As you all know we opened our 2010/11 season with a new production of Aida on Saturday. Putting on a piece like Aida is a major undertaking and I am proud that we succeeded in assembling a world-class cast, led by the astonishing Sondra Radvanovsky in her role and COC debut, under the direction of our Music Director Johannes Debus. During the rehearsal break of Death in Venice yesterday evening one of the long-time members of our orchestra told me that never in all his years with the COC he heard an audience erupt like they erupted after Aida's first aria Ritorna vincitor. It was wonderful to experience on Saturday that the performance was such an unqualified musical triumph.
On the other hand, Tim Albery's production has caused quite a bit of controversy. When Tim and I started talking about Aida two years ago we decided that a lot of traditional productions of the piece had gotten in the way of telling the story through over-sized sets and spectacle, especially in the triumphal scene. It was a very deliberate decision that we would want to tell the tragic story of people in times of war, Aida and Radames trapped in their national identities and in love with the enemy with no possibility to break out and live their love.
Let me say here that I don't believe in updating a piece for the sake of updating it, or even less in provoking our public for the sake of provocation. I don't adhere to any kind of postmodernist dogma. Nothing could be further from our intentions than "tinkering" with a piece (as one reviewer put it). My love and respect for great composers, like Giuseppe Verdi, would prevent me from doing so. When we decide to present a piece as a new production we go through a very careful, serious and respectful process of understanding its meaning. Sometimes, this results in a production aesthetic that might be different from the performance tradition of a piece. While being respectful of this tradition, I believe we also have the obligation to question it.
The first big updater in the history of opera was Gustav Mahler. During his tenure as the Director of the Vienna Court Opera from 1897 to 1907 he presented updated stagings of masterpieces like Mozarts's Le nozze di Figaro, Beethoven's Fidelio or Wagner's Tristan und Isolde which caused uproar then and are considered classical stagings today. When facing criticism about his productions Mahler would respond: "Tradition ist Schlamperei" (tradition is sloppiness). Throughout the 20th century there have been numerous shifts in production styles, often leading to new performance traditions. Just think of Wieland Wagner's work at the Bayreuth Festival after World War II or Patrice Chereau's radical new interpretation of Wagner's Ring Cycle, also in Bayreuth in 1976. Both are considered landmarks for the staging of Wagner's operas today.
Verdi's letters are an invaluable source for us to learn about how he intended his opera to be staged and performed. Reading through them I just can't help asking myself what he would have thought of our production. All his life Verdi was politically engaged. He wanted his pieces to be relevant and meaningful to audiences. For most of his life he fought censors who forced him to diminish the relevance of his works. Just think of La Traviata which had to be transposed from the contemporary 19th century setting, which Verdi had originally intended, to the early 18th century for the 1853 world premiere in Venice. Only in the 1880s Verdi's original wishes were carried out and contemporary productions were staged. I am sure he would have hated for his works to be considered representational artifacts in the museum of opera. If he would have approved of our production or not we will never know, but I am sure he would have respected our search for relevance, and our integrity in approaching his work.
Posted by Alexander Neef / in Season / comments (42) / permalink
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