Another summer, another scandal: for opera scholars, Wagner fans, and perhaps anyone who reads newspapers, this was the summer of Frank Castorf’s bicentenary production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth and the firestorm it unleashed. First-hand accounts gauged the boos for the director following Götterdämmerung at over ten minutes; and given some extremely negative reviews of the premiere, Anglo-American readers will be forgiven in assuming the staging was a fiasco. It wasn’t, though: there seems to have been relatively little booing after the first cycle, and many German critics were positively gushing in their assessment. Reinhard Brembeck in the Süddeutsche Zeitung implicitly compared the staging to Patrice Chéreau’s legendary 1976 production when he named it Bayreuth’s “most inspired Ring” in decades. Some English-language critics also began to voice at least partial approval, and by the end of the run even the New Yorker’s Alex Ross—hardly a friend of innovative dramaturgy—had some surprisingly kind words for the staging. What started as a vicious scandal turned into an optimistic wait-see, pending an additional year’s work on the production and another summer’s worth of evaluations.
But even though this bang ended with a whimper, the entire affair—if not the production itself—was unfortunate. The general cleft between English- and German-language reviews highlighted once again the baffling and by now inexcusable inability of most Anglo-American critics to assess any kind of opera production venturing beyond naturalist acting styles and period sets, let alone engage the aesthetics of Castorf’s postdramatic theater. What’s more, the opprobrium itself became a news story that served to drown out discussion of the festival season’s other newsworthy productions (most prominently Chéreau’s Elektra for Aix-en-Provence and Stefan Herheim’s Meistersinger for Salzburg).
Another victim of the scandal: some perspective on the stakes involved. After all, Bayreuth had explicitly forbidden Castorf from introducing any changes to the text or the score, so like many allegedly radical productions Castorf’s was hamstrung from the beginning by the insistence that its ambitions be limited to stage direction. That’s of course an old complaint (or, depending on one’s understanding of Werktreue and the work concept, a familiar solace). In fact, precisely because Bayreuth’s proscription merely reflects the priorities of most opera houses, scholars and critics sympathetic to directors such as Castorf—whose work for the spoken theater is distinguished in part for his interventions on the level of the text—tend simply to throw up our hands in frustration. For while productions like Castorf’s have, for many of us, single-handedly brought a sense of intellectual, political, and theatrical vitality to the art form, they do so with one hand tied behind their back. And after many decades there’s a sense that this practice is increasingly subject to the law of diminishing returns. From every indication Castorf’s staging was ultimately another reading of the Ring cycle as a critique of global capitalism: nothing less, perhaps, but also nothing more. (I wasn’t able to get tickets to the entire cycle, so my description is dependent on reviews and colleagues’ accounts.)
Yet when opera scholars complain about the stifling and often anachronistic sanctity accorded operatic scores—pointing, among other things, to the far more flexible performance practice in the periods when most of these scores were actually composed—we tend to do so under the assumption that a) audiences are bound to revolt if the score is no longer off limits, and b) as a result the practice rarely happens. We imagine that tinkering with the score will only be accepted as a matter of quiet practicality: cutting longueurs or overly taxing passages (excisions from Tristan perhaps qualifying on both counts), or lowering the key of an aria for an aging star. Brash initiative, on the other hand (filling out Zaïde; writing a new ending to Turandot; aria substitutions), will assuredly run the risk of alienating a reactionary and uneducable public. And any number of operatic scandals in the last couple decades suggest that this assumption was, at least until recently, hardly ill-founded.
It’s in this context that another production from this summer’s festival season made a strong case for revisiting the alleged hostility of opera audiences to interventions on the level of the score—and perhaps even more importantly just how much can be accomplished by these interventions when they’re paired with a similarly rigorous mise-en-scène. The production in question, a Monteverdi cycle directed by Barrie Kosky for the Komische Oper in Berlin last fall, and reprised for their summer festival, listed both Monteverdi and Elena Kats-Chernin as composers. Kats-Chernin didn’t compose much, though, at least in a traditional sense: instead, she provided a new realization and instrumentation of the continuo part to accompany the vocal lines, which were sung in German but otherwise unchanged (the exact edition they used wasn’t specified, though it was announced as an “Urtext”). If it was largely Monteverdi’s notes that were performed, it was Kats-Chernin’s instrumentation that we heard.
