The Metropolitan Opera has just opened a searingly erotic Don Giovanni, yet the New York Times has dismissed the new production for its “timidity.” Other members of the New York press corps are even more contemptuous. The New York Observer sneers that the “new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.” And the New York Post calls the staging “dreck.” What has inspired such critical contumely? The riveting production is a faithful rendering of the opera’s music and libretto.RTWT here.
Your various articles on Wagner and his works convince me that you have a defective understanding of Wagner's music dramas, the intentions that lie behind them and the intellectual context in which they were written. While it's true that works of art take on a life of their own once the artist has delivered them into the world, this does not mean that the art-work can be or should be detached from the ordinary and intellectual life of the artist who created them. I reject the romantic [sic] view that the artist is merely the channel of some sort of divine inspiration. Wagner's works are his works, and those works are inseparable from Wagner the ordinary man and cannot be properly understood without placing them within the context of his ordinary and intellectual life at the time of the works' creation.The above idea concerning the output of creative artists is neither novel nor atypical and is, in fact, a bedrock assumption of perhaps the majority of arts criticism, both today and in the past. While we have no argument with that assumption when concerned with the output of creative artists of ordinary gift (which ordinary gift can indeed be substantial; Wagner's great contemporary Giuseppe Verdi springs instantly to mind), we take strong exception to it when the output concerned is the product of a creative artist of transcendent gift such as Richard Wagner. As the great T.S. Eliot put it: "[T]he more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." In our not-so-humble opinion, the kind of thinking that proclaims that even in the case of a transcendent creative genius the created artworks cannot be separated from the ordinary man and can be understood properly only in the context of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator serves only to lead one ineluctably into all sorts of false byways and into drawing false if authoritative-sounding conclusions concerning those artworks. Ultimately, such thinking results in producing what are essentially irrelevant intellectual maunderings regarding the artworks themselves, clever as those maunderings may be. As we've asserted here on S&F more than once, all Wagner's music-dramas are entirely self-contained works and require no scholarly biographical commentary of any sort whatsoever for one to comprehend them fully. Where genuine works of art are concerned, the facts of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator, if he be a creator of transcendent genius, count directly for nothing in the artworks the aesthetic and affective core of each of which is always the product of mostly unconscious transformative processes which processes are as much a mystery to the creator as they are to us. Nor can those transformative processes be "reverse engineered" after the fact to better understand them and the works of art they produced — not even by the creator himself, much less ordinary folk such as us, no matter how deep or probing the scholarship or how convinced one may be that the results of such scholarship lead to a deeper understanding of the artworks in question. Such a conviction can be nothing more or other than a self-serving justification of the research time and labor expended. Which is not to say that such scholarship has no worth or value in itself. It most surely can be both worthwhile and valuable. It simply has no worth or value in gaining a deeper understanding of the artworks themselves in the case of artworks which are the product of transcendent creative genius. We might add, if somewhat ungenerously, that the products of such scholarly researches in the case of Wagner's music-dramas are too often used by writers, especially if they're critics or academics, to make their discourse on the music-dramas seem wonderfully erudite and objectively verifiable, that last a great (if false) comfort to both the writer and his readers. While we can sympathize with that feeling of comfort, that comfort is always misplaced. As with all genuine works of art, not only ones produced by creators of transcendent genius, once one goes beyond questions of craft and process there's no objectively verifiable anything except, perhaps, place and date of creation. One might even say that's a hallmark and necessary condition of all genuine works of art and a principal source of their affective power and resonant nature.
Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Vienna State Opera, is so critical of Jean-Louis Martinoty's two recent Mozart productions [Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni] that a planned third [Così fan tutte] has been cancelled, reports the Kleine Zeitung. [...] From the outset, said Welser-Möst, Martinoty dismissed everything in the pit as a collateral matter.RTWT here.
