One of the more amusing hazards of producing opera in Great Britain is the
occasional backstage visit of a royal patron. As she makes her way down
the awkwardly curtseying line of principals, often more lavishly dressed
than the titled visitor, aides and equerries who bring up the rear politely
quiz the producer about his job. "Presumably you have to be here every
night." "No, not exactly." "Oh really! I thought you
had to stand in the wings and tell the singers where to go." "Well,
the thing is they know that by the time we open." "I see. Then
what is it you producer chaps actually do?" Well, yes, that is the
The difficulty is that unless you attend rehearsals day by day, not to
mention the many discussions during which the design is worked out, it's
quite hard to identify those aspects of a performance for which the producer
is responsible. The conductor is visible throughout the show and the audience
can see, or more often than not, thinks it can see his contribution to
the evening's events. The same goes for the singers. And although he's
not present in person, the work of the designer is there to be seen and
often applauded before there are any signs of what you might call production.
In fact unless the settings and costumes onspicuously depart from tradition,
in which case the producer is usually blamed for encouraging such istracting
anomalies, it's widely assumed that the design is immaculately conceived
before he arrives and that otherwise his work is confined to telling the
singers "where to go."
As it is, there was a time, little more than a hundred years ago, when
operas, like plays, got themselves on without the help of a producer and
there was, as yet, no distinction between the work and how it was put
on. The reason is that throughout the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth
century a large proportion of the repertoire consisted of works appearing
for the first time, and since their staging was unconditionally determined
by the theatrical conventions which the composer and librettist would
have had in mind when they wrote the work, production as we now think
of it wasn't an issue.
The emergence of mise en scene as something requiring a credit in the
program is associated with the development of a repertoire in which operas
with an intermittent history of previous productions began to outnumber
new ones, a tendency which has now reached the point where so-called classics
fill the season and the presentation of original works is a relatively
rare event. I'm not suggesting that this was enough to account for the
appearance of an unmistakably auteur style. On the contrary, the once-unimaginable
policy of reviving operas from the past was well established by the time
audiences had occasion to applaud or deplore something which had been
"done" to an old favorite. Nevertheless, until operas were given
the opportunity of becoming "old favorites," that is to say,
until they began to have a recurrent life in the theater, so that there
was now a prospect of their being revived in a cultural environment that
was recognizably different from the one in which they were first performed,
it's difficult to imagine how regie, or production, would have got going,
let alone assume the controversial importance it now has. Because it's
only by outlasting the period for which it was created that a play or
an opera runs the risk of being perceived under a different theatrical
Depending on the length of time between its initial run and what one
could reasonably describe as its first revival, an opera will eventually
disclose, or seem to disclose, aspects which would have been invisible
and perhaps unintelligible at the time of its premiere. And if, as in
many cases, the original production has already been dismantled and forgotten,
there will be an understandable temptation to start from scratch and develop
previously unimaginable stage versions.
The traditionalists would argue that this temptation should be resisted
at all costs and that the producer should assume the role of a self-effacing
restorer, bending his ingenuity, such as it is, to the faithful reproduction
of the staging which realized the composer's original intentions. "You
wouldn't repaint Piero's Miracle of the True Cross, so what gives you
the right to vandalize Rigoletto by setting it in anything other than
On the face of it this sounds like a reasonable argument and yet the
examples are not strictly comparable. In the case of a painting, the artwork
is nothing more and nothing less than the unique object bequeathed to
posterity by its maker. Additional marks made by anyone other than the
artist automatically compromise its autographic identity. But when it
comes to plays, operas, or symphonies, where it's impossible to identify
the work with any particular artifact, it's difficult to say what, if
anything, would count as an act of vandalism. Since it would undoubtedly
be an act of vandalism to destroy a painting, and thereby deprive posterity
of its continued existence, might one also say that it would be vandalism
to conclude the first run of an opera without the guarantee of future
performances? After all there is a sense in which an opera ceases to exist
after what might be its last performance ever. But not really, because
in contrast to a painting, which is irretrievably annihilated when the
artwork is destroyed, the score of an opera outlives what might be its
last performance, so that there is always the possibility of its being
revived at a later date.
