The “Worst Ever” Carmen — Take Two: A Way Forward

Kelli O’Hara, Renee Fleming, and Joyce DiDonato in “The Hours” [Photo: Evan Zimmerman/Met Opera]

In response to my two-day-old blog about the Met’s “worst ever” Carmen, a prominent European artists’ manager wrote (in an email): “If you would have been forced – as I was from professional duty – to attend productions as Tosca at the Aix-en-Provence Festival (staged Christoph Honoré) or Les Troyens at the Bayerische Staatsoper (staged by the same Christoph Honore) or Aida, again at the Bayerische Staatsoper (staged by Damiano Michieletto), you would understand that opera as we knew it, and as we used to love it, is a dead artistic form. It was poisoned little by little by stage directors who did not like opera and used it for their own purposes. We just have to acknowledge this fact and keep going.”

The conductor Paul Polivnick wrote (on facebook): “We don’t take the Mona Lisa and put her in a psychiatrist’s office so she can have her enigmatic smile analyzed.” Another conductor wrote (via email): “Both this article and your recent articles on [Klaus] Makela brought out what is so wrong in today’s opera and music world. .  . . I have spent decades conducting in Germany and experienced the gamut from wonderful stagings in the [Walter] Felsenstein tradition to the most horrible Regietheater in which the stagings are total perversion and distortions.” (The sentiment of helplessness – from conductors — seems notable to me.)

Conrad L. Osborne, whose opera blog is mandatory reading, most recently observes: “Of all the productions I have written about over the seven years of this series, to say nothing of (I scour the memory bank in vain) those of several earlier decades, this [Carmen] has come the closest to complete separation of eye and ear: its stage world cannot conceivably have generated this music, and Bizet’s music cannot have evoked this stage world. And it is unrelievedly ugly to look at. With Carmen, the Met has hit what we must hope is rock bottom.”

What next? Do we really need to haplessly “acknowledge . . . and keep going”? What am I to make of the many thousands of readers I have suddenly and uncharacteristically acquired via  my recent blogs about the startling resignation of Esa-Pekka Salonen in San Francisco, and the implausible appointment of Klaus Makela in Chicago, and the troubles afflicting the Boston Symphony? Rubber-necking? Or might there be a groundswell of discontent out of which something constructive could emerge?

Here’s an analogy to the degeneration of Regietheater that cripples opera today:

Europe experienced a couple of seismic upheavals during the first half of the twentieth century. The “sweetness and light” of the arts, especially the Germanic arts, seemed discredited. For this and other reasons, a drastic reorientation seemed required. In music, Arnold Schoenberg came up with a new method of composition – with 12-tone rows – that he believed would rescue German music from obsolescence. I know a thing or two about 12-tone composition, having studied it religiously at Swarthmore under a true believer: Claudio Spies. And I became a true believer, too. No longer. It was a wrong turn. And the wrongest turn came in the US, where the historic conditions that produced serial music did not exist. I could name a few 12-tone compositions that deserve to endure – Berg’s Violin Concerto is certainly one, Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon (which I have frequently presented in concert to overwhelming effect) is another. But I cannot think of a single American 12-tone piece of lasting consequence. (Can you?)

And so it is with Regietheater. It was a European product. It never made sense to import it lock, stock, and barrel to the New World. And it remains less embedded in the US – and potentially more possible to ameliorate.

What direction to take? First of all, it seems to me: stagings of opera, whatever else they may be, should be musically literate. I mean: stage directors of opera should be able to read music. They should be able to offer guidance to singers – how to inflect a word or phrase. Just as theater directors do. And ideally they should also work in concert with the conductor at hand. Currently, these conditions seem to me infrequently met at the Met.