There may be degrees between bloated ancien-regime production, "Carmen" on Mars (betraying my personal bias, I say why not?), or doing everything on milk crates and folding chairs.And another member wrote:
[T]he emphasis today has shifted to a, for me, unacceptable level of control by directors who know nothing about singers, singing and opera - nor do any of those things matter - as long as they can put their own signatures on productions. There has to be a middle ground!On reading both of which we responded instantly without so much as a moment's thought:
In matters of Art the middle ground is never the best, or even the right, solution. The middle ground all but guarantees mediocrity and while that may be acceptable or even the most sane solution in politics, in Art it's the Kiss Of Death. The fundamental problem with today's Regies is not so much that they want to "put their own signatures on productions" above all else (any opera director absent the ego to not want his signature on a production above all else is an opera director unworthy of the title and the job) but that they are either incompetent to come to grips with or don't understand and respect or, understanding, refuse to accept the irrefutable and ineluctable central circumstance that in opera the composer, NOT the librettist, is the dramatist. This is true of all opera from the most flimsy, soap-opera-y Italian melodramas to the great music-dramas of Mozart and Wagner. This directorial incompetence or failure or refusal of understanding underlies all Eurotrash Regietheater outrages. The solution is NOT to aim for a middle ground in staging opera, but to engage opera directors who understand, respect, and are competent to deal with that central circumstance of all opera.We were able to write that instantly without so much as a moment's thought because it's something we've written before in a previous entry here on S&F — or so we were certain. Turns out, there is no such entry, and we never did write it on S&F before — that is, not explicitly although the idea is implicit in almost everything we've written here concerning Regietheater. Time to make good the lapse; ergo, this entry.
I see that Lisa Hirsch deleted a comment of yours to the post "Top Ten Composers: A Fool's Errand" on her blog Iron Tongue of Midnight. What dastardly thing did you say this time? Enquiring minds want to know. :-) Carol _______The fact of the matter is our comment wasn't in the least "dastardly". It was deleted by Ms. Hirsch so that she — in a true-to-form, junior-high-school-girl fit of pique — could make a public show of deleting it (i.e., she first published the comment which she didn't have to do, then deleted it so that it would show up publicly in the comments section as a comment by us deleted by her). Our deleted comment was in response to a comment addressed to us by John Marcher (he of "Hendrix and Beethoven are pretty much musical peers" fame) in reply to our writing:
Had you written something along the lines of, "In their respective domains, I think Hendrix and Beethoven are equally important and, in that sense, musical peers," instead of the blunt, patently absurd, "Hendrix and Beethoven are pretty much musical peers," no one, least of all myself, would have lodged any complaint or criticism. Perhaps in future you'll develop the skill to write what you actually mean.To which Mr. Marcher replied:
ACD- I did indeed write what I mean and I think it reasonable to assume the readers of Lisa's blog bring to the table a level of musical knowledge eliminating the need to have every statement explained as if one were sitting in class on the first day of Music 101. That the two [i.e., Hendrix and Beethoven] operate in different domains is a priori.In response to which we wrote:
This has nothing whatsoever to do with "bring[ing] to the table a level of musical knowledge eliminating the need to have every statement explained as if one were sitting in class on the first day of Music 101," and everything to do with the wording and apparent clear intent of your blunt, patently absurd initial comment. Had, for instance, say, Leonard Bernstein made such a blunt comment, everyone would have known the tacit underlying context of that comment and filled in the blanks, so to speak. But I and most others have no idea who John Marcher may or may not be. All we have to go on are the words John Marcher wrote, and the words John Marcher wrote have to be taken at their unambiguous face value; in this case a face value that's, as I've repeatedly remarked, patently absurd; something that could have been written only by a typical moron of the postmodern sort. See the difference?That was the entire content of our comment which Ms. Hirsch saw fit to first publish then delete in such a way as to have it show up publicly in the comments section as a comment by us deleted by her. Needless to say, because of this action (which is tantamount to not publishing our comment), and as we previously promised, we will never again submit a comment to any post on Iron Tongue Of Midnight.