Is there any way in which one could vandalize the score then, thereby
compromising the identity of its subsequent performances? Someone could
deface or otherwise modify the composer's autograph anuscript and that,
as J.L. Austin might have said, would be a crying shame, but since there
are probably authenticated copies of the original, nothing would be lost
apart from the admittedly priceless example of the composer's hand. Because
scores and scripts are nothing more than instructions, and as long as
a copy legibly reproduces what the original manuscript specified, the
fact that it is printed rather than handwritten is neither here nor there.
In that respect the situation is comparable to the reproduction of biologica
organisms, in which the development of each short-lived organism represents
th "performance" of an inherited script. With the death of the
organism, a particula performance vanishes forever, but since the genetic
instructions are copied and hande on, the possibility of future "performances"
is guaranteed. This doesn't mean that eac individual is an exact copy
of its predecessor and that what August Weissmann calle the continuity
of the germ plasm implies invariability from one generation to the next
On the contrary, even if one ignores the heritable variations introduced
by sexua reproduction, not to mention unsolicited mutations?for neither
of which there is an equivalent in the case of scripts or scores?the way
in which the inherited instruction are expressed or realized is strongly
influenced by the environment
That is why biologists recognize the distinction between the genotype
and the phenotype. The genotype, which is represented in and by the biochemically
coded chromosomes, dictates what type of individual will develop, i.e.,
what species it belongs to. However, the physical circumstances in which
development proceeds exerts a significant effect upon the individual expression
of these instructions. For example, in certain aquatic plants, the leaves
which develop beneath the surface of the water are finely dissected or
feathery, whereas the leaves which develop above the surface of the water
have a more rounded outline. And yet both sets of leaves inherit the same
packet of genetic instructions.
Although this is a helpful analogy, it can't be taken too far because
the expression of genetic instructions is a mindless process, whereas
the performance of a score or of a script is cognitively mediated. That
is to say, it's the result of conscious interpretation on the part of
someone for whom the instructions mean something. In which case the traditionalist
would insist that the composer's meaning should take precedence and that
even if the circumstances are different, the producer has an inescapable
duty to honor the original intention. The bother is that it's not all
that easy to see how this self-denying principle could be realized.
One method might be as follows. Since the composer was presumably present
throughout the rehearsals of his work and was therefore in a position
to advise and object, it seems reasonable to assume that the inaugural
production captured and expressed most of what he meant, so that the decent
thing would be to reproduce this approved prototype as closely as possible.
In other words we're talking about reviving an opera by restoring a particular
production of it. This is something with which modern opera houses are
all too familiar, although not for the reasons I've just described. Let
me explain. Apart from mounting brand new productions of operas which
have already had previous but now defunct revivals, managements fill out
their seasons with frequent revivals of old but still-extant productions.
Thus, in any given year, we might have the tenth revival of so-and-so's
twenty-year-old production of Cav and Pag, say, or the third revival of
some other producer's version of La Boheme, and so on.
Now, with their sets and costumes still in existence, not to mention
videotapes of the performances, you'd think it was easy to resuscitate
any one of these productions. Well, up to a point. The success of the
enterprise depends, to some extent at least, on how much time has passed
since the last revival of the production in question. As long as they
have been carefully maintained, the set and costumes will look just as
they once did, but recovering the performance is another matter altogether.
In all probability the cast will have changed in the interim and it would
be insulting to ask the new singers to watch the videotape and imitate
what their predecessors did. Even if you could persuade them to try, copying
what someone else is doing is more complicated than reproducing their
The movements have to be recognized as meaningful, and although this
may be self-evident you can never be sure. It needs someone who was there
at the time to explain what was meant and what was actually going on.
More often than not the original producer who might have explained is
otherwise engaged, and the assistant who deputizes for him is not necessarily
competent to put the case in his own words. And what's worse, if the assistant
is new to the production, he or she is back to square one when it comes
to interpreting the helpful recording. The result is that with each subsequent
revival the staging drifts further and further away from the prototype.
