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Heather Mac Donald
Traditional Opera and Its Enemies « Back to Story

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Heather, thought of you when we were editing this piece on the rise and fall of film scores:

http://humanepursuits.com/2011/12/16/the-rise-and-fall-of-movie-music/
This is a wonderful and entirely just polemic, for which I am very grateful. I saw a repeat screening of the Met Don Giovanni last night, and thought it was subtle and very responsive to the opera’s range and ambiguity. It started with a fairly light touch (especially in the peasant wedding), but that made the characters’ subsequent descent into darkness all the more powerful. And it admirably captured Giovanni’s combination of charisma and dangerousness. The damnation scene was the best I can remember.

Unwisely, I read a couple of reviews in advance, and I really resent the way in which they needlessly spoiled the pleasure of anticipation, even though I knew that reviews were to be read sceptically. I had the same experience earlier in the year with a hostile review of David McVicar’s Glyndebourne Meistersinger, which I then saw live, and which turned out to be one of the greatest operatic experiences of my life.

Opera-going for most of us is a rare treat. We are (I think) unlikely to have seen ten or more productions of, say, Tristan und Isolde. Yet, when we go to the opera house, and pay a fortune for a good seat, we are as likely as not to see a production that declares war on the original work, and replaces complexity and originality with crass cliché: in which, for example, Senta, or Brünnhilde, or Isolde, or even Ariadne is merely fantasizing about transfiguration. Or in which a sexually repressive society is yet again symbolized by men in black stovepipe hats. My disappointment was particularly strong when I recently fulfilled a fifty-year-long ambition by attending the Bayreuth festival.

I do hope the weight of opinion reflected in these comments can make itself felt in opera houses.
Well said and about time, too.
Ms. Mac Donald, you're amazing. You could mop the floor with most of today's crop of "art critics," and your passion for the subject comes shining through in every word. There seems to be no arena of modern life immune from the follies of modern "progressive" thought, and the politicization of the arts is a tragedy. Keep fighting the good fight. Always love your classical music writings.
Thanks for a wonderful article! What a treat is to read a serious analysis from somebody who knows and loves opera! My family of 5 attended the Saturday, 10/22, performance of Don Giovanni, and everybody from my 16 years old son to my 89 years old father enjoyed it enormously! It’s by far the best production of Don Giovanni I’ve ever seen, full of life and genuine humor, all characters are well developed and true. The quality of singing is amazing all around the cast, but Peter Mattei and Marina Rebeka simply blow your mind. All performers are totally comfortable and having fun, which is always contagious. The audience responded to each aria/ensemble with screams and applause, everybody was having a great time, maybe except these critics who seem to hate opera in general, and praise only mocking efforts of Euro trash directors. I remember that the last season the same people published horrible reviews on Bartlett Sher’s charming and funny production of Le Comte Ory with the best cast ever, filled with true love and understanding of Rossini’s music. But the audience is wiser and don’t pay attention to these scornful reviews, they know the real thing when they see it. Le Comte Ory was sold out last year and Don Giovanni will be sold out and a hit of this season! Peter Gels is a good businessman and a voice of the box office is more important to him than venomous voices of Tommasini or Woolfe. It’s their envy of people, who are capable of creating a beautiful work of art, where they and they Euro trash idols can only mock and ruin.

3 days after reading this article, parts of it are still in my head. I just came here to compliment you on writing such a wonderful piece.
I agree completely. I don't usually promote violence, but it's time for the audiences to rise up and commit Regie-cide. Enough! Not to mention the singers who are forced to perform in these at best absurd, at worst, debased, productions. How they keep from bursting into gales of laughter - or tears - is beyond me.
I agree completely. I don't usually promote violence, but it's time for the audiences to rise up and commit Regie-cide. Enough! Not to mention the singers who are forced to perform in these at best absurd, at worst, debased, productions. How they keep from bursting into gales of laughter - or tears - is beyond me.
What wonderful writing Ms. MacDonald. Unlike those who have commented, I've not been an opera fan, not for any negative reason, but because I was never brought into that world. The descriptions in the article taught me how to watch and listen to opera, getting past languages I don't understand. I want to find a way to see that production.

A relative teaches operatic languages and has performed around the world. I sent him the article and he responded that it was well written and timely given the growth of Euro-trash opera. I looked up that term at Wikipedia. How well that kind of opera fits in with the growth of the political end of the New Age movement which we see all around us!!! For those unfamiliar with the term, it is an international movement that is destructive.

The critics of the performance and supporters of the Euro-trash kind of opera are not trendsetters. They are just fitting in with and mirroring the destructive changes in the culture that are taking place.
Finally someone defends this production. I agree that much of the criticism is purely "political." Is it possible that we've gotten to a point where even the ORIGINAL staging of these works would have been trashed by today's standards?
Thank you, Heather McDonald. Yesterday I saw the live broadcast of Mr. Grandage's enthralling, beautifully-sung and sexy production of Don Giovanni, and left the theatre completely exhilirated. At home, I read Mr.Tommasini's review, and could only shake my head at his tepid reaction (not to mention his perceiving a "sexual tension" between Leporello and the Don!) His piece reminded me of why I pay no attention the oh-so-sophisticated opera reviewers of the press -- they're obviously bored with opera, and I love it!
Right on! The Met has given us a stunning Don. The concept is that of De Ponte and Mozart, as it should be. The recent undeserved trashing of Met productions only shows that we need better critics.
Finally a contemporary opera review that starts off by paying attention to the singing and the music and doesn't fawn over the production. When we look back at opera performed 50, 75, 100 years ago we talk about the singers, not the production.