A conductor (in)famous for his at-times glacially slow tempi (we once heard a Rheingold conducted by Furtwängler that clocked in at some 3 1/4 hours!), Furtwängler here turns Mozart's dramatically spot-on framing tempo of Andante for the entire alla breve encounter into a quasi-Adagio, later on becoming a plodding Adagio verging on a Largo, all of which we suspect was intended by Furtwängler to lend to the encounter what he considered to be the proper requisite mix of gravitas and terror, but instead distorts and all but enervates the dramatic impact of the entire climactic scene.We might understand such liberty of tempo applied to any number of works by other composers of opera, but perhaps more than anyone Furtwängler should have known better than to second-guess the musico-dramatic directions of a master musical dramatist such as Mozart. When Mozart writes Andante, he means Andante and not Adagio or any other tempo because Andante is what the drama requires at that point to make its proper musico-dramatic point, have its proper musico-dramatic effect, and produce its proper musico-dramatic affect. We're fairly certain that what Furtwängler did then no conductor today could do without being roundly (and justifiably) savaged for the impertinence. A kind of progress of sorts.
We've just finished reading for the second time the second edition (1947) of musicologist and music historian Edward J. Dent's classic (and brilliant) 1913 study of the Mozart operas, Mozart's Operas: A Critical Study, and found it just as rewarding a read as we did first time around. This time, however, we found ourself smiling at a graf on the penultimate page of the book that previously somehow evaded our notice. Writes Dr. Dent talking about current (1913) German stagings of Die Zauberflöte:
For the interpretation of Die Zauberflöte, we ought naturally to pay considerable respect to the traditions of the German stage; but we have the authority of many German critics for believing the older "traditions" to be extremely corrupt, and we have the evidence of our own senses ... for the vanity and pedantry of modern German producers and conductors whose one aim seems to be to produce the opera in a way that no one has ever seen before, regardless both of tradition and of the original libretto and score.
And here we've always imagined the willful, self-indulgent, self-involved distortions of the intent of the original creator of an opera as made manifest in that opera's score (music and text), which distortions are the hallmark of Eurotrash Regieoper everywhere, to be a pernicious excrescence endemic to our postmodern age alone.
Since it went into production several years ago, we've heard surprisingly little about director-actor Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute. That it was an "updating" that put the story and action in a World War I setting, and that conductor James Conlon was doing the musical honors along with stellar bass-baritone René Pape is pretty much all we knew about it.
Then, yesterday, we read Sunday's piece on the film by Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed that explained, sort of, why we'd heard so little about it. Writes Mr. Swed:
[The film] was made in 2006 as part of an extensive international celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday. That spring, just as the Salzburg Festival was gearing up to stage every one of Mozart's 22 operas and when no civilized city with an opera house was without Mozart, Branagh's film was shown at Cannes, out of competition but with hopes of attracting distribution. It didn't succeed.
Shown at the Toronto and Venice film festivals four months later, Branagh's Flute was not disliked, but it failed to generate much enthusiasm. Since then the film has had limited release in parts of Europe, Asia and South America and has been moderately well received. French and British DVD versions have been released. But the film has never been shown in the United States, and there is no word about a domestic DVD.
Mr. Swed did manage to finally get his hands on a DVD of the film in Amsterdam, and found it to be "a joy."
Uh-huh. Pretty much par for the course for Mr. Swed, we thought, who seems to have a penchant for finding many of the grotesque outrages of Regietheater to be "a joy."
Then, further down, we read these intriguing grafs:
Branagh's Flute fascinatingly re-imagines Mozart's opera. All the music is intact and excellently conducted by James Conlon, music director of Los Angeles Opera. The English actor and humorist Stephen Fry translated the German libretto into colloquial English and supplied pertinent new dialogue. The cast is attractive. Young characters are played by young singers. Good teeth must have been a priority of the filmmaker.
Branagh's vision of the Great War is awful and magical at the same time, which is very strange and surely British. The film opens with bright sun, lush fields and bouncy soldiers in the trenches. This is cinema with a smile as big as [Ingmar] Bergman's, but the sweetness doesn't last. During the overture's development, soldiers charge, shells blast, bodies fly. No composer dealt with darkness and light quite like Mozart, and Branagh is on continual lookout for every mood flick.