If this can happen with a relatively recent production, that is to say,
one that ha been dormant for little more than five years, imagine the
difficulty of reinstating th now defunct but supposedly authentic inaugural
production. After a hundred years o more, the set and costumes will have
vanished without a trace, there never was videotape, and in all probability
there's not even a prompt copy which might have sai where the long-dead
singers "went" and why they did so
But even if there were some unachievably magical technique for overcoming
these difficulties, so that the inaugural production could be restored
in all its pristine authenticity, the chances are that the intended meanings
it so eloquently expressed at the time would no longer communicate themselves
to a modern audience. Theatrically speaking, the production would seem
quaint and antiquated. Oddly enough this doesn't apply to musical restoration.
On the contrary, recent efforts to bring back so-called original orchestrations
have proved remarkably successful, especially when it comes to the baroque
repertoire. After nearly three hundred years of almost silent hibernation
the musical performance of Monteverdi's operas has been lovingly restored,
and far from sounding quaint, the scores played on original instruments
strike an altogether refreshing note. And yet, even for audiences who
pay lip service to the notion of conservation, the occasional attempts
to reinstate a correspondingly authentic staging of L'Incoronazione di
Poppea, say, have been much less successful.
However, I suspect that this has something to do with the unfamiliar
artificiality of baroque stagecraft, and that when audiences insist upon
authenticity, what they are actually expressing is a preference for the
picturesque realism exemplified by the traditional though not necessarily
authentic staging of nineteenth-century historical operas. Even so, if
you are prepared to put up with the initial fuss, it's surprisingly easy
to persuade an apparently conservative audience that there's a legitimate
alternative to the stagings that they would regard as canonical.
When I joined the English National Opera twenty years ago, the idea of
doing Rigoletto in anything other than doublet and hose would have been
inconceivable, and when I managed to persuade Lord Harewood that a Godfather
version set in Little Italy would capture Verdi's meanings just as well,
there was general consternation among the subscribers. In the event, though,
the gamble paid off, and before long this glaringly inauthentic production
settled down to become a steady favorite and after at least ten revivals
it still plays to packed houses.
A few years later I pitted my efforts against the notorious conservatism
of an Italian audience, this time with a production of Tosca. As soon
as the news leaked out that an upstart English producer was about to transpose
the opera into the world of Rossellini's Open City, there was an indignant
outcry from the local public. We were threatened with mass picketing and
the Christian Democrats in the Florence Commune discussed the withdrawal
of the municipal subsidy. On opening night, the tension backstage was
something I'll always remember. And yet when the curtain came down three
hours later, the applause was deafening and the production was revived
in the following year without a murmur.
I boastfully include these examples to suggest that the proof of the
pudding is in the eating and that the notion of "limits," so
often cited by the traditionalists, is more or less meaningless. At the
same time, I have to admit that there are productions which undeniably
"mess up" the work, not by going too far, but by the clumsy
application of what is tendentiously claimed to be a concept. In Germany
for example, where I was once warned in all seriousness that without a
"concept" I would have "great problematics with my praxis,"
productions are often disfigured by half-baked political ideas, such as
the one I was offered as an explanation for a recent version of Figaro.
When I asked why the characters wore their eighteenth-century clothes
inside out, I was pityingly informed that it symbolized the corruption
of pre-revolutionary society and that it was after all the English who
had coined the phrase "the seamy side of life."
Although the example I've just cited is self-evidently absurd, it is
symptomatic of a misconceived urge to exploit "theory" in the
name of relevance. The fact is that one way or another, I have always
had "problematics with my praxis," not, as predicted, because
I'm reluctant to exploit concepts, but because unless you're a naive traditionalist,
there is something inescapably problematic about reviving operas from
the distant past. But it's a question of thoughtfulness rather than theory.