Each of the operas, which Kosky staged in three vastly different styles, also had its own, vastly different continuo group. And while a few of the instruments were expected (viol and theorbo), most weren’t: accordion; bandoneon; cimbalom; djose; oud; kora; modern harp, piano, banjo, and electric guitar. At points the continuo group sounded only vaguely unfamiliar (the cimbalom’s twang emerging now and then in L’Orfeo), and at others the effect was delightful shock (some oud-kora duets in Il Ritorno, or, in the same opera, tango rhythms underwritten by a bright, steely piano). One revelation was Orfeo’s Act V aria, accompanied by a solo bandoneon player dangling his legs into the orchestra pit; an unscientific poll supported my contention that we’d just witnessed the discovery of the perfect instrument to maneuver the quicksilver turns in Monteverdi’s score. But more than timbre alone, the effect of hearing these instruments realize Monteverdi’s harmonies was nothing short of radical, especially with the vocal lines sung in German: with far less legato in either the voices or the instruments, and a much more moment-to-moment production of timbre and syllable, it just didn’t sound like Monteverdi for much of the time. It was Monteverdi’s harmonic palette we were hearing, but rendered in strangely atomized successions that simultaneously defamiliarized that palette. The performance fluctuated between an almost-familiar (if German-language) Monteverdi and a multiply-refracted Monteverdi whose unaltered vocal lines sounded all the stranger emerging from a distinctly contemporary set of timbres, rhythms, and phonemes.
The best came at the end, in part because the reorchestration and the staging were essentially inseparable. Kosky’s Poppea was tremendously, and convincingly, bleak in its depiction of a scorched-earth campaign for absolute power. Neither Nero nor Poppea seemed to have a clue what they would do, much less what their relationship would be like, following the coronation. For a while they simply stood there, in modern if not contemporary clothes, sapped of the erotic charge that propelled them up to that point. The infamous duet began: not as unmediated passion but as if it had been conjured through sheer will. There was something intensely generic about the moment, emerging as a formal necessity for these two characters who were no longer sure they needed or even wanted each other any more. First, as Nero and Poppea stood looking straight forward, awkwardly, we heard a few traversals of the ground bass. Then, sheer brilliance: in joined the electric guitar, noodling around, pianissimo, while the lovers attempted to reestablish some connection through determination alone. That the duet now resembled a 70s love ballad seemed precisely the point: citational music for a citational moment. It was funny—deeply so—but also deeply moving and weirdly beautiful as well. And as a moment of operatic dramaturgy—by which I mean both mise-en-scène and music accorded equal freedom—it was exhilarating.
Presumably the Komische Oper’s audience did not anticipate hearing the Poppea duet realized by electric guitar, and it was clear that the house was girding itself for a critical response. Following each of the three Monteverdi/Kats-Chernin performances the dramaturge for the staging hosted a public discussion (this is standard during their summer festival), and during each he was clearly waiting to hear from an enraged public how Monteverdi’s scores—the birth of opera itself!—had been desecrated. He prodded, he appealed to Werktreue, he invoked the certitudes of early music performance practice, but nobody bit. And not just the audience gathered for the public discussions; critics also found little to quibble with. Somehow Monteverdi that rarely sounded like Monteverdi just wasn’t a problem.
So opera scholars may want to take note, if we can train our attention away from the annual scandal watch that accompanies the summer festival season. Obviously it’s a long distance from Monteverdi to Wagner, and from the Komische Oper (recently voted “opera house of the year” by Opernwelt) to Bayreuth. But perhaps not as long as it might seem; even Bayreuth allowed Sebastian Baumgarten, in an otherwise uninteresting Tannhäuser two years ago, to write new material for performance during the intermissions. Regardless, though, and given the very likely possibility that Castorf’s successors in that house will operate under the same decree not to touch the text or the score, the question for those of us who think about operatic performance is whether cursing the intransigence of the operatic establishment is productive—or, given some thrilling new evidence to the contrary, even accurate.