Dmitri Tcherniakov is an interesting and controversial director. He’s not afraid to take a very radical approach to a work and that method tends to produce uneven results. At it’s best, as in his Berlin Parsifal, it’s extraordinary and sometimes; his Wozzeckfor example, interesting but perhaps not exactly revelatory, and,again, sometimes; as in his Don Giovanni, polarising. That said he never does anything merely to shock or show off. There’s always a logic to what he does and that’s certainly true of his quite radical version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore filmed at Brussels’ La Monnaie in 2012.
Stefan Herheim’s 2012 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka for Brussels’ La Monnaie Theatre is predictably ambitious and complex. He takes an explicitly Freudian (by way of Lacan) view of the piece(*). The female characters are representations of male views of the female and, sometimes it seems, vice versa. It’s seen most clearly in Act 2 and I found unpacking Act 1 much easier after seeing it so I’m going to start there. We open not with bucolic, if coarse, peasants preparing for a wedding feast. We are on a street in a scruffy part of, I guess, Brussels. The gamekeeper and kitchen boy are replaced by a priest and a policeman. The traditional dismembered game animals become a female chorus, many of them nuns, with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. There is, essentially, an orgy. Clearly the human world that Rusalka cannot enter is about sex in its most physical aspects not meaty Central European banquet platters! Rusalka and the Foreign Princess are dressed and wigged identically. They are quite freely interchanged. Lines that are canonically addressed to one are addressed to the other and so forth. It’s pretty clear that each represents, albeit imperfectly, the Prince’s ideal woman. Rusalka is the unattainable feminine ideal; flawed in that she cannot engage in fully satisfying sexual activity. The foreign Princess is sexually satisfying but falls short precisely by not being unattainable. Some less clear male duality is suggested by the appearance of the Vodnik dressed as the Prince. It just gets weirder from there with the ballet of nuns, prostitutes, fish, squid and heaven knows what else spilling over into the auditorium while the Prince and Foreign Princess watch from a box and Rusalka and the Vodnik get caught up in the action. At the conclusion of the act it’s Rusalka not the Princess that he begs for help.
Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Berg’s Lulu (it’s the three act version with the Cerha completion) recorded at Brussel’s La Monnaie in 2012 is so stuffed full of symbolism it’s really hard to fully unpack. There’s a sense that Lulu represents Everywoman, for some rather twisted definition of “woman”. She’s Lilith. She’s Pandora. She’s the Black Swan and the White Swan. She’s lost or corrupted childhood and she’s love gone wrong. Maybe she’s even the phantom of Berg’s estranged daughter. All these symbols recur again and again in various combinations. In fact, on DVD, it’s pretty much impossible to keep track of them.
There’s a bit at the end of the first act of Parsifal where Gurnemanz looks at Parsifal and says “you haven’t understood anything have you?” or words to that effect. Watching Romeo Castellucci’s 2011 production for Brussels’ La Monnaie theatre my sympathy was very much with the Pure Fool. This is one of the most incomprehensible productions I have seen. Act 1 is very dark. Most of the time only a tiny fragment of the stage is lit. The first thing we see is a snake in its own tiny patch of light. Then we are in a forest and the Grail Knights appear to be part of the forest. Whether they are just wearing suits of leaves or are actually plants is unclear. Kundry, in a white hoodie, and Parsifal in street clothes are recognisably human. Titurel and his squires wear overalls and hard hats. One of them carries a chain saw. The “swan” appears to be a lit up tree branch though later it appears as a very decomposed skeleton. The Grail Scene is played out with a white curtain, with a small black comma on it, across the entire stage. The curtain is withdrawn and we see fluorescent lights above the greenery, which takes up much less space than one has so far imagined. Is Monsalvat a grow-op and the knights marijuana plants?
Cherubini’s 1797 opéra comique Médée was one of the first to use the form for serious drama. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2011 production filmed at La Monnaie in Brussels is certainly that. Jason, Medea and the rest are very contemporary characters though we often see them against a backdrop of 1960s style home movies and the chorus too, which tends to remain in the background also seems to be from the same period.The meaning of this juxtaposirtion isn’t clear and there is nothing on the disks or in the documentation to help. We are also told that the libretto was adapted by Warlikowski and dramaturge Christian Longchamp but nothing more than that. This is definitely a production where the director’s notes would be a major plus.
Robert Lepage’s 2007 Brussels production of The Rake’s Progress is fascinating on many levels. I think all good opera productions start with the music and this is no exception. Lepage sees a crucial relationship between Stravinsky at the time the work was written (1948) and film and television. It was an era when insubstantial visual imagery was being supported emotionally by pretty impressive music. Lepage works with that idea; setting the work in the 40s and incorporating film and film making imagery extensively. I think this decision also frees up the music. By taking the piece out of the 18th century it becomes possible to take the 18th century out of the piece. For instance, there are elements in the libretto that mimic 18th century street ballads but Stravinsky absolutely avoids writing the kind of phrasing one might expect and quite deliberately breaks up the line. That phrasing is respected here whereas I have often heard a false legato imposed on some of those phrases. In a way, the production is helping the viewer to hear the music differently which is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay an opera production. There are other intriguing relationships between Lepage’s vision and Stravinsky’s. Lepage sees Stravinsky as playing with time in a cinematic way i.e. rendering it non-linear. Lepage seeks to mirror this in the spatial dimension by using some odd perspectives and some cinema devices; notably Anne driving her car in front of a moving backdrop just like a studio movie of the period. There’s a lot going on and it would be tedious to describe it in detail.