Moving beyond the masterpiece mind-set

New opera productions are shaking up old ideas about what to stage and how. Will audiences accept them?

Posted: March 21, 2007

NEW YORK - The latest chatter magnet in the opera world is the Metropolitan Opera's chance-taking production of The Egyptian Helen, a major work by a major composer (Richard Strauss) but one so seldom seen, it might as well be a world premiere. If you love Strauss and soprano Deborah Voigt (who sings the title role), you could start applauding even before the curtain goes up.

The piece is a nutty fantasy on themes of Helen of Troy, about what might have happened after the 10-year war she caused, fused with overtones from Shakespeare's The Tempest with shipwrecked people on an island controlled by the sorceress wife of Poseidon. Rarely more than a middling success since written in 1928, The Egyptian Helen (Die Ägyptische Helena) would normally appear, if at all, in a single-night concert version by Opera Orchestra of New York, or in a sketchy, budget-conscious outing at the New York City Opera.

But the new Met is casting its nets in any number of directions. The arrival of The Egyptian Helen - with star singers like Voigt, and the even-better Diana Damrau as the island sorceress, a particularly charismatic conductor in Fabio Luisi, and a David Fielding production so glittery that the onstage, platinum-wigged elves wear sunglasses - is a touchstone of sorts, even amid its inevitably ambivalent reception.

It signals a blow to New York's masterpieces-only mentality - a product of that city's competitive operatic marketplace, and one that has spilled over into cities like Philadelphia. The unwritten law is that only the best of the best is allowed. Served up with conservatively reverent productions, opera easily becomes a ritual where audiences mainly revisit their past experiences.

Traditional operatic models began faltering at the box office after 9/11, but that's not the only reason why the lack of reverence at the Met's Egyptian Helen is to be lauded. Though Strauss gave the opera consistent inspiration with a distinctive orchestral palette (though without great set pieces like Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils"), the fact is that the dramaturgically hobbled piece has a first scene featuring a singing, fortune-telling seashell (called a mussel in some translations).

Such a stage image can't be delivered with face-value realism. So, rather than being set in antiquity, the opera unfolds in a celestial realm of stars and comets, but full of crazy, slanted angles suggesting the artistic vogues from the time when the opera was written, such as the classical German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the surrealism of Salvador Dalí.

Indeed, expectations of logic must be banished with a libretto whose narrative explains everything with magic powers, alternate dimensions and the ingestion of lotus juice.

So what happens with the singing shell? That role is sung by what appears to be a ghostly ancestor in Victorian clothes, appearing to have been dipped in tar in Act I and white plaster in Act II.

Maybe that's not the most lucid solution. Also, the production ignored the potentially humorous stage directions (like attention-ready Helen reassembling her hair after surviving a shipwreck). But the opera's larger ideas came through: Marriage succeeds only when you're accepted for who you are, not in spite of who you are.

Musical matters weren't consistently good: The vocal challenges prompted a chilly timbre from Voigt on Monday, other singers labored long and hard, but the Met orchestra kept everything and everybody gloriously afloat. I had a wonderful time - and will go back to Strauss masterpieces like Elektra with new ears.

More such experiences appear to be on the way. The notorious Gerard Mortier, who ran the Salzburg Festival with productions that gleefully, even outrageously, challenged the status quo, will take over the New York City Opera in 2009. The Tristan Project arrives May 2 and 5 at Avery Fisher Hall, in which a live performance of Tristan und Isolde will be visually realized with symbolic and atmospheric large-screen images by video artist Bill Viola.

The usually conservative Opera Company of Philadelphia is also part of this sea change, with a pop-art production of Rossini's Cinderella earlier this season (whether or not you agreed with the viewpoint, it was beautifully realized) and, in 2008, a collaborative production with the Curtis Institute and Kimmel Center of Osvaldo Golijov's recent hit opera, Ainadamar, about the execution of Federico Garcia Lorca. This illustrates how opera can take its place in the theatrical forefront, and even be a forum for social commentary.

The challenge for more conservative factions lies in whether an operatic experience can be enjoyed for what it is - before being dismissed for what it isn't. Any time productions depart from the letter of the stage directions, ends won't quite meet. Deal with it. Looking beyond standard repertoire sometimes involves works less flawed than the standard works; we tend not to notice weaknesses in the final acts of Die Fledermaus and The Barber of Seville because we're used to them. Works like The Egyptian Helen are more fragile, their weaknesses more profound, posing the question, how weak is too weak? Everybody has his limits - ones that will be challenged more gradually in Philadelphia than in New York.

Traditional views of traditional opera will always exist. But opera is among the greatest chameleons of the performing arts. It can be so many things. To make the traditional operatic experience the only experience is to cut off its tail.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.

philly.com/davidpatrickstearns.

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