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Opera Discoveries
By Mort Levine

The good, bad and ugly: setting, design will make or break many operas

The Magic Flute, which just completed a remarkable 31st season for Opera San Jose, featured the creative concept of veteran director Brad Dalton and young, imaginative set designer Ryan McGettigan. It proved to be one of the most outstanding offerings of that venerable but often problematic work.

As we all know, opera is the blending of many talents: music, story, poetry, costumes, sets, lighting and more. In this OSJ production, the idea of placing the opening and finale of the work within the frame of a typical 18th century opera house proved fresh and stimulating. And for contrast there were the scenes in the temple where a 21st century technology of illuminated fibre optics in brilliant colors outlining and emphasizing the magical doings. It all came together to serve the efforts of the excellent singers and the orchestra in capturing the essence of this Mozart masterwork.

Most opera goers assume that the key creative pairing in any work is the composer and librettist. Memorable productions however require as close a collaboration between the stage director and the designer of the sets and often the lighting and costume designers as well.

Many of us who experienced the fabulous voices at San Francisco Opera during the second half of the 20th century can recall the Zefferelli and Ponelle settings that almost always evoked applause for the set when the curtain parted. Often when these favorite stagings were retired to be replaced by a more "modern" director’s vision, there was an audience backlash.

The rise of regie-theatre, where the directors rule, has often turned off audiences. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is one where some of the loudest outcries take place. There was a series of Rings, especially in Europe, that set the work in the harshness of industrial exploitation of workers (Mime as CEO). Paris opera did a Ring that emphasized the pollution of the Rhine river. Gotz Friedrich did it with space ships and it has also been set in the California gold rush.

One recent controversial Ring setting turned out quite well. The magic of the Cirque de Soleil was applied by Robert LePage to the Met’s last Ring with a series of giant planks on a huge drum that lent itself to every part of the cycle. Rhine maidens managed to be trapeze artists as well as vocalists in a high-tech combining of projections, lighting and other special effects

Vehicles of all sorts get tossed in as directorial touches. Leather-clad Thomas Hampson opened an SFO Don Giovanni on a motorcycle. James Schaaf’s Barber of Seville rode in on a Vespa scooter. At Opera San Jose’s Hansel and Gretel, director Layna Chianakas had the witch riding around the stage on a Segway.

The Met’s Rigoletto of last year was set in Las Vegas with all the neon trappings.

And there was Eurotrash where that continent’s opera houses put a premium on directors and designers with the most outrageous concepts. Director Ernst Schrader and designer Michael Raffaelli reset Ballo in Maschera to the 1830s south with the plantation owner singing the role of the slain king. Ponelle transferred Salome to a bizarre Indian setting.

Despite these excesses, the idea of bringing to opera top theater directors and visual artists has led to number of extremely successful director-designer achievements. Painter William Kittredge (an astonishing Nose by Shostakovich at the Met); Painter David Hockney contributed some remarkable setting for SFO such as a dazzling Magic Flute and stark black and white Rake’s Progress and Julie Taymor’s treatment of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha at the Met, just to list three.

Now we must all hold our breath for the Met’s 2017-18 season when the daring Catalan director Calixto Bieito makes his debut with a Forza del Destino. His past productions included a sexually-graphic harem for Abduction from the Seraglio and a Masked Ball in Barcelona where the plotters meet in a grimy men’s room

(SJOG Newsletter May, 2015)

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