When I think back to the 1977 Bayreuth productions I have so often described, one manifest aspect is that Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer were stage directors profoundly conversant with the operas – Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman – at hand. As for Patrice Chereau’s Ring – he shifted the musical and dramatic aesthetic toward modernism. The stage pictures of Richard Peduzzi and the conducting of Pierre Boulez followed suit – the result was an integrated whole. When Chereau’s Siegfried was indisposed, he acted the role himself (with a singer offstage). He had absorbed and memorized every detail, every gesture. 

Commensurately: the director of an opera should make a close study of the work at hand. Self-evidently, this cannot be assumed. With its high tech projections and mobile metallic slabs, the Robert Lepage Ring, at the Met, furnished a notorious example. Reviewing Lepage’s Siegfried for the Times Literary Supplement in 2019, I reported:

“Lepage’s virtual-reality special effects include running water, floating leaves, slimy worms, scampering rodents, and a Forest Bird that sits in Siegfried’s lap. The production works best where it is least intrusive: act one. In act two, the shallow playing space vitiates the expansiveness of Wagner’s forest; the dragon, if impressively large and animated, is neither frightening nor poignant. In act three, the magic fire frames Siegfried’s entire scene with Brȕnnhilde. Wagner asks that it disappear after Siegfried penetrates the flames for a reason: the mountaintop he attains trembles with a preternatural stillness, a preamble to apocalyptic events. This is but one example of Lepage’s failure to listen. Directing his singers in this final scene — the most psychologically complex duet in all opera — he is clueless. [That is: Siegfried and Brunnhilde simply stand and sing.]” 

No less than the Lepage Ring, Carrie Cracknell’s Met Carmen fails every criterion at hand. She not only cancels Bizet’s score. Her “feminist” take – with Carmen a victim of sexist societal norms – is a banal misreading. What’s Carmen about? Here again is Conrad L. Osborne:

“Dramatically, it introduces an agonizing twist on the [generic operatic] narrative: the couple’s bond holds the seed of its own destruction, and tragedy ensues not when one or both partners die in the struggle against antagonist forces, but when one partner kills the other. Musically, it brings an unprecedented depth and darkness to a tone that is predominantly one of brilliant, crowd-pleasing entertainment, and once past the dashed expectations of its first audience, has found no contradiction there. And there is one more layer. While the history of opera is studded with works derived from mythical sources and which take place either in a mythical world or else one wherein mythical figures and disputes govern and/or intrude into the “real” one (opera began that way, after all), there are only a few wherein a central character assumes a legendary status that itself verges on the mythical, and wherein mythical law, subliminally but quite clearly, guides the ‘real world’ action.”

A crucial detail, derived from the Prosper Merimee novella Bizet adapted: Don Jose is himself a renegade outsider. In fact, he’s killed a man and is well capable of doing so again. The mythic tragedy that Jose and Carmen enact, and which Bizet adapts, cannot be reduced to a lesson in victimization without shrinking the characters and miniaturizing their story. 


What is the tone of today’s Metropolitan Opera? I fear that it’s summarized by the success of Kevin Puts’s The Hours. The new Met audience, insofar as it can be glimpsed, seems enraptured by this operatic adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel and its cinematic sequel (with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf).

In Understanding Toscanini (1987), I wrote: “In his landmark 1960 essay ‘Masscult and Midcult,’ Dwight Macdonald, stigmatizing both, wrote of midcult that it has ‘the essential qualities of masscult [but] decently covers them with a cultural figleaf,’ and that it ‘pretends to respect the standards of high culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.’ . . . Midcult’s ambiguity, Macdonald argued, makes it the most insidious cultural stratum: ostensibly raising mass culture, it corrupts – packages and petrifies – high culture. It ‘threatens to absorb both its parents. It may become stabilized as the norm of our culture.’ . . To ponder the health of contemporary operatic and symphonic culture is to ponder the diverse ramifications of a vast, democratized audience headquartered here in the United States.” 

