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The Conundrum

Jessica Duchen, a writer I generally admire, although someone with whom I don’t always agree, writes a thoughtful piece in anticipation of ENO’s new production of Tristan and Isolde.

While I don’t share her appreciation for Regietheater (she states that when it “is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better” and I haven’t yet experienced that), she admits that “reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans.”

Nearly a year ago  Speight Jenkins, the recently retired general director of Seattle Opera, also wrote a blog post that talked about the director’s penchant for ignoring the text and assuming that “the production team has better ideas than the composer and librettist.”

Herein, I think is the rub. Personally I think a literal interpretation of an opera can be compelling theater. I’ve seen numerous moving performances at my opera company and others, that remained faithful to the period and text of the opera, when performed by the best singing actors.

But I’ve also seen updated and transplanted productions that have done the same, and yet remained faithful to the premise and music of the composer and librettist.

But the key to me is respect of the text. When the “interpretation” ignores the sung text and what is being depicted in the music, then I’m lost.

Composers and librettists were people of the theater. They understood drama and music. I freely admit that performance styles have changed since most of these works were composed and that allows for, and often demands, a different kind of production. But the dramatic situation and the characterization are inextricably linked to the text and the music as originally written.

I think this must be the starting point. The production that ignores the text and the music, and indulges the fantasy of a director only makes the piece incomprehensible and alienates the audience.

In Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger, why on earth are Walther and Beckmesser playing dueling puzzles while Walther is trying to sing about the sweet song of spring (ignoring Wagner’s musical indication of Beckmesser’s marking?)

I’m sure Ms. Wagner can explain this to me, but it seems to me that her distinguished forebear did a pretty good job of it in the text and music.

It seems to me that Iván Fischer is right, in an interview with Duchen, when he calls for an “organic, integrated opera performance.” I believe that it must start from the text. After all, that’s where Verdi and Wagner started.