Figar for example is too delicate to bear the weight of a "concept,"
especially if it encourages the producer to illustrate the corruption
of the period or to represent the hero as a sans-culotte manque who knows
that his master's days are numbered. As with The Cherry Orchard, the characters'
blissful ignorance of the forthcoming revolution lends the opera an irresistible
autumnal melancholy, which the audience supplies without having to be
didactically nudged. And as for the supposedly invidious social relationships,
they speak for themselves, as long as the producer has taken the trouble
to represent the now well-documented details of domestic life in an aristocratic
The questions that interest me may seem trivial, but when you add them
all together you have a reasonable chance of creating an intelligible
social life, from which the audience is free to infer some political significance.
What services does Susanna provide for her mistress? Where would she fetch
the water for the Countess's morning toilet? Chardin provides a useful
picture of a maid stooping to fill a jug from a large copper cistern.
And then there's the room which the Count has so helpfully provided for
the newly engaged couple. How would it be furnished apart from the bed
mentioned at the beginning? The prompt reply to each of the two bells
suggests that Figaro and Susanna will live and sleep where they work,
and that in turn means that ironing, needlework, and tailor's dummies
will be in evidence, not to mention wig stands and neatly piled changes
of bed linen. In other words it's a storeroom and a workshop with precious
little space for the letto matrimoniale.
And what happens if you introduce the Countess's children? Admittedly
they're not explicitly mentioned in the libretto, but at the same time
there's nothing to suggest that they don't exist, and since the Countess
conceives a child by Cherubino in the third play of Beaumarchais's trilogy,
it would be rather odd if she'd failed to produce legitimate offspring.
In any case it's a reasonable possibility, and as soon as you allow these
unmentioned children, a girl of six, say, and perhaps a baby of six months,
something intriguing starts to happen, especially if the two children
are ushered in and hustled out during the long introduction to the Countess's
second-act aria. We know, for example, that few if any upper-class women
suckled their own babies, and since toddlers were taken back to the nursery
as soon as they'd paid their respects in the morning, the entrance and
exit of these unexpected infants stresses the solitude which gives rise
to the memorable lament which follows. It's hardly surprising that, neglected
by her husband and denied the comforting intimacy of her own children,
the Countess is so friendly with her maid. Who else can she talk to? At
the same time, decorum requires Susanna to unquestioningly obey her mistress's
peremptory demand for a bandage and a nightcap. Between Figaro and the
Count there is a comparably subtle interplay of deference and defiance,
all of which demands minute attention to the Goffmanesque rituals of their
Taken one by one, none of these carefully encouraged details would be
conspicuous by their absence, but when they are all included, along with
many other social observations, the cumulative effect is quite remarkable.
Almost effortlessly, the audience gets the uncanny impression of spending
one long summer's day in the otherwise unvisitable past.
Although this reticent strategy works quite nicely with an opera set
in a world wit which the composer and librettist would have been personally
acquainted, a wor such as The Magic Flute requires a more managerial attitude
on the part of the producer. For all its magnificent music, the Flute
can be a tedious theatrical experience, particularly when the Egyptian
setting is taken literally. With its deadening solemnities, punctuated
by magical high jinks and routine comic shtick, the opera can come across
as a priestly prank with a message. You can get some idea of what the
traditionalists expect from the question that the management invariably
put to the producer who's been invited to stage The Magic Flute. "How,"
they ask, "are you going to bring on the Queen of the Night?"
The suggestion that she might walk on is usually met with shocked disbelief.
"How can that be? You can't ask someone like that to walk on!"
And indeed in traditional productions she enters on something that looks
like a Mardi Gras float, as if she's topping the bill in Aztec Night at
the Copacabana?a bizarre hybrid of Yma Sumac and Carmen Miranda. That,
apparently, is how "someone like that" is expected to get onto
Now although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the entry of
the Queen of the Night is the key to an acceptable production, it's unarguably
true that the way in which she enters depends on the sort of character
she's supposed to be, which means, in turn, that the producer has to identify
or perhaps stipulate the possible world in which she occurs. The possibilities
are somewhat limited by the fact that, as its title implies, the opera
requires an unavoidable element of magic. Even so, if one makes a serious
effort to visualize what Mozart and Schikaneder might have meant when
they went to such lengths to include the Freemasons, the chances are that
more significant aspects of the eighteenth-century mind would become visible.
