resemblance or relationship to the spirit and sense of the opera creator's original vision. And I would be interested in learning just how most folks here (were they masochistic enough) could have "go[ne] to the trouble of actually seeing" the imbecile, unintentional burlesque that is Frank Castorf's Wagner Bicentennial Bayreuth staging of the Ring which, in any case, is clearly one of those Eurotrash (Konzept) Regietheater stagings that makes "actually seeing" it totally unnecessary in order to render an informed and infallible judgment concerning it.That did it. Now WE became the target, both publicly and privately — not by the above referred to "progressive" MSM critic but by other forum "progressive" types. Herewith a sampling:
⚫ I cannot help but feel a certain amount of pity for someone who subordinates their [sic] own thought processes and critical faculties to someone else. For my money, NO, you cannot render an informed and certainly not infallible judgment on a performance you have not seen.Und so weiter. Well, for starters, we never claimed to be able to render an informed and infallible judgment of either a "performance" or a "production" without actually seeing it. We spoke only of judging the staging of a production unseen by us in the theater, and only of certain stagings, not all. Furthermore, none of our numerous commentaries on stagings unseen by us in the theater could be taken as our "subordinat[ing] [our] own thought processes and critical faculties to someone else." (What an idea!) We finally felt constrained to set things straight on the forum regarding this matter, and perhaps it's also time we set things straight on this matter here on S&F as well. Following (with language slightly polished) is what we wrote in response to the criticisms:
⚫ Now is it possible that _____ did actually read what you wrote but like ma[n]y people considers it necessary for someone to actually attend a production rather than dismiss it out of hand through the [critiques] of others? Of course only the 'others' who agree with your already formed opinion!
⚫ Sorry, "little man", *no one* can judge a theatrical production from production photos.
⚫ You patronising twat.
In all the years I've commented on Eurotrash (Konzept) Regietheater stagings (and I've commented a great deal) I've NEVER - not once - depended on the critical opinion of others. When I write about these stagings, stagings I've never actually seen in the theater, I base my commentary on production photos and/or video clips of the staging and on reliable, straightforward written descriptions of the physical action absent one or the other of these two pieces of data I will offer no critical commentary at all. Even given the above two pieces of data, some stagings simply cannot be commented on without actually seeing them in the theater (the 2009 LAO Achim Freyer staging of the Ring is a perfect example). On the other hand, some stagings can be easily and accurately judged merely on the evidence of those two pieces of data. Such is the Frank Castorf Eurotrash staging of the Ring for Bayreuth from which staging there is no possibility that Wagner's Ring could ever emerge. And that's the principal thing that makes this Castorf staging utterly contemptible, unmitigated Eurotrash and so richly deserving of utmost censure.The above explanation just for the record.
Opera Staging Madness (Part Three) What can be done to safeguard an endangered art form [i.e., opera]? If it is believed that an opera audience can be cowed into tolerating any abuse of text and music for fear of seeming to be old-fashioned, conservative, recidivist (who wants to be thought of as not with it, not up to speed, uncool), the manipulators, axe-grinders and Mafiosi, given a free hand, cheerfully assault the art form. One of the challenges for an opera house General Manager is to sell out the house. The ultimate say-so rests with the audience. If their beloved world of opera is being degraded and ridiculed (not too long ago. a stage director who publicly derided the art form of opera, staged one, with the cast dressed as monkeys), what to do? Boo? Certainly not. The singers and musicians do their best under trying circumstances and their work should be respected. What then? Follow the example of a gentleman who, after the First act of a Shakespeare play presented at an international festival and directed by someone who proudly said he had never read one and engaged non-professionals to "act", stood up and said in a ringing voce "George, let's go". All but thirty people left the theater. You won't get your money back but if the General Manger reads on Facebook often enough that the Opera House he/she is managing is losing its audience, he/she will soon change course. Another suggested action is pre-emptive in nature: if you read that a new production at your favorite opera house will be given of La Bohème set in a Nepalese fish market with the Sex Pistols in the orchestra pit conducted by Sarah Palin, don't go.It all sounds perfectly sensible to us — except for the part about booing not being part of the solution because "the singers and musicians do their best under trying circumstances and their work should be respected." Is that so. And what sort of respect should be shown singers and musicians — the sine qua non (literally) of an opera performance — who were too cowardly to adamantly refuse to take part in such butcheries? That's right. None at all. They deserve to share the full weight of our censure along with the butchers initially and ultimately responsible for the butchery.
We just finished watching our DVRed copy of PBS's Friday night telecast of the Met's HD film of its new production of Michael Mayer's Regietheater (but NOT Eurotrash) reimagining of Verdi's Rigoletto which transports the setting of the opera from 16th-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas and does so with little or no strain at all if with but little point (not even the rewording of the subtitles to comport with the opera's new setting seemed a strain).This brought an annoyed eMail objection from a hugely experienced and perceptive mainstream classical music critic who wrote that Mayer's Regietheater staging "falsified the characters, locales and even props ('gun' instead of 'sword') to match the modern Vegas locale, and even added slang [to the "translated" subtitles]." When we responded, in part, by asking what the critic meant by "falsified the characters" the response was:
Start with Monterone as Muslim sheik. Or the virginal Gilda, who Rigoletto protects from the evil outside world and who leaves home only to go to church on Sundays, living atop a casino, which she has to traverse upon exiting the elevator. And do you think a sheik's curse would upset Don Rickles in 1950s [sic] Vegas? If someone took liberties like this with Wagner you'd be horrified.That last is, of course, perfectly true, and for good reason too: there's a fundamental difference in this regard between Wagner's stageworks and conventional Italian (or French) opera. As we wrote some few years ago (2004):
Might I suggest to [critics] in the critical press that before they next think of praising a Eurotrash Regietheater Wagner production they first consider that, although there would be no dramatic or aesthetic gain or benefit whatsoever from doing so, and while, depending on how skillfully it's done, it may do no real or fundamental violence to a conventional Italian opera like, say, Tosca with all the necessary time and place changes made to the sung text to have it take place in, say, turn-of-21st-century New York instead of turn-of-19th-century Rome — a 21st-century New York where, say, Cavaradossi is a programmer of software games, Scarpia a powerful and exploitative electronics venture capitalist, and Floria Tosca herself a flaming rock star and all that implies — the same sort of approach cannot be taken with any of Wagner's canonical works (those works from Holländer forward) and most particularly and most especially none of the great music-dramas after Lohengrin. If nothing else, taking that sort of approach with a Wagner opera or music-drama results in making concrete and "fixing" a particular aspect or reading of the work, thereby robbing it of the very thing — the essential characteristic — that establishes it as the transcendent work of art that it is: its power to resonate in multiple domains and at multiple levels of meaning all at once. Additionally, all Wagner's works, even one as early and immature as Holländer, have an organic unity of text, music, and mise en scène that will brook no deconstructionist or postmodern diddling without becoming grotesque caricatures of themselves at best, and perverse corruptions of their creator's dramatic and aesthetic vision always.We stand by what we wrote, then and now.