Last week, I went to Parsifal at the Royal Opera House. The singing was sublime. The same could not be said for the staging. Although there were some clever elements, especially in the use of lighting, most of the director’s choices left my friends and me scratching our heads. The chorus morphed from nurses to suited businessmen, and at the end of the first act a few acquired caps and guns. Kundry’s, Amfortas’s, and Klingsor’s backstories were presented onstage with gruesome detail. The flower maidens began as war widows and turned into prostitutes. Kundry survived the end of the opera and wandered off with Amfortas. I won’t describe the Grail because anyone going to see the production might enjoy the surprise, but after the initial shock of its big reveal, I found my attempts to decipher its significance fruitless. Needless to say, these are not what Wagner had in mind for Parsifal. But does that matter?
According to Wikipedia, “Regietheater (German for director’s theater or producer’s theater) is a term that refers to the modern (mainly post-World War II) practice of allowing a director (or producer) freedom in devising the way a given opera (or play) is staged so that the creator’s original, specific intentions or stage directions (where supplied) can be changed, together with major elements of geographical location, chronological situation, casting and plot. Typically such changes may be made to point a particular political point or modern parallels which may be remote from traditional interpretations.” That definition would technically include many opera productions (including any where the setting of the opera is changed), but colloquially, the term is often used to refer to especially crazy “concept” productions. (These often come from Europe. In fact, some detractors use “Regietheater” and “Eurotrash” as synonyms.)
These productions cause a lot of controversy in the opera world. Many traditionalists are outraged by Regietheater and loudly protest in internet forums against these supposed crimes against opera. Some appeal to the director’s intentions; others simply argue that more traditional productions tend to be more aesthetically appealing. Of course, Regietheater also has its supporters, who claim that traditional productions are boring and stilted and that fresh directorial visions lend new relevance and power to old operas. I take a middle position. I find some Regietheater tasteless and nonsensical, especially if it seems to actively detract from or work against the opera itself. I think traditional productions are important: not every production should be traditional, but it’s nice to occasionally be able to see a Tosca that’s set in June 1800 as written. That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with updating operas or emphasizing particular themes, and Regietheater can be fabulously compelling when done well.
In the category of Regietheater gone wrong, we have this past summer’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. Castorf’s deliberately incoherent production featured crocodiles during the love duet, a machine gun as Nothung, and a pseudo-Mount Rushmore. James Jorden has done more thorough analysis of the production than anyone else I’ve come across here, here, here, here, and here, and the series is definitely worth reading for a fascinating exploration of a staging that seems to resist any attempts to understand it. JJ is fairly sympathetic to Castorf’s production and tries to play the part of the ideal audience member by doing everything in his power to accept and comprehend what’s happening on stage in front of him. Although I was not (un)fortunate enough to catch the production, I don’t think I would be quite as kind. I don’t demand that Ring cycle stagings be what Wagner intended, but I do like my opera to have a consistent intellectual basis and a strong focus on Personenregie (that is, making the characters and acting believable) rather than a mish-mash of partially developed directorial ideas.
Of course, sometimes I’m on the other side of the debate. Last year, I saw the Met’s revival/import of Willy Decker’s staging of La Traviata. His visually striking production includes a minimalist white stage with a curved back wall, a chorus of suited men, a giant clock, and Violetta in the “short red dress of oppression” (credit for that phrase goes to Likely Impossibilities). As I waited at the stage door after the performance, many of the other (older) opera fans waiting with me complained about the Decker production and expressed nostalgia for Zeffirelli’s production (which I also saw live, three years earlier). The latter was true-to-period with fabulously luxurious sets and costumes; it was a production that made opera-goers feel like they had gotten their money’s worth because they could see it onstage. It was also quite dull. All the gold and lush fabrics swallowed the singers both visually and acoustically, and I was left remembering the sets than the drama. Decker’s production, on the other hand, put the focus entirely on the characters because of the starkness of the backdrop. He inserted a few key symbols too, but they were directly drawn from themes inherent in the opera (death, time, etc.) and were philosophically coherent. (In fact, I wrote an essay about the philosophy behind them.) I fiercely defended the new production against its detractors.
Of course, there’s a whole world of crazy opera productions out there: a rat-infested Lohengrin, an X-rated Entführung aus dem Serail, a Nazi-themed Tannhäuser that was cancelled right away… the list goes on and on. Some definitely work well, some definitely don’t, and many are somewhere in between. Have you seen any particularly good or particularly dreadful Regietheater productions? What do you think of the practice of updating operas in general?