At The Metropolitan Opera
Grace Bumbry could act, Carlo Bergonzi couldn’t. A golden set, mountains high, dominated the scene, rather senselessly. The lighting was inadequate. In her dim chamber, the soprano agonized. Armed with a torch, the tenor stood and sang. The chorus circulated like a Renaissance Faire. It all sounded well, but only the “Dance of the Hours” given by the ballet troupe relieved the extravaganza that was La Gioconda at the Met.
The drama has sunk on opera stages to
idiocy, occasionally rising to inanity.
Berg constructed his sprechstimme in a way that positively gives a correct performance as wittily staged. Auden & Kallman knew what hackneyed poses a given emotion would induce, and wrote to justify them. Pavarotti has complained that he's not expected to merely rival Caruso but Olivier as well.
The Met found a method in the Catherine Malfitano Madama Butterfly. They built a useful set of Butterfly's house with a carp pond and hedges. When the tenor sang his aria and turned dramatically, a hedge was there to explain his sudden stop—it made sense, and brought the set into the drama. It's as simple as this, it made a dramatic evening. Her suicide impelled her out through the paper wall, nothing could surpass that once a series of steps had been taken to keep the drama on the stage.
Actors require directors, it’s the nature of the art. Some actors can carry off the play on a bare stage with no help, but not all. To require singers to somehow invent the stagework necessary for opera is an imperious demand unwarranted by such circumstances as obtain in our theaters, even. Let the director do his job, and the singers will do theirs. It will be remarked that singing a part is not so very different from acting in Racine, if it hasn’t been remarked already.
The Met’s Fidelio has a stage director, as well as a set designer. The singers have a modern prison set at a useful angle, there are many details and props to work with, it’s a visual conception commensurate with Beethoven’s activity. Even where the action is still, you haven’t the sense of watching the radio.
Jacquino is checking his weapons, Marzelline is setting the table. This is method, and it’s a good one. The prisoners emerge and stand; let them be still, until one figures out how they might be moved. The tableau is still a resource.
The lighting is still problematical, but the television director now has pictures to see. The drama occurs at his own pace, Beethoven’s I mean, as faithfully as one would wish, and it’s a good one.
If it’s possible to sing Fidelio, it’s possible to stage it, and if that can be done, there can be a way to broadcast it on television without minimizing the experience of a great opera.