Wednesday 11 January 2006

Groundhog Day goes to the opera

I am currently reviewing a recording of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (review will appear on MusicWeb in due course) and that set me to thinking about the productions of the opera that I had seen.

We recently went to see a revival of Julia Hollander's ENO production, this was created to replace a previous production by, I think, Graham Vick, which was not particularly old. The same thing is happening at The Royal Opera House where the old production (designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman, so it was gloriously realistic in its detail) was replaced by a striking, stylish new one directed by John Cox. Now this production is in the wastebasket and being replaced by a new one, or at least that is what has been announced. The list could go on; the recent ENO Billy Budd replaced an existing one that seem, to some critics, perfectly satisfactory.

It is a curious fact of life that opera companies seem to constantly visit the same operas, re-doing productions when there are so many other operas crying out to be produced.Some of this, I suppose, is the desire to get things right and the constant feeling that the key parts of the repertoire could be done better. Another factor, which is often hidden from the public, is that some productions are not designed to last. I believe that this was the case with the John Cox Onegin at the Royal Opera.

This latter reflects a style of developing a production which came rather to prominence when Elijah Moshinsky did his productions of Peter Grimes and Lohengrin. Moshinsky started as a staff producer at the Royal Opera and the stripped down style of these 2 iconic productions reflects his attempt to develop new productions for the ROH at little more than the cost of re-furbishing and re-producing the existing ones. This of course is something that us ordinary punters forget, that bringing back a production can cost nearly as much as starting again from scratch.

The other area where companies develop disposable productions is in the co-production and borrowed production. This latter is a particular case in point where the company might rent an existing production from elsewhere and might never use it again. The advantage is cost-based; the disadvantages are that the borrower has little control over the production style and content. So something that works in one place, might not work in another. When the Royal Opera borrowed John Dew's production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots there were howls from most of the critics, despite the fact that the production had been relatively well received in Germany. Some of this could be attributed to snobbery, but much can be related to differences in house style and the way opera is perceived in different countries.

The Royal Opera also came something of a cropper when it borrowed an Italian production of Rossini's Mose in Egitto. Though handsome and moderately well produced, it came in for some critical flack owing to the static handling of the chorus; a production style common in Italy but not in favour here where chorus are expected to be highly emotive and highly mobile.

So opera companies may have some excuse for their endless re-visiting of familiar opers, but I can't help wishing that they'd step off the tread-mill more often and give us some of the rarer items.

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