To suggest that The Hours exemplifies midcult may sound gratuitous. It may sound supercilious. This is not a makeshift effort, like Terrence Blanchard’s Champion and The Fire Shut Up in My Bones. It is an opera skilled and clever in many ways. Greg Pierce’s libretto is ingenious. The vocal writing sings, and so does the orchestra. But aspirations outstrip means. Puts’s idiom is fundamentally saccharine. It craves fulfillment in cliché. Does a sung enactment of a three-woman drama pondering Woolf’s MrsDalloway have to end with a vocal trio remembering Der Rosenkavalier?

Invoking Virginia Woolf is false. However unwittingly, it’s opportunistic. The art of Virginia Woolf is nothing like the artifice of Kevin Puts. Read Mrs. Dalloway. Its pronounced musicality – the lyric  free verse of its language – is original. The narrative, though seamlessly bound, bristles with unlikely insights into character and behavior. And Woolf is heedlessly, ruthlessly unsentimental. She abhors cliché.

Is mine an extreme reading of a popular new work? Am I ricocheting off the wall? I recognize my own response in the reviews of Alex Ross in The New Yorker and Oussama Zahr in the New York Times. Self-evidently, they both tried hard to like The Hours more than they could. So did I.

Is The Hours what we want today’s Met to be? Could it be something else? Among the peak frustrations of recent seasons was a new Lohengrin directed by Francois Girard: another dark, dystopic re-imagining of an opera flooded with air and light. It was nevertheless possible to enjoy Piotr Beczala, in the title role, as an “in spite of” accomplishment. Wagner’s poetic ending — the reappearance of the swan – proved magically indestructible; the audience came to life. Thomas Mann somewhere describes Lohengrin as “blue” – a memorable evocation. Black it is not.

Thirty years ago, I encountered a Lohengrin in Seattle directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Ben Heppner sang Lohengrin. The swan, for once, was wholly life-like. Its reappearance at the close consummated a moment purely Wagnerian. To paraphrase my viral  Tannhäuser blog: as with the cataclysmic climax of the Venusberg orgy in the Met’s Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen Tannhäuser (its sudden transformation to a green valley and piping Shepherd Boy), a credulous rendering, abetted by Wagner’s musical imagination, proved as breathtaking today as in times past. 

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Lohengrin (Ben Heppner) and the swan [photo: Chris Bennion]

It was Speight Jenkins, the Seattle Opera’s general manager from 1983 to 2014, who engaged Wadsworth and (I have no doubt) requested a credible swan. But Jenkins’ real find was the Swiss director Francois Rochaix. Rochaix’s Seattle Ring of the Nibelung, lucidly designed by Robert Israel, was the most memorable of my experience. He also staged Parsifal and Die Meistersinger in Seattle. His version of Regietheater was musical, assiduous, and original, scrupulous and creative in equal measure. 

Jenkins went his own way. An impassioned, informed Wagnerite, he built on the Seattle Wagner festivals of his predecessor, Glynn Ross. He made the Seattle Opera the Wagner capital of the Western hemisphere. Beholden to no one, defying fashion, he set parameters. He refused to denigrate the operas with imputations of anti-Semitism or sexism. He shrunk the house and enhanced its acoustics. He was omnipresent in the lobbies, in the community. In Wagner Nights: An American History (1994), I summarized: “Rochaix’s response [to Wagner] is not esoteric but fresh, not complex but sincere. And the same can be said for the Seattle Wagner enterprise as a whole. Jenkins has aimed for a balanced Wagner ensemble. He has not courted celebrity performers, pedigreed by Deutsche Grammophon, Salzburg, and Columbia Artists Management. Rather, he has stressed world-class Ring lectures, four-hour Ring symposia, and a serious bookstore. His English supertitles, an innovation so far shunned by the Met, transformed the ambience of the house. . . . Something special has been rekindled: a company whose mission transcends self-promulgation.” 

It can be done.

