Maybe this should be titled “The bear and lemur freak show”. Anyway, no surprise to anyone who knows us or reads this blog, the classic 19th century Italian rep is not our sweet spot. Give us Handel or Berg or Britten over Rossini or Verdi (let alone Donizetti) most days. (We’ll make an exception for Don Carlos!). So, last night as the Four Seasons Centre erupted in frenzied applause I couldn’t really share the wild enthusiasm, fine as the performance was, but what startled me was when I heard a smug, female voice to my left say “Well that makes up for Hercules”. I restrained an urge to remonstrate violently (I’ve been taking lessons from Peter Sellars) but I did leave the theatre puzzled and a bit upset; a feeling shared by the lemur and subject of much conversation on the subway home.
If last night’s Roberto Devereux had been a “traditional production for traditional folk” I’d have shrugged it off. We all know the Zeffischenk crowd is still alive (though perhaps only just). But, and it’s a huge but, Stephen Lawless’ production wasn’t particularly traditional. I don’t think for a minute that Donizetti’s “original intentions” included a pageant staged by Willy S. or assorted monarchs in glass cages. Nor were the costumes “traditional”. Maybe “not obviously modern” is enough for some people? Besides, Sellars’ Hercules wasn’t exactly far out there Regie. So what’s happening? Is it just that certain names trigger certain pre-programmed stock reactions; “Handel is boring”, “Sellars is shocking”? What are the elements in Lawless’ production that allow him to escape the ire of the “composer’s original intention” zealots?
I’m puzzled in some ways and in some ways optimistic. If the “traditional” audience has now been brought to the point where Lawless’ far from traditional staging doesn’t generate a knee jerk reaction we are making progress. On the other hand if something as wonderful as Sellars’ Hercules still gets sniffed at there is a long way to go.