At the risk of recommending the usefulness of a "concept," I
would suggest that The Magic Flute is an opera for which indirect references
to the French Revolution might be helpful and indeed legitimate.
In contrast to Figaro, which was composed in ignorance of these forthcoming
events, Flute was written eighteen months after the fall of the Bastille,
and since he died before the onset of the Terror, Mozart might have felt,
as Wordsworth did, that it was bliss "in that dawn to be alive."
In fact, as Jean Starobinski points out, the opposing themes of darkness
and light are too frequently repeated to be an accident.[*] With Sarastro's
triumphant declaration that "the rays of the sun have driven away
the darkness of night," it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that,
in some respects at least, The Magic Flute is a millennial work, celebrating
the rebirth of humanity under the auspices of Reason and Justice. In which
case, the Masonic chorus can shed its implausible Egyptian "drag,"
and appear instead as the enlightened eighteenth-century gentlemen Mozart
and Schikaneder would have known as fellow members of the Viennese Lodge.
No need now for that pompous pantomime which opens the second act. The
scene is more convincingly realized by re-creating something like John
Trumbull's tableau of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
With these adjustments, the rest of the production starts to fall into
place. B representing the Masons as they would have been at the end of
the eighteenth century a production can eliminate the Temple and replace
it with a Masonic Library, base on the designs of Ledoux or Boullee. During
the overture, Tamino begins to drows over his occult literature and the
serpent, like other monsters bred by the sleep o reason, emerges from
Now, at last we can reinvent the Queen of the Night, so that she can
get onto the stage without wheeled transport. If Sarastro is the Master
of an enlightened Lodge, it seems reasonable to represent his opponent
in comparably naturalistic terms?as a Catholic monarch of the ancien regime,
reminiscent of the Empress Maria Theresa, whose raid on the Viennese Lodge
may have been the inspiration for the penultimate scene of the opera.
Papageno is another character who would almost certainly benefit from
this type of treatment. He is, after all, the epitome of Rousseau's "natural
man," so that although he catches birds, there's no conceivable reason
why he should look like one, and once he sheds those wretched feathers,
his otherwise insufferable cuteness vanishes, and instead of Tweety-Pie,
what we see is an amiable eighteenth-century peasant, happy, by his own
admission, to live by eating and drinking. All at once he becomes an intelligible
and interesting contrast to the princely figure of Tamino, and we can
readily sympathize with his common-sense refusal to obey the vows of silence.
Apart from the fact that it would probably disappoint audiences conditioned
to visualize it as a fairy tale, the disadvantage of naturalizing The
Magic Flute to the extent I just described is that it requires a certain
amount of ingenuity to reconcile it with some of the distinctly unnatural
events that take place in the opera?the serpent, for example, the musically
enchanted animals, and of course the unarguably supernatural ordeals of
Fire and Water. These episodes, which would be perfectly acceptable in
the dateless elsewhen of "once upon a time," seem slightly out
of order in the world of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This difficulty
is easily overcome by bracketing the whole production within a dream,
in which, as in a fairy story, anything goes.
When it comes to most of the other works in the standard repertoire,
the producer is faced with a different type of problem altogether, though
judging by the productions to be seen all too often in the more conservative
houses, the difficulty I have in mind is scarcely acknowledged, let alone
dealt with. With certain conspicuous exceptions?La Traviata, for example?in
which the action could have taken place around the time when the opera
was written, most of the works in the standard repertoire refer to a previous
period, sometimes several centuries earlier, and with the benefit of informed
hindsight, or perhaps just the distant vantage point of the early twenty-first
century, it becomes increasingly apparent that the events that are represented,
and above all the sentiments that are expressed, are completely at odds
with what we now know about the bygone world in which they're supposed
Like the novels of Walter Scott, from which so many of their plots are
derived these operas represent the past in a characteristically nineteenth-century
Romanti fashion, so that when they're staged conventionally, the productions
tend to resembl the floridly picturesque tableaus of the French salon,
projecting the pompier style of painters such as Hayez and Delaroche.