EXTRA CREDIT: Two memories of Francois Rochaix’s Seattle Wagner productions:

— The Rochaix “Ring” showed how a bold exercise in Regietheater can at the same time remain keenly attuned to Wagner’s synthesis of the arts. I write in “The Post-Classical Predicament” (1995 — reprising a long article “On Staging Wagner’s ‘Ring’” in “Opus” Magazine, April 1987):

To underline Siegfried’s coming of age, Rochaix inserts a touching pantomime . . . just after Siegfried penetrates the Magic Fire: he envisions his father’s murder, his mother’s death in childbirth, Fafner’s warning, and the Forest Bird’s summons. Fortified by new self-knowledge, he tentatively kisses Brunnhilde. Rochaix’s handling of this long final scene is so honest that for once Siegfried’s astonished exclamation ‘Das is kein Mann!’ is astonishing, not comic. Disregarding Wagner, Rochaix has Siegfried flee his awakened bride; when Brunnhilde sings ‘Wer ist der Held, der mich erweckt?’ [‘Who is the hero who has awakened me?’], he stands, terrified, well outside her field of vision. Brunnhilde’s gradual transformation from goddess to woman, Siegfried’s coming to terms with adult feelings, their growing proximity, mutual awareness, and commitment — Rochaix’s detailed understanding of all of this, his use of blocking and gestural detail to bind the momentous, compressed emotional scenario, is a triumph of creative empathy.

Many at Seattle found Siegfried’s interpolated pantomime/vision intrusive. The problem is partly Wagner’s; his layoff partway through act 2 of Siegfried created discontinuities in the Ring. In particular, Siegfried and Brunnhilde became somewhat different personalities. Rochaix’s masque intelligently attempts to explain the new Siegfried, whom Brunnhilde eventually praises for his loyalty and valor.

For more than a decade I regularly reviewed music books and New York operatic performances for the Times Literary Supplement (UK). This was before the internet – to my knowledge, these articles have not been digitized. Here’s my review, from August 2003, of Francois Rochaix’s Seattle Opera “Parsifal” production:

For most of the twentieth century, opera in the United States was synonymous with the New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Nowhere else was anything like a fulltime opera season sustained for decades without interruption. Only in Chicago and San Francisco was a local tradition of opera-giving substantially implanted. But beginning in the 1960s regional companies began to grow dramatically in number, size, and achievement. In 1987 the Met abandoned its annual national tour. Concurrently, English-language supertitles everywhere won converts to opera as theater. Today, America’s leading regional opera companies have acquired unprecedented individuality and sophistication – and nowhere more than in Seattle, which now boasts North America’s leading Wagner house.

The Seattle Opera began presenting summer cycles of the Ring of the Nibelung in 1975 under Glynn Ross, an entrepreneurial visionary who started from scratch. Ross’s successor as of 1983, Speight Jenkins, is also a zealous Wagnerite (he closes the office for Wagner’s birthday). Jenkins opted for a more ambitious Ring, one he could not afford to mount every summer, but more carefully cast, more strongly conducted, and more provocatively staged. The resulting 1986 cycle, directed by Francois Rochaix and designed by Robert Israel, was a landmark event. If the influence of Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth centenary Ring was discernible, in most respects Rochaix (best-known in his native Switzerland) and Israel (then keenly associated with Philip Glass’s Satyagraha) went their own way. Such signature images as the airborne carousel horses ridden by the Valkyries achieved an iconic intensity.

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Met entrusted its Ring and three other Wagner operas to Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and Otto Schenk. The goal was something like the naturalism Wagner himself prescribed, abetted by modern stage technology. The outcome fulfilled Wieland Wagner’s prediction that “a naturalistic set today would simply destroy an illusion, not create one.” Seeking authenticity, Schenk assumed that sin and redemption were concepts whose self-sufficient meanings could shock and inspire as Victorian audiences were shocked and inspired when the Ring and Parsifal were new.

