While I was writing, last week, of my problems with directing that ignores all the parameters of the text, this aesthetic issue moved into the courts: The estate of Sybil B. Harrington, one of the Metropolitan Opera’s greatest benefactors, is suing the Met over an alleged misuse of its donated funds. Mrs. Harrington’s will specifies that the money shall be used to fund “traditional productions of standard operatic fare” (Times, July 24). The Met, Mrs. Harrington’s heirs contend, has not followed instructions. At least part of the dispute seems largely about civility: The Met apparently applied Harrington funds, without asking permission, to its telecast of Tristan und Isolde. It then made the mistake of thanking the trustees for allowing this, “though we know this is not a traditional production.” That’s when the lawsuit hit the fan.
Leaving such matters aside, it’s easy to see what the late Mrs. Harrington wanted when she phrased her bequest so specifically: She wanted to avoid the kind of absurdity I was describing in last week’s essay. Whether she was entitled to tell the artists involved how to do their work simply because she wielded a hefty checkbook is one of the debatable questions the lawsuit raises. Another is how one defines such terms as “traditional” and “standard fare.” Being allergic to Wagner, I’ve never seen the Tristan that riled her estate, but descriptions make it sound like the kind of highly abstract staging that has been attached to Wagner’s operas since his grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang took over the Bayreuth Festival after World War II: a “tradition” half a century old.
The Met’s repertoire offers many such paradoxes. John Dexter’s mounting of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is generally agreed to be one of its finest productions, but Dexter’s powerful, stripped-down staging violates many of the specifics in Poulenc’s stage directions. Is it traditional? Could the beloved opera itself, less than 50 years old, be called a standard work? The same director’s Don Pasquale, in contrast, was on the surface a perfectly traditional rendering of a standard work. But Dexter’s staging was a merciless subversion of Donizetti’s touching little comedy; he drowned every action in a blizzard of props and gimmicks. During the pivotal quartet, he seated the Notary, who takes no part in it, center stage, where, while the four principals sang their hearts out, we watched this fellow unwrap and eat his lunch. Could deconstruction have done much worse?
As this suggests, there are many ways for a director to louse up a work without defying tradition. Unlike Semyon Kotko and Kitezh, the production of Khovanshchina that the Kirov brought to Lincoln Center was perfectly traditional in look: realistic courtyards and palaces, historically accurate costumes. What killed it was the leaden staging: Leonid Baratov’s 1960 production, as restored by Yuri Alexandrov, followed the overall shape of the scenes, but never seemed to find movements that matched the music or pointed the action in any but the most generalized ways. Moussorgsky’s powerful but disorderly work, left unfinished at his death, is set in a time of violent change in Russia; its plot is full of political infighting, religious conflict, power grabs, and betrayals. In the Kirov version, the people carrying on this hectic affair, however gorgeously many of them sang, seemed physically hemmed in and stodgy; the few exceptions spent their stage time busily signaling their villainy to the audience. If that’s tradition, bring on the red Kleagle costumes, and the virgin forest that looks like an abandoned brickworks; the old deadly theater is the explanation of the new one.
Yet theater, old or new, doesn’t have to be deadly. To function it simply has to be in balance, just as a human being must be in balance to stand upright. Directors who follow a set of old conventions without examination trap their performers in an aesthetic coffin: Khovanshchina‘s cast often looked like arm-waving automatons. Performers in a new-style nonsense-laden production, by contrast, often seem less trapped than shoved aside by murk and machinery. I might have had many favorable things to say about Liev Schreiber’s Henry V had I seen him play the role in a real production. Amid Mark Wing-Davey’s festoon of gadgetry, as in the gimmick parade that Andrei Serban made of Hamlet at the Public Theater a few years back, the good and searching work Schreiber was doing seemed only a whimper drowned out by a whirlwind.
In fairness, both Wing-Davey and Serban have done better-grounded work, and the latter has real stature as a visionary. One problem here was that their choice of play overwhelmed them. In 2003, Shakespeare’s pro-patriotism, pro-war drama (useless to pretend that Henry V is anything else) would inevitably tie an intelligent Englishman resident in America, like Wing-Davey, into emotional knots; Hamlet, formerly an Everest for actors, has become so much a directorial showcase that it did tie Serban into such knots. I know because he stopped me on my way in to review it—to apologize for using a device that he had subsequently learned another eminent director had already used. “I don’t care,” I said, “if it tells me something about Hamlet.”
That directing has, for a time, replaced writing or acting as the primary force in theater is only an understandable phase in stage history. Soon it will undoubtedly have run its course, whatever the Harrington case’s outcome. While the phase lasts, we can relish its virtues and groan over its defects. But that the director should replace the performance as the object of interest is a physical impossibility, since that would make the whole occasion lose its point. The event may be Ingmar Bergman’s Ghosts rather than Ibsen’s, but one still goes to it to see Ghosts, to see the Dramaten’s sublime troupe act out the story of Ghosts. Bergman stays in Sweden; his presence is felt, not seen. The one directorial exception to this rule I can think of was Tadeusz Kantor, who always built himself into his astonishing, dreamlike pieces, and even he, when his company toured his final work after his death, was memorably represented by the empty chair at its center. It wasn’t his persona but his vision that gave the work its stature.
The issue is never one of style, always of focus. As the wise old musician in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey says, “You plays the piece.” Once given the job, all directors have the right to animate an existing script as they see it, but first they must see it. A theater in which the audience finds a director’s choices incomprehensible inevitably lacks credibility, especially when they look so much like other directors’ choices for quite different works. The international system of deifying directors, far from encouraging them to “play the piece” boldly, has turned them into tiny versions of Handke’s Kaspar, all wanting to be a director “like somebody else was once.”
The problem pervades even serious and deeply felt work, like Rina Yerushalmi’s Mythos, brought to the Lincoln Center Festival by a consortium of Israeli companies, with an ethnically mixed cast including some Israeli Arabs and Jews of Ethiopian origin. That in itself was noble and artistically exciting; Yerushalmi’s directorial results, sadly, were not. With gesture, image, and sparse fragments of text, she dragged us through the entire Oresteian myth, from Thyestes’ bloody vengeance to post-Clytemnestra madness and despair. It mostly felt secondhand and meandering. Yerushalmi’s images only gained force and beauty toward the end, where the material really seemed to interest her; she might have done better to drop her grandly nebulous conception, and stage a bang-up production of Euripides’ Orestes, a rarely produced, meