Missing the Point

In their efforts to provide new and unusual interpretations, directors often miss the point, writes Tom Sutcliffe

As one of 50 critics answering a series of questions about the previous opera season’s high and low points for the Berlin opera magazine Opernwelt’s Yearbook, my choice for Ärgerlichste Opern-Erfahrung (direst operatic outing) sadly went this year to a production designed and staged by a friend. Nigel Lowery’s Magic Flute in Bern seemed way off, though he is one of the most distinctive English opera talents. His dramaturg on the show was Albrecht Puhlmann who worked closely with Herbert Wernicke, a brilliant German director-designer who died far too young. Puhlmann and Wernicke cut their teeth in Basel, a town I love, which possesses one of the most imaginative modern operahouse buildings I have seen. Its main foyer is a kind of 1960s concrete tent – the roof, held up apparently by magic, covering an array of stairways and meeting spaces. In 1991 I went there for the first time to see Wernicke’s masterly pocket production of Fledermaus and interview him. Puhlmann, having run Hanover and Stuttgart with variable results, may be third time lucky as Intendant in Mannheim from 2017.

Crazy addition

Was Puhlmann or Lowery to blame for what ruined Bern’s Magic Flute – introducing the new character of ‘Hausmeister’ (or Maitredomo) as a sort of warm-up explainer? So a popular local Bern actor totally upstaged Lowery’s unfortunate Papageno – sung by a young English baritone, Robin Adams, who is a member of the Bern ensemble. A crazy addition, since Mozart was originally commissioned to write Magic Flute by the popular entertainer Schikaneder for whom he created the core role of Papageno, the beating heart of the social comedy. Papageno brilliantly manipulates gender and class tensions. But alas Magic Flute these days is a suspect work when Mozart is seen as politically incorrect in endorsing male leadership and presenting women (in the Queen of the Night) in an unfriendly light. Worst of all is the role of Sarastro’s security chief Monostatos, a black man (bearing jokes about blackness and wickedness), who tries to rape Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter who is in the care of Sarastro.

These days if an opera or play narrative offends, like Little Black Sambo, it has to change. But to put two characters on stage competing in their direct relationship with the audience, as friendly guides to what is going on, is to wreck Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s plan entirely – and spoil all the tricks and jokes. Lowery set the story in a department store, which had style but did little to bring alive the world of nature and good and evil in which Sarastro and his ‘Order’ are meant to offer a beacon of ‘enlightenment’ of a weird fanciful sort. Lowery can be brilliant and is much to my taste, but here seemed perversely missing the point.

Two classic examples

At the end of last season in Germany there were two classic examples of contemporary over-intellectualized misinterpretation – Claus Guth’s Rosenkavalier in Frankfurt and Jossi Wieler’s Rigoletto in Stuttgart, both directors being at the very peak of their reputations in the German-speaking world. Guth’s Rosenkavalier focused repeatedly on the impending mortality of the Feldmarschallin, providing a continuing stylish valedictory in a care-home for the extremely wealthy – leading up to the eventual death of Marie-Therese, actual or imagined by her. Wieler (working as always with his codirector and chef-dramaturg in Stuttgart, Sergio Morabito) turned the character of Rigoletto into the unofficial top-hatted supremo at the Duke of Mantua’s court, straight-faced and eaten up with hidden jealousy and resentment, while Gilda became a rebellious representative of modern liberated youth, eager for any experience promised by the charming student who turns out to be the incognito wicked Duke. Here was a Gilda completely unlike the naive romantic indicated in Verdi’s sublime (and ironical) ‘Caro nome’, the aria that is the opera’s signature at least as much as the Duke’s ‘Donna e mobile’.

Of course, Verdi’s tragic irony in Rigoletto is constantly reinforced by the fact that almost nothing anybody says in the piece can be taken as ‘Gospel’. But the music simply does not fit with Wieler and Morabito’s unwelcome original gloss. Verdi may have rejected the Church. But Rigoletto is deeply disturbed by the curse of Monterone, which threatens punishment for him not because he endorses the Duke but because he is corruptly indulging the wickedness and debauchery which has causedMonterone’s grief and rebellion. Finding Gilda dying in the sack which he had intended for the Duke is the supreme punishment for Rigoletto’s moral failure as a comedian and thinker. His dirty work demands not revenge but repentance.

Eternal relevance

We live in an age when our access to culture is all to do with mechanical reproduction. Those struggling to sustain the live performing arts see that they by contrast have the opportunity for rediscovery and revision – rather than the endless repetition which is the world of DVDs, CDs, television and film. But what is most vital about performance is articulating and filling with the spirit of truth those constructs of genius which we have inherited and which are still being created new by artists of genius. The business should not be to impose a different, unusual and often perverse spin on works whose authenticity depends on an interior and profound argumentative genius related above all to narrative – with eternal relevance and meaningfulness. In the live performing arts every great interpretation is fresh because it brings alive the inner reality of the piece being performed. The vision is in the work. ND