The Met's productions and Mr. Gelb's attention to matters other than singing and the music are the reason that many of us have stopped going to the Met.

It is painful to read Tommasini's reviews. In my opinion (and I was a faithful Met-goer since the 60s) the Met today is a mere shadow of itself focusing on the chic and trendy and forgetting what great opera should can be. Since Gelb took over the productions leave much to desired.

Thanks for writing a real opera review and for discussing what has happened to the opera and the ways in which it reviewed.
I didn`t read David McVicars comments before writing my own! He of course is very right in his remarks: "The most radical productions it seems to me are those that seek to elucidate the narrative of an opera with clarity, passion and respect both for the audience and the work in hand. The father of modern "Regie", Walter Felsenstein spoke passionately of the unspoken "contract" with the audience; the immediacy of theatrical communication was everything for him!"
Dear Mrs Mac Donald,

to me there seems a to be a fundamental misunderstanding in your overly long article about the MET`s new Don Giovanni, which at the same time is a surprisingly personal slaughtering of Euopean "Regietheater"...

Regietheater is - as you write - a somewhat dated movement in European theatres, trying to reinvent operas and plays instead of trying to read them properly and find interesting approaches for contemporary viewers. I totally admit that its` charme - which did exist at the very beginning of that movement, about 20 yrs ago - is fading and that we are all looking for a new and interesting approach to that incredibly small slice of classical work which is being performed by traditional opera houses. If we don`t find that - well then opera will eventually fade into a kind of museum which will only be interesting for scholars or people who want to buy a slice of the culture of the "Old Europa"...

But after having watched the MET performance yesterday night on the big screen I have to admit that Mr Grandage production doesn`t seem the solution to those questions either. If you want a traditional production - which is fine by me - well, even then you should be able to look behind the traditional ways in which DG is being shown in opera houses around the world. You should be able to read scores, understand why Mozart wrote certain things in certain moments, which of the remarks in the original score are truly by Mozart and which ones are obviously not. For that you have to dig into the score and the music and find out what is behind the obvious, behind the "Reception Theory" of the past 100 yrs.

The misunderstanding with Mr Grandage`s production is, that it comes along being disguised as a traditional production, but is in fact only a lazy and boring approach. Granddage obviously didn`t do any of those things mentioned: he didn`t ask questions, he didn`t look for the truth behind the music, he didn`t try to tell the fascinationg narrative of Mozart`s opera. No, he simply heaped one stereotyped idea on top of the other! I never had the impression he for one moment knew what this opera is about, that this is a story about life and death - and I am afraid, it is - that this is the last night in the life of DG and that right from the beginning things go downhill in a speedy way. None of the characters on stage seemed to know precisely what they were doing and why. Well, they knew the were singing - that`s true - but otherwise I could see lots of clichéd gestures and agonizing handwringing and lots of people interacting with the conductor but not with each other. I am afraid that`s simply not enough - not even for a "traditional" production, and definitely not for the MET. If I don`t have any real narrative on stage then I better listen to a CD - and will also have better singing than yesterday evening.

I believe even traditional productions have to think closely about the opera, its story and its "meaning", about the motivations of its characters and the background of its story. "To discover what the opera meant for its 1787 audience, for whom damnation was real and hereditary privilege unyielding, and to communicate that world to a modern audience today", sounds like a nice concept, but if I don`t see it on stage then it stays as bloodless and stupid as any pointless modern staging of any opera. There is no difference in traditional or modern staging of operas - there is only one in good or bad productions! Therefore I think we should be careful to condemn "modern" productions in general if we don`t have a good alternative draft. The good modern ones try to "read" operas as precisely and honestly as traditional ones.

Btw, do you happen to know the old staging of DG by Rudolf Noelte at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin? That was probably in the 70s: it was very traditional, but at the same time daring, new, thought provoking and utterly gripping and left people deeply in thoughts when the exited the opera house... That`s the least I expect when I go to the opera (which, I have to admit, happens less and less...): it should be lively theatre and not a piece of fading art hanging on the wall of a dusty museum.

Kind regards, and please excuse my mistakes in your language as I am not a native speaker,

Heinrich Müller

Finally...someone who "gets"it. I just saw the HD broadcast and thought it was wonderful.
These are the critics to whom no statues will be erected. Perhaps this generation of critics has grown up with only the negative definitions of "criticize".

The question is, do managers and directors work for critics, or for audiences?

