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Subject: Re: A glimpse of a great production of Don Giovanni that never was
From: Donald Kane <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Donald Kane <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 18 Dec 2011 11:25:54 -0500

text/plain (216 lines)

I can't help but defend what you call romantically
In my opinion that is what most operas in the standard
repertory require scenically, the music itself being in most
cases exactly that, even DON GIOVANNI.  Didn't Albert
Innaurato put that particular work in its place rather
neatly just a few weeks ago?

I have to admit that your description of the way styles of
performance change from era to era is very hard to
dispute, but I would suggest that it is perhaps a matter of
degree, with the current rage for "Regie" being an example
of the *in your face* extremity that happens to prevail in
most theatrical endeavors at this moment.  It is possible
to detect here and there a tendency to approve things
described as retro, so a romantic revival could be just
around the corner.

I never thought of Olivier's HAMLET as film noir; instead,
it  looked to me as though he had been delivered costumes
for SWAN LAKE, and couldn't afford to replace them.  [Or
was it yet another chance to put the thighs on display?]

Donald Kane

-----Original Message-----
From: La Cieca [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2011 10:34 PM
To: [log in to unmask]; [log in to unmask]
Cc: La Cieca
Subject: Re: A glimpse of a great production of Don Giovanni
that never

A couple of things here. You started out claiming that "very
few of us can
actually recall the kind of productions that one Opera-L
poster likes to call 'as
seen in the 'Victrola Book of the Opera'..." and I replied
that in fact, a very
large number of productions at the Met are in essence,
"Victrola Book" in
style, i.e., romantically pictorial. So, contrary to your
assertion, there is no
dearth of this type of production: in fact, practically
everyone on opera-l has
seen precisely this type of production many times in recent

I did not say that "literal" and "pictorial" have become
illegitimate. I do think,
however, that it is ironic we are having this discussion in
response to an
observation that another lister wanted to see "Don Giovanni"
done-- not as it
might have been done in 1787-- but rather in an
anachronistic late 19th
century romantic style. Note that it was taken as a matter
of course that a
late 19th century producer presenting opera for a late 19th
century audience
would present it in late 19th century style, i.e., as a
spectacle.  This style has very little to do with the
"essence" of "Don Giovanni"
but rather is a reflection of the Zeitgeist of the era in
which this performance
is supposed to be taking place, the early part of the Third

But, to return to the "literal/pictorial." This is *a* valid
approach to producing
operas of the 19th and early 20th century, if only because
it is a recreation of
the performing style of the time of composition. There have
"archeological" productions of the Verdi operas, for
example, using design
styles and approximating the technology that would have been
available in the
mid 19th century: painted drops, muted illumination mostly
from footlights,
staging that consists of movement between a series of static
Another example of a production based on the visual
aesthetics of the time of
composition would be Les Arts Florissants' staging of
Landi's Opera "Sant'
Alessio," which reconstructed a gestural language of baroque
opera and even
used candles for illumination.

A parallel case in spoken theater (a form I'll return to in
a moment for the
purpose of comparison) would be the 21st century productions
of the Globe
Theater in London.  These stagings recreate with a fair
amount of fidelity the
performance conditions of time Shakespeare's plays were
written: an outdoor
enclosed space, natural light for illumination, and a
rhetorical and
presentational acting style to get the text across.

But these historical recreation-type productions are
exceptions. In general
throughout the history of performative art, audiences
expected a revival of an
older work to be performed in a "modern" style; that is, in
the aesthetic of the
time of performance, not the time of composition. When
"Hamlet" was done in the mid-18th century, it was
interpreted and staged as if
it had been written by a contemporary playwright, with the
title character
played as a delicate example of "sensibility." A century
later, the standard
"Hamlet" was a wild-eyed romantic, a man of action crippled
by self-doubt.
Then in the Freudian early 20th century, no "Hamlet" was
considered really
thorough without at least some attention to the Oedipus
Complex. And so

And this reinterpretation of the play was of course echoed
in the visual
presentation. Here, for example is an illustration of
performers of "Hamlet"
from the middle of the 18th century:

Note that they are not wearing neither Jacobean doublets and
farthingales nor
the loose tunics and robes of the period in which "Hamlet"
is supposed to be
taking place (i.e., 1200 A.D. or earlier). No, Mrs. Hopkins
and Mr. Garrick are
wearing essentially "modern dress," the same styles the
people in their
audience would be wearing.

By the mid 19th century, 'Hamlet" was being done in the
prevailing theatrical
style of the time, our old friend the "romantic-realistic."
Here Edwin Booth and
company illustrate the style: costuming and sets hint at a
vaguely "antique"
historical period through detail. The general effect is
decorative, like a fancy
dress ball, and the fascination with a romantically exotic
past era is very
much in keeping with the 19th century interests in

We could continue through the decades illustrating "Hamlet"
and showing that
whether the production was set "in period" or not, the
aesthetic informing it
was that of the time it was produced. A final example might
be Olivier's film
of the play, nominally set during the Renaissance, but
visually absolutely a
product of the late 1940s: "Hamlet" as film noir:

So I am willing to allow that the literal/pictorial is one
legitimate way of
presenting opera, and, as the list I offered earier
suggests, it's a style that has
not exactly fallen into utter disuse. But there are other
ways, in fact many
different ways, to produce a given work, and I think the
theater should be a
place for experiment.

Yes, there will be some productions that fail, and others
that don't please
some segment of the audience. But meanwhile new and
different productions
offer the possibility of communicating that precious
"essence" of a work to
different audiences, and to the same audience in a different
and perhaps more
powerful way. The risk is not great, so why not at least try
something new?

La Cieca

Donald Kane wrote:

>Explain, if you can, how "literal"and "pictorial" have
>become illegitimate; and then defend, if you can, the
>concurrent possibility that the music itself might be
>altered to suit changing tastes.

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