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Opera updates fail because they don't go far enough, not because they're too radical

By John Terauds on May 30, 2013

Michael Meyer's las vegas-set Rigoletto at the Met earlier this season (Metropolitan Opera photo).
Michael Meyer’s Las Vegas Rigoletto at the Met earlier this season (Metropolitan Opera photo).

Now that Against the Grain’s Figaro’s Wedding is icing the Toronto season’s operatic cake, I’d like to put in a word for directors and companies unafraid to fully remake a classic.

Before the exceptionally fine Mozart-via-Joel Ivany and Christopher Mokrzewski last night (my review here), the best update of a core-reperotire opera I’d seen this season was Michael Mayer’s Rat Pack early-1960s Las Vegas take on Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera.

The neon-lit set, the dancing girls, the dissipated guests, and the sleazy-crooner Duke of Mantua were a thrill. Having Gilda’s body stuffed into the trunk of a Cadillac Coupe de Ville was brilliant.

This production was inspired. But not only was the dialogue in Italian, none of it had been changed, which meant there were times when that what we heard didn’t fully mesh with what we were seeing — even taking into account the language.

Why call Rigoletto a jester, when that makes no sense in the new context? A few surgical incisions in the libretto could have definitively established him as the Duke’s hatchet-guy, even while keeping everything in the original Italian.

But the thing is, the choice of language matters, too.

My great grandparents and grandparents were used to hearing opera in their language, as most companies tried hard to find the right match between language and the music everyone would hum on their way home. No need for Surtitles — which had to be invented (in Toronto, by the way) because late-20th century operatic puritans demanded that every work be presented in its original tongue.

People collectively overlooked the fact that Verdi wrote in French for Paris and in Italian for Milan. Instead, the real cognoscenti would start arguing over which version was more authentic.

Most current directors and companies, steeped in this recent tradition, shrink away from the truly radical gesture of presenting an opera in the language of its main audience. The cult of purity and authenticity prevents people from changing anything in the text, so everything that is adapted or modified has to be done in the dressing.

But putting Our Worship, Toronto’s Mayor, in a Prada suit (if that were actually possible) wouldn’t change the person wearing the suit.

Changing a set and costumes while keeping the music and libretto intact sets up all sorts of tensions. It makes it difficult for the engaged audience member to truly suspend disbelief — and, let’s be frank, one has to do a lot of suspending of a lot of disbelief with most late-19th century opera.

Into this palpable tension steps in the Régisseur with a so-called bold vision, which undresses the singers, turns them into sex slaves or fetishists, and consigns a Medieval fairy tale to a concentration camp. Does this resolve it — or make it worse?

Even the tamest operatic updates feature Big Symbols — looming crosses for oppressive morality, liberal splashes of red to foreshadow a tragic end.

But very, very, very few opera presenters have the guts to pull the whole story apart, rewrite the libretto in our language with current references and, through the staging and atmosphere, allow our audience to see itself in what’s happening on stage.

In the case of Figaro’s Wedding, we the audience are the wedding guests. The wedding party are our friends and acquaintances. Figaro’s boss is our boss. This is no desecration of Mozart and da Ponte, but a means of giving their work new life and new meaning. This is what having a living artform means.

Of course, a living artform also means presenting great works of the past in their original, authentic form — and making no apologies for not changing anything from the original composer’s and librettist’s instructions.

It also means commissioning new works from today’s librettists and composers — and making no apologies for challenging opera audience to go along for the ride.

How well do Toronto’s opera presenters measure up to this sort of standard?

John Terauds

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