The difficulty is that if, in the understandable effort to avoid such
kitsch, the producer commissions more accurate decor, that is to say decor
which is historically authentic rather than operatically authentic, the
result is not much better, since the appearance of the stage is now conspicuously
inconsistent with what sounds like a nineteenth-century melodrama.
One way of dodging this difficulty is to do the work in concert or, as
they say, "semi-staged." An opera such as Il Trovatore, say,
or La Forza del Destino, whose claim to the title "historical"
is paradoxically compromised by what is fondly supposed to be a realistic
production, can often achieve an unexpectedly truthful effect when it's
performed in front of the orchestra without costumes or decor, but with
the singers allowed a modicum of acting. By the same token, although the
paying public never sees it, the final run-through in the rehearsal room
is often much more convincing than the lavishly scenic production
which appears in front of an audience a few days later on the stage. With
the entrances and exits marked out with tape on the floor, and perhaps
a few token walls knocked together out of plywood, the action has a forceful
intensity soon to be subverted by the spectacular "period" decor
which audiences love to applaud as the curtain goes up.
I'm not recommending these as substitutes for fully staged productions,
but something valuable is to be learned from such makeshift simplicity.
Apart from the fact that it avoids some of the awkward aesthetic contradictions
I've already mentioned, the relatively unfurnished mise en scene allows
the action to sing for itself, and as Peter Brook's productions at the
Bouffes du Nord in Paris show again and again, the "empty space"
dignifies the performer and restores some sort of mystery to the peculiar
art of pretending to be someone else.
Nevertheless, I admit that audiences who pay what they maddeningly refer
to a "good money" for their operatic entertainment would probably
feel cheated by suc austerity, and many of the sponsors, if they hadn't
vetoed the production to begin with would go ape on the first night. In
which case there has to be some other way o breathing life into the increasingly
effete genre of nineteenth-century historical opera I'm not seriously
suggesting the Marx brothers, though as we know from A Night at the Opera
they certainly helped to give Trovatore a lift. No, I'm referring to the
widely exploited and deeply resented technique of "updating."
This can take one of two forms, the most controversial of which is straightforward
modernization. An opera which now seems quaint and somewhat awkward when
staged in the period in which it's supposed to occur can often achieve
a remarkable vigor when the action is brought forward to the present day
or at least sometime within living memory.
Unlike some of my colleagues, for whom the destination of such impudent
time travel is right now or not at all, I prefer to stop several decades
short of today, if only to preserve a sense of historical distance or
"otherness" comparable to the one unconsciously intended by
the composer and his librettist when they backdated the action. So, as
in the examples I cited earlier, I shifted Rigoletto no further than the
1950s and my production of Tosca was set ten years earlier. My production
of La Boheme came to what I regarded as an interesting halt in 1930, carefully
based on what now look like "period" photographs of Brassai,
Doisneau, and Kertesz. And in order to avoid the touristic Spain of some
of the more traditional productions, I packed off Carmen for a relatively
short journey into the Seville of Cartier-Bresson. The Mikado, whose inaugural
production is the subject of Mike Leigh's current film Topsy-Turvy, survived
its loss of Japanese decor and flourished when I transposed it into the
Fredonia of Duck Soup. I can still recall the incredulous laughter when
Eric Idle, playing KoKo, opened the letter from the Mikado and said indignantly,
"I can't read this, it's in Japanese!"
There are, of course, many operas whose plots are such that they obstinately
resist transposition, especially when they happen to include well-known
historical characters such as Anne Boleyn or Mary Stuart. Neither of these
Tudor queens "travels" well. Apart from the fact that they are
celebrities famously stuck in their own time, there is no way in which
they or anyone else could plausibly lose their heads on arrival in the
If these and other anachronisms compromise the credibility of the piece,
there is no point in bringing the opera up to date, since one of the purposes
of doing so is to reduce the dramatic inconsistencies associated with
the traditional setting. In which case, the most prudent policy is to
concede the period as indicated, but without representing it in embarrassing
detail. In other words, as long as it suggests a world in which monarchs
can believably order the execution of their unfaithful wives, the stage
picture itself can be quite lean. However, this is a scenic idiom which
has to be learned and understood, and as I've already indicated, audiences
in some of the more conventional houses consistently misinterpret such
reticence and deplore it as something done on the cheap. Witness the objections
to Robert Carsen's elegantly spare production of Eugene Onegin some years
ago at the Met.
