In the preface to George Perle’s definitive study of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Perle takes vitriolic aim at the French director Patrice Chereau’s inaugural production at the Paris Opera of the three act version of Berg’s magnum opus, Lulu. Perle is offended by Chereau’s disregard of, and subversion of, Berg’s text. He even enlists that hothead of all hotheads, Hector Berlioz, on his behalf, quoting a passage from Berlioz decrying directors who similarly abused Mozart and Weber. As always with Berlioz, his comments are highly entertaining and incredibly hyperbolic. Berlioz’s advice to his director nemesi? “Despair and Die!”
Like street drugs and cheap handguns, operatic directorial license is designed to be abused. From a director’s standpoint, if you do something reasonable, audiences and musicians will leave the opera house thinking about Mozart or Wagner. If you do something insane, audiences and musicians will leave the theatre thinking about you. It’s a no-brainer. But it doesn’t impair or kill the listener. It’s only a narcissistic exercise in inane infantilism. Epater le Bourgeoisie!
I have my doubts about the future of literalistic stagings, however. Viking helmets, cool as they undoubtedly are, improperly narrow the context of Wagner’s Ring, at least for the twenty-first century.
But utterly inadmissable is the scene in the Stuttgart Opera’s Siegfried, where instead of beating his famous Nibelungen tatoo with a hammer on an anvil, in a futile attempt at forging Nothung, Mime beats a potato peeler against the side of a bowl. I know what the director was thinking, I think…later in the act, Mime makes a potion to murder Siegfried, saying that since he failed as a smith, he may as well be a cook. The director anticipates this with his potato peeler. Well, it shouldn’t be anticipated, number one, because it makes a mockery of the plot and the structure of the act, and, number two, it is so inherently stupid that it draws attention to itself in a disruptive manner. Acceptable, however, is another director’s Tristan und Isolde, act three, where the dying Tristan nostalgically looks at viewfinder style snapshots of his childhood. Why is this admissable? It’s not in the score anymore than the stupid potato peeler. It’s admissable because it’s touching. And why is it touching? Because it’s wholly consonant with Tristan’s fatalistic psychology, it underlines Tristan’s morbidly self-referential character. I cannot explain, however, the idea behind Tristan carrying his own couch around in the same director’s act two.