Jenkins mounted fresh Seattle productions of The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Tristan between 1984 and 1998. He also, in 2001, unveiled a new, hyper-realistic Ring conceived by Stephen Wadsworth – a production [which I reviewed for the TLS] both more beautiful than the Met’s and more meddlesome in its psychological portraiture. This summer, Seattle finally completed its traversal of the Wagner canon with a work never before given locally: Parsifal. As the production was assigned to Rochaix and Israel, and happened to coincide with the opening of a new home for the company, expectations ran high: as at Bayreuth in 1882, Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel inaugurated the hall.

The former Seattle Opera House, a product of the 1962 World’s Fair, was merely functional. The Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, on the same site, is in every way an improvement. From stage and pit, the sound is more vivid than before. The voices project easily. The excellent orchestra – mainly members of the Seattle Symphony — has acquired new tonal richness and depth. Visually, the new building seems as airy and spacious as the old one felt ponderous and square. Though the seating capacity has been only slightly reduced – from 3,017 to 2,900 — the gain in intimacy is notable. The central downstairs seating space is narrower, flanked by more sharply raked seats themselves flanked by – the most arresting touch – “floating” boxes rising in a diagonal along the side walls.

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“Parsifal” in Seattle (2003), designed by Robert Israel (photo: Chris Bennion)

The new Parsifal is a more qualified triumph. Jenkins wanted a production that did not underline the work’s decadence or loudly infer racism. He wished to afford his first-time Parsifal audience a positive experience of Wagner’s confusing final opus. At the same time, in engaging Rochaix, he was certain not to obtain a whitewash.

Rochaix dispenses with obvious effects and cheap thrills: the cup does not glow red; the spear is not caught in mid-air. A non-sectarian universality is stressed. The costumes are as often Eastern as Western. The flower maidens include an American flapper and an Arabian Scheherazade. What most stays in the mind’s eye, and teases the brain, is the treatment of the grail knights: a motley assemblage of robed Middle Eastern types, including some whose trance-like gestures and gyrations connote a religious fundamentalism much in the news today. These tableaus are executed with exceptional conviction and attention to detail. They achieve an authentic strangeness – and also insure that we are not to equate holiness with wholesomeness.

Israel’s sets are typically spare. The transformation scenes are chiefly achieved by moving a gigantic slab of stage into a vertical position. Klingsor’s wooden tower occupies the full height of the stage; its “destruction” entails a startling 47-foot descent into the bowels of the theater. A striking inspiration is the macabre coffin/crib in which Titurel sits erect, a severe presence counterposed with his wayward son. In place of scenery, the production mainly opts for color-saturated images produced and manipulated by digital projectors from a behind a screen forming the back of the set. To begin act two, before the prelude in the pit, the ruddy mountain range of act one is digitally rotated to reveal the parched landscape – the mountain’s other side — of Klingsor’s realm. The projectors offer a verdant Classical version of the magic garden – which blurs when Parsifal strives fruitlessly to remember “what I have forgotten” and cannot. Destroyed, the garden digitally decomposes.

A special strength of Rochaix’s Ring was his penchant for adding eloquent witnesses to the action – Wotan, vigilant in a side-stage chair, unforgettably followed the actions of his harried and beloved offspring during Die Walküre act one. Rochaix similarly situates Kundry in a peripheral space, where her act one presence is prolonged beyond the exit specified by Wagner. Amfortas appears, ghost-like, while Kundry administers her seductive act two kiss. When Parsifal returns to Monsalvat in act three, the squires, richly differentiated, gather excitedly to follow the benedictions bestowed by Gurnemanz and Kundry. Far from constraining the singers, these additions, subtly choreographed, create fresh opportunities for characterization while inviting empathy on stage and off.

Of the principal singers, Stephen Milling achieves greatness as Gurnemanz. Like Germany’s René Pape, this young Danish bass, whose Seattle Fasolt and Hunding two summers ago (his American debut) announced the arrival of a major singing actor, has everything: voice, presence, intellect. Not yet 40, he has mastered the long act one narratives: every word, every gesture tells. He credibly impersonates an old man in act three. During the Good Friday music, his large, full-featured face is as expressive an instrument as his huge voice. He next sings Gurnemanz at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2005.