Branagh has a deft touch with Mozartean contrasts between magic and realism. Half fairy tale, half war drama, the film also goes its own way. Sometimes Branagh supplies reason where Mozart relied on fantasy, and other times he takes the opposite route. The dragon becomes threatening poison gas. Papageno is the birdman whose pigeons test the air underground. Actual flutes, though, fly. The Queen of the Night arrives atop a tank and later darts through the sky like a kinky Tinkerbell. Surreal lips fly in space. So do Mary Poppins umbrellas.
Uh, OK. Now you've got our attention.
Off we go to Netflix posthaste.
Out of sheer desperation, we head over to that rich mine of the weird and wonderful, YouTube, to see whether anyone has pirated a clip or ten from the film.
Here's the film's opening sequence with music by Mozart (the overture to the opera) and images by Branagh.
And here's the scene of Papageno's meeting with Monostatos.
OK. Just those two did it for us (there are more excerpts on YouTube).
WE WANT TO SEE THIS FILM (or a DVD of same)!
We're going on a hunting expedition.
[Note: This post has been updated (2) as of 8:53 AM Eastern on 30 Jun. See below.]
The following are part of German-born director Elke Neidhardt's justification of her rewriting of the stage action and updating of the setting of Mozart's Don Giovanni in an Opera Australia production to be premiered at the Sydney Opera House on 5 July. All quotes have been taken from articles in Opera Australia, The Australian, and The Sydney Morning Herald.
• To create [opera] productions [today] that resonate with contemporary audiences, directors, perhaps more so than conductors, have to stay tuned to the spirit of the [contemporary] age. Audiences used to film and television will not, and should not, accept traditional [i.e., the composer's original] treatment of old material.
• [Today] it's virtually impossible to have that [viz., the coming to life of the Commendatore's statue in Don Giovanni] — you cannot portray that kind of miracle [today] unless you give a [today-acceptable] reason.
• [O]ffending a statue[!] is not good enough [reason for the downfall and demise of Giovanni]. That would be pretty hard to sell today.
• When watching Don Giovanni, audiences are required to believe in God and revenge and hell; in the notion that if we are not good boys and girls, we will be punished. Who buys into that today?
• In my treatment, [Giovanni is] a playboy who parties and beds women and takes drugs — these people exist more now than then
• Judged by the values of our own world, Giovanni is not that bad. He is thrilled by the conquest and he is not interested in forming relationships with women, but that is really all one can hold against him. Men who will not commit to relationships are common today — I don't think he deserves the demise he gets.
• You cannot do nodding, walking statues in the year 2008. You would be laughed off the stage anywhere else in the world except in Australia.
Oh? Is that a fact (may be applied to any or all the above).
Self-serving, self-involved, postmodern vandal!
(Our thanks to down-under blogger Sarah Noble of Prima la musica, poi le parole — who, in her excellent preceding linked post, displays more temperance on the subject than we're capable of mustering — for the links to the Australian press articles from which the above quotes were drawn.)
Update (11:08 PM Eastern on 29 Jun): The above post brought the following aggrieved response posted to the Opera-L eMail list:
Oh please - enough of this prejudice. I mean prejudice in its etymological sense of pre-judging. This production has not even opened but is condemned.
This is such a common tendency on this list - judging productions on little evidence other than the written word. It seems to me there are so many self-appointed guardians of 'what Verdi/Wagner/ Mozart etc etc wanted'. Yet they were all theatrical and operatic progressives - concerned with meaning being conveyed to a contemporary audience.
Extending meaning to our time seems to be such a horror for some people. Any theatrical work only finds meaning in the minds of its audience.
Thankfully I live in a city where a 'conventional' production is greeted with the same outrage as avant-garde productions in the USA. We Europeans (not all of us I know - but opera often attracts a more conservative audience for all sorts of reasons) actively welcome re- interpretation. The houses are full on a diet of re-interpretation. Berlin audiences on the whole know their operas - but attract new audiences through radical re-interpretation.
Again and again on this list there is the same contempt evinced for 'Eurotrash' production - principally from the USA. I have asked this question before and never been answered - Are we all masochists in a city like Berlin?