Transposition doesn't necessarily mean modernization. There are certain
operas i which the drama and music are so insistently reminiscent of the
period in which the are composed that when they are reset accordingly,
the theatrical effect is equivalent t a homecoming. Der Rosenkavalier
is just one example. It's not that the eighteenth century is conspicuously
misrepresented. On the contrary, Hofmannsthal has conjured up a surprisingly
plausible theatrical fiction which compares quite favorably with some
of Verdi's sixteenth-century romances. Still, at a distance of almost
one hundred years, the Theresian setting seems comically inconsistent
with Strauss's waltzing music, and through the increasingly diaphanous
veil of its eighteenth-century decor, the world of Musil's Kakania becomes
almost distractingly visible. As soon as it's reset in the year that it
was written, that is to say just before the onset of the First World War,
the opera acquires an ominous wistfulness, so that it's difficult not
to hear the Marschallin's first-act aria as a prophetic lament for what
one of Strauss's contemporaries suspected were the last days of mankind.
Pelleas and Melisande is yet another work which benefits from being restored
to the period in which it was composed. In contrast to Der Rosenkavalier,
which seems to flourish quite comfortably in its traditional setting,
Debussy's opera is stiffened and disabled when the action is dutifully
set in the Middle Ages, as the text indicates. The music has such a striking
affinity with the appearance of some of Monet's later paintings, especially
the Bassins de Nympheas, that it's irresistibly tempting to try to find
a literary counterpart to both. And what could be better than Proust?
Apart from the fact that the reminiscent reflections and refractions of
A la recherche du temps perdu bear a striking formal resemblance both
to the music of Pelleas and to the paintwork of Monet's lily ponds, Proust's
recursive allusions to the ancient nobility of the neighboring Guermantes
allow the producer to reconcile the notional Middle Ages of Maeterlinck's
play with the fading world of late-nineteenth-century French aristocracy.
In any case, there are dramatic themes in Debussy's opera which have
almost exact equivalents in Proust's novel. For example, the disconcerting
scene in which Golaud forces his young son, Yniold, to climb on his shoulders
and spy on what he suspects to be the adulterous lovemaking of his wife
and half-brother bears a striking resemblance to Swann's jealous lurking
beneath Odette's lighted window (see illustration on page 15). If the
opera is rescued from the reproduction tapestry world of Maeterlinck's
Middle Ages, so that the action unfolds in a more recognizable social
context, the work becomes much more energetic and intelligible. What's
more, it sets up a number of interesting expectations about the psychological
consequences of casting a child in such a conflicted role?a question which
would scarcely arise in a world in which children were not yet credited
with inner lives.
How might this affect the mise en scene? Bearing in mind the way in
which Proust recalled his own curiosity about what was going on downstairs
when he impatiently awaited his mother's good-night kiss, it's not unreasonable
to assume?or let's be honest and say stipulate?that having had his prurient
curiosity aroused in one scene, Yniold becomes an autonomous voyeur, so
that in the production that Irecently revived at the Metropolitan Opera,
I allow the child to lurk almost but not quite invisibly in a distant
corridor so that he inadvertently witnesses the scene in which his father
brutally abuses Melisande for her infidelity.
This in turn allows a much more intelligible staging of the scene that
follows immediately?that is to say, the episode in which Yniold tries
to rescue a flock of sheep from their forthcoming slaughter. Here is where
the device of the dream came to my rescue. Instead of having to do literally
what the stage directions seem to suggest, the scene can be much more
plausibly represented by having the child sing in his sleep, as he tosses
and turns in the grip of a nightmare provoked by the violence he has just
witnessed. And I can conclude the scene with a Proustian touch by having
Melisande arrive just in time to comfort her stepchild with a consoling
[*] See 1789, The Emblems of Reason, translated by Barbara Bray
(University Press of Virginia, 1982).
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