I think Ms MacDonald makes many interesting and valid points here and I dearly wish I could have seen my colleague, Mr Grandage's production of Giovanni. If we understand "tradition" to be defined by an accretion of mannerisms that are repeated un-questioningly, then I would say that what one can see on the boards most evenings in most German opera houses is traditional in the extreme. The most radical productions it seems to me are those that seek to elucidate the narrative of an opera with clarity, passion and respect both for the audience and the work in hand. The father of modern "regie", Walter Felsenstein spoke passionately of the unspoken "contract" with the audience; the immediacy of theatrical communication was everything for him and to exclude the audience was anathema. As a director of opera with a 20 year career already behind me and having stirred up not a little controversy of my own in my time, I find it almost touchingly ironic to be lectured by the likes of Mr Woolfe in this respect
Dear Ms. MacDonald,

You make me desire very much to see this new production (even if Mattei and Kwiecien were NOT my favorite living Don G's, as they are). And your objections to its rivals strike a responsive chord in my heart! And nothing has been so tiresome in recent Met history as to see little-known works that could easily have been taken to the audience's heart, if only the "production" had permitted it -- I am thinking of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" and Berlioz' "Cellini" in particular -- ruined by a crazed, absurd and repellent vision.

But I am especially grateful for this observation, with which I passionately concur:

"The solution to the overrepetition of the standard repertoire is not to torture familiar works with self-indulgent distortions, but rather to put on unknown works. Thousands of eighteenth-century operas that almost no one has heard for 200 years were critical in the evolution of the art form. Our understanding of Mozart would be enormously improved by better knowledge of Johann Adolph Hasse or Tommaso Traetta."

(signed)

John Yohalem

Cafeteria Rusticana
http://hanslick.blogspot.com/

Opera Today
http://www.operatoday.com
Dear Ms. MacDonald,

You make me desire very much to see this new production (even if Mattei and Kwiecien were NOT my favorite living Don G's, as they are). And your objections to its rivals strike a responsive chord in my heart! And nothing has been so tiresome in recent Met history as to see little-known works that could easily have been taken to the audience's heart, if only the "production" had permitted it -- I am thinking of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" and Berlioz' "Cellini" in particular -- ruined by a crazed, absurd and repellent vision.

But I am especially grateful for this observation, with which I passionately concur:

"The solution to the overrepetition of the standard repertoire is not to torture familiar works with self-indulgent distortions, but rather to put on unknown works. Thousands of eighteenth-century operas that almost no one has heard for 200 years were critical in the evolution of the art form. Our understanding of Mozart would be enormously improved by better knowledge of Johann Adolph Hasse or Tommaso Traetta."

(signed)

John Yohalem

Cafeteria Rusticana
http://hanslick.blogspot.com/

Opera Today
http://www.operatoday.com
Brian Richard Allen October 29, 2011 at 10:53 AM
What a wonderful take on a wonderful work of art whose librettist's and composer's every intention is lovingly and faithfully represented - not "interpreted" - in this brilliant production in the world's absolute epicenter of Artistic Excellence.

God forbid Peter Gelb and the Met ever deign to follow the pathologically-narcissistic dead, decadent, degenerate and as oft' deranged Europeons down the drain!
The objective in opera is SINGING as in the artists of the GOLDEN AGE. Americans, in that period only had access to performances, on the RADIO. They recognized quality back then.(PAUL HUME-MIAMI HERALD DEC 30, 1973 Current Crop Disappointing-Singers Having Problems)
You're complaining about updated stagings of Don Giovanni—but when, exactly, is Don Giovanni supposed to take place? These things aren't quite as simple as you seem to think they are.
I have attended and also heard on media many operas during the fifty years of my interest in the art form. I am contemptuous of those directors who are swept up in the torrents of infantile political conformity to doctrines of "relevance". What simple minded subservience to the notion that opera audiences need to be bullied into making facile connections to reframing of the purported zeitgeist is served up by politically agitated but historically inert critics. The very joy of the traditional opera is the access offered to the audience of cultural worlds no longer at hand. To deny that offer is arrogant and stupid.
By the way the European takeover and PCization of Opera in America will be its death. I don't want to see Columbus sodomizing Queen Isabella on the stage again.

I am interested only in the works as presented by the original artists. The Gandhi opera might be interesting. Will give it a chance.
A freakishness in the arts passing for orginality. I was going to see Don Giovanni in HD tomorrow but instead will listen to my old classic DGG opera CD's. If I want pornography I will go to a strip club in Las Vegas (I have zero interst in pornography though like most men I like good looking women and their images to gaze upon). HD opera is great except one thing. The singers are inferior to the great signers of the 1950's 1960's and 1970' who all recordred vast repetoires in high fidelity stereo. Today they go for looks and figure as much as voice. They might as well get models and dub the voices. That way Ana Netrebko won't have to diet to get into her Anna Bolena costumes. Opera is about the acting the music and the singing not sex appeal per se.
Muphen R. Whitney October 28, 2011 at 6:22 PM
Amen! It's time someone stood up for those who originally conceived, wrote, composed, and staged operas and ballets. I want to see and hear what the librettist and composer had in mind WHEN THEY WORKED TO PRODUCE A PIECE. I do NOT want that vision occluded by the political and social vagaries of another period.

THANK YOU!!!

I have been very much looking forward to seeing this production for months. I will see the broadcast tomorrow at The Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, PA! Here's to digital technology!