The Parsifal of Britain’s Christopher Ventris is also a major achievement, magnificently acted and strongly sung. Greer Grimsley, the Amfortas (and a Seattle mainstay), was indisposed on August 16; his cover, Gary Simpson, was in every way impressive. Willa Cather, in an indelible 1916 commentary, called Kundry “a summary of the history of womankind,” and continued: “[Wagner] sees in her an instrument of temptation, of salvation, and of service; but always an instrument, a thing driven and employed. . . . She cannot possibly be at peace with herself.” Describing the Kundry of Olive Fremstad, the Met’s principal Wagner soprano from 1903 to 1914 and the Callas of her day, Cather wrote that she “preserves the integrity of the character through all its changes. In the last act, when Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and dries them with her hair, she is the same driven creature, dragging her long past behind her, an instrument made for purposes eternally contradictory. . . . Who can say what memories of Klingsor’s garden are left on the renunciatory hands that wash Parsifal’s feet?” The tragic entrapment of this extraordinary Wagner creation eludes Linda Watson in the Seattle production. Having sung the role in Bayreuth, New York, and Berlin, she is a singer conscientious, sincere, and skilled. But she lacks the demonic. Rochaix does not help by replacing Kundry’s expiration at the opera’s close with an ecstatic tableau in which she lifts the sacred spear alongside Parsifal and the uplifted grail. Both Kundry and her fate are made to seem the more conventional.

Seattle’s conductor is an Israeli, Asher Fisch, who has led Parsifal in Vienna, Dresden, and Berlin. His authority is evident. Not the least satisfactory aspect of Wagner in Seattle is the audience. Jenkins provides a full menu of pre-performance lectures and post-performance discussions, two symposia, and a CD companion. His audience trusts him, and also Wagner. Once past the prelude, there is no coughing. When people applaud, they mean it.

Another manifestation of loyalty is the new hall itself: of its $127 million cost, more than $70 million comes from non-governmental sources. At a time when other American opera companies are reeling from the recession – Chicago Lyric, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have all cancelled major productions – Jenkins has balanced his budget 12 years in a row, a feat the more remarkable given the collapse of the local economy, with its dependence on .com companies and a Boeing plant greatly diminished in scope and personnel. The summer’s nine Parsifal performances were 85 per cent sold out. The paucity of non-North American visitors – about 1 per cent — was notable.

Wagnerites from outside the United States and Canada should know that the Wadsworth Ring will be repeated in summer 2005 under Robert Spano. Other Seattle Wagner productions will be reprised in the summers of 2004, 2006, and 2008.

Two postscripts complete this American Parsifal report. This past spring, for the first time since 1974, someone other than James Levine led Parsifal at the Met. The someone was Valery Gergiev, and he breathed new life into a tired and tedious production. Gergiev is always heard to best advantage in New York with his own Kirov company. On this occasion, something like the dark ceremonial majesty of a Kirov Boris or Khovantschina was frequently suggested. Also new to the Met Parsifal were René Pape’s Gurnemanz and Falk Struckmann’s Amfortas – unsurpassed characterizations.

Also: thanks to, the complete Wagner recordings made by Leopold Stokowski for RCA between 1921 and 1940 are now readily available in a 5-CD box (AND1130). These performances document the Philadelphia Orchestra in its peak estate (of which Rachmaninoff said: “Philadelphia has the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life. I don’t know that I would be exaggerating if I said that it is the finest orchestra the world has ever heard”). And they document the most anomalous of all the great Wagner conductors: a New World original, the ultimate sonic sybarite. Stokowski’s 40 minutes of Parsifal excerpts constitute the most beautiful Parsifal performance on records – even, I would say, the most beautifully sung (though there are no human voices). As surely as Karl Muck at Bayreuth keyed on the drama’s ascetic hero, Stokowski singularly inhabits Klingsor and his magic garden.

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