Go to your conventional productions and enjoy them. We enjoy ours. You are not even seeing them but object often on the basis of a short clip on Youtube - do you want to dictate production styles for the world at large?
Cultural imperialism must have its limits.
Our posted response to those remarks (which we here reprint without further comment) read:
From Elke Neidhardt's own ignorant, even imbecile, remarks (those quoted in my S&F article), one is perfectly justified in prejudging her new production of _Don Giovanni_ to be yet another grotesque piece of Eurotrash, and yet another instance of the egregious, self-serving, _Regietheater_ vandalizing of yet another near-perfect opera masterpiece. Your perverse notion that these loathsome _Regietheater_ productions are simply efforts to "[e]xten[d] [the operas'] meaning to our time" is as ignorant and imbecile as anything Ms. Neidhardt had to say, for in every case -- no exceptions -- the "reinterpretations" produced by these pernicious _Regietheater_ vandals succeed only in trivializing and circumscribing meaning, never in expanding it, or in making it more "relevant". And that, at bottom, is the crux of the argument against these postmodern vandals and their _Regietheater_ travesties.
Update 2 (8:53 AM Eastern on 30 Jun): More from Opera-L in response to the above post.
I was going to change the Subject line to "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth!" but decided to keep to the rules of the class. I will also hate myself the next day for wasting my time in such a useless effort, but.....
The idea that an opera, after it has been produced, cannot be interpreted by another artist in a different light is simply stunningly flaccid. Fact One. The composers did it themselves during their lifetimes: "You want a BALLET in my Tannhauser?!?!" (Gulp) "When do you need that by?" "My Lucia rewritten in French and changed?!?!" (Gulp) "And you need that when?" All composers (who had their operas performed) have the same history of easy compliance in making their operas audience friendly.
Second, artists were always adapting their image to the audience of the time (note to file: the baby Jesus was not actually born in Tuscany) but regarded the story itself as eternally relevant.
There is no intellectual argument that opera was meant, at the time it was composed, to be something to hang in the Louvre with guards around. It was not valid then and it is not valid now. Mozart, for example, by using Beaumarchais, was risking trouble because his plays were not just "pushing the envelope" but actually revolutionary. There were poor sods behind bars in the Chateau du Vincennes for much less! (In the newly refurbished donjon, you can see their graffiti still preserved.) If the regime had not been so tired and corrupt, it might have turned bad for our Salzburgian.
To which we responded (again, here reprinted without further comment):
My congratulations to you on invoking just about every lame straw man invoked by the "progressive" defenders and champions of Eurotrash to discredit both the person and the opinions of all those who take an opposite view of the matter.
Let me be as brief as possible in my response by saying that the creators of operas neither need nor require partners or collaborators once the work is finished. What the creators of operas need and require are gifted *servants* of which the director is one; servants who will faithfully and as free from distortion as possible *translate* the creator's work from its form on the printed page into its most effective and evocative concrete physical form onstage so that the work becomes apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its *creator* envisioned it, which vision is embodied fully in the score itself (music and text). When a director steps beyond the bounds of faithful translator he steps into territory in which he has no proper place nor any business being, and by so doing does a gross disservice to the opera, the opera's creator, and the audience alike. In short, a director is doing what he ought to be doing only when he and his work are perfectly transparent middlemen -- that is, transparent vis-a-vis the sense and spirit of the creator's original _Konzept_.
Does this mean or even imply that the opera director ought to be a slavish, unimaginative lackey? Not by a long shot. Perhaps the most effective and evocative staging ever of Wagner's impossible to stage _Ring_, for most pertinent example, was done in the early 1950s by Wieland Wagner, and that staging was the very antithesis of slavish and unimaginative.
To put the matter in the proverbial nutshell, all will be well if the opera director adheres rigorously and assiduously to what I've rather immodestly labeled The A.C. Douglas Opera Director's Prime Directive: Thou mayest do any bloody thing thou wilt in order to realize a dramatically and aesthetically evocative translation of the score (music and text) into its concrete physical realization on the stage so long as what thou doest is consonant with the sense and spirit of the score at every point, and contradicts or diverges from it at none.