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Monday, 20 March 2017

Opera - seats and productions

Two productions of Wagner operas I recently attended form the basis for my first formal blog entry: Parsifal at Theater Bremen and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. For Theater Bremen, a medium-sized German municipal theatre, it was the first Parsifal for 40 years. For Covent Garden, one of the leading opera houses world-wide, it was the first new production of Meistersinger since 2012, but altogether the 237th performance of the opera. In Bremen I sat in the front row for £ 48, in Covent Garden I squatted in the lower slips for £ 20 (the front row would have cost me £270). After the first act of Meistersinger, when I got up from my seat, my entire body was aching from the position I had to adjust my body to so as to be able to see part of the stage. I was lucky that the seat to my right was not occupied during Act I, and that the young, green-haired German lady who came down to sit there from her seat much higher up in the amphitheatre was slim, as was the Asian lady to my left. Constant physical contact was still inevitable, and if my neighbours had been bigger we would literally have been sitting on each other’s laps. Such proximity is similar in other parts of the Covent Garden auditorium, at prices closer to £ 100. It is taking the idea of communitas, of shared experience, to different dimensions. Reference to the building being old does not justify not bothering, it seems, in a major refurbishment such as the Royal Opera House underwent some time ago, to consider physical spectator comfort. 

The relatively new Opera House in Oslo, Norway has arranged even the “cheap” seats, the ones furthest away from the stage, in such a way that they are comfortable to sit in. On the sides of the tiers, the “slips” as they are referred to in Covent Garden, the seats face the stage, not the opposite side of the opera house. 

Conventional theatre plays and conventional operas tell stories. They did so when they were first written and composed, they do so today. Directors of opera seem to be under considerable pressure to tell new stories with old material, to find new, novel, and original interpretations of the old stories. Marco Štorman in Bremen places the orchestra for the first and third acts at the back of the stage, while the singers in the first act appear to be arranged behind their music stands as if for a concert performance or a semi-staged production. However, the singers’ make-up and costumes suggest right away that they are “in character”. Parsifal comes down from the ceiling in parachute harness, in Act III he is accompanied by four boys who taunt Gurnemanz. While this does not directly distract, it does not tell a story. Neither does Covent Garden’s outgoing Director of Opera Kaspar Holten’s production of Meistersinger. It is set in a contemporary London men-only club with its strange procedures and rituals. Why shoemaker Hans Sachs, in Act II, goes about his job with tools from a toolbox in that club’s premises is just one of the issues that remains unclear and does not make sense in the chosen context. 

I am reminded of Stefan Herheim’s decision of setting Tannhäuser in contemporary Oslo among the Salvation Army. I wrote about that production:

Herheim transposed the opera’s medieval plot to the 21st century. The set consists initially of an empty stage surrounded by mirror panels. For the overture, images of the outside environment of Oslo’s opera house are projected on to those panels. The members of the chorus play men who work in the city, with suits, coats and briefcases. Tannhäuser, a member of the Salvation Army, appears in Salvation Army uniform, and seeks to communicate with the city professionals, but nobody stops to listen to him. So he gets fed up with that environment and seeks out Venus and her pleasures. In an instant, the mirror panels turn, and reveal, at multiple levels from the floor to the ceiling, scenes from opera productions across the canon. Venus appears in a contemporary evening dress in an opera box in the same style as the Oslo opera house where the audience are watching the opera, and invites Tannhäuser to join her there. The sensual pleasures Venus has to offer are thus to be understood as the pleasures of opera. Some of the panels revert to their mirror nature, and now without projections on to them, they reflect the real audience on the night of the performance. The visual effect of this scene is stunning, and it is not surprising that more than 100 stage hands were needed to achieve the effect.The grand hall in the Wartburg used by the minstrels for the singing contests becomes a Salvation Army headquarters, and the long musical introduction to act two, before Elisabeth starts her aria, is spent by some warden of the Salvation Army clearing the hall of the homeless people who have spent the night there, prior to them receiving free breakfast. Thus there are very impressive sets and scene changes, and those facilitate a cogent re-interpretation of settings within the chosen Salvation Army context. However, the success of the transposition of the medieval context of the original plot to the 21st century comes at the expense of a reduction from Wartburg to the Salvation Army, and the resulting depletion of a potentially spiritual context. (2013: 94)

In contrast to the Bremen Parsifal and the London Meistersinger, Herheim’s Oslo Tannhäuser production was an example of a radically new interpretation able to tell a compelling story. In the context of theatre, a success story of setting an old text in contemporary times was Ostermeier’s 2006 production of Hedda Gabler at the Berlin Schaubühne.  

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