European helmers spice up genre

VIENNA — The king and queen of Spain alighted from a limousine in front of Vienna’s State Opera amid the glare of news cameras. Making their way up the grand staircase, they were kept at a distance from startled patrons by a phalanx of security guards as network commentators narrated. Groups of demonstrators clashed violently with police before being chained together and removed from the opera house.

The identical scene occurred 15 times in the past year — and will happen again in June when Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” returns to the repertory.

Konwitschny — the man who staged “Aida” in a small white room with one red sofa — is the hottest name in opera on the Continent today, the superstar of what classical music Web site labels “The Age of the Director.” His productions aim — and succeed — at making opera’s lofty, larger-than-life characters real people. More frequently, Konwitschny’s characters are leaving the constraints of the stage to engage auds face-to-face, making opera a truly interactive experience: In “Eugene Onegin,” Konwitschny’s cast abandons the stage entirely for the final act.

While purists scoff at “Rigoletto” set on the Planet of the Apes (in Dorris Dorrie’s staging for Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, complete with a monkey-suited Duke singing “La donna e mobile”); or “The Flying Dutchman” with the entire cast up to its kneecaps in sand (as Philipp Himmelmann envisioned it at the Freiburg Theater); and some boo when teams of directors and designers take their opening night bows, the trend of breathing new theatrical life into what has often been labeled a dying art form has new audiences lining up at the box office.

Since its September 2004 premiere, “Don Carlos” has sold out every perf in Vienna at a $215 top ticket; “Eugene Onegin” has become this season’s hottest ticket in Central Europe.

No stranger to scandal, provocateur Calixto Bieito (who opened a production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” with the entire cast seated on toilets) gave Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio” a high-profile, controversial production at Berlin’s Comic Opera in June 2004 that featured full-frontal nudity (virtually unheard of from male opera singers), actual whores from the streets of Berlin, live sex, as well as recreations of widespread drug useand an onstage suicide by swallowing a pistol.

Critics and commentators were outraged, denouncing Bieito’s shock tactics as pornography, while sponsor Daimler Chrysler threatened to pull its annual subsidy of $24,000. Meanwhile, not a single ticket was to be had for the entire run.

The blanket term coined for this new wave of direction in opera is “Regietheater,” literally”directors’ theater.” As the name suggests, it began mostly as a German and Austrian phenomenon, but has spread throughout the opera world.

With the exception of a few brave companies that have dared to import Regietheater productions (Pamela Rosenberg, outgoing director of San Francisco Opera, borrowed several productions from leading European companies, including her former home base, the Stuttgart), opera in America likes to flout names such as Robert Wilson (known for his slow, stylized, kabukilike movement) and Julie Taymor (immortalized in her direction and designs for Disney’s “The Lion King,” she recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut with a puppet-filled “The Magic Flute”). But U.S. opera remains safely isolated from the current trends, which it often vilifies as “Eurotrash.”

The Met’s biggest risk to date, a “Fidelio” directed by Juergen Flimm (who takes over the artistic leadership of the Salzburg Festival in 2007) sets Beethoven’s opera in a banana republic dictatorship.

Opera is now attracting theater artists who never dreamed of approaching the genre. Germany’s Christoph Schlingensief, whose own theater company has staged “Hamlet” with neo-Nazi amateurs and has featured productions with live pigs, accepted a daunting invitation for his 2004 opera debut. Schlingensief will stage Wagner’s quasi-religious epic “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth Festival Theater, the house built by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1876 for the exclusive presentation of the composer’s works.

Schlingensief offered a production so visually dense through its layers of video and nonstop revolving sets, it was difficult to focus on its use of African tribal ceremonies, voodoo and Santeria to send a message of death as salvation. Passions came to a head at the second perf when audience reaction was so harsh that the fire curtain was rung down and the crowd dispersed to dispel fistfights.

In 2005, Schlingensief significantly revised the production, clarifying its details, and the inevitable chorus of boos which greeted the end of each act were drowned out by bravos. The controversy has done little — if anything — to dampen Bayreuth’s box office: There is still a 10-year waiting list to purchase a single ticket at a $250 top.

Increasingly, audiences are embracing Regietheater. At the premiere of Konwitschny’s “Eugene Onegin,” American soprano Kristin Lewis jumped from her seat, screaming “Bravo!” when the director took his bow. “My God!” she exclaimed, “I never knew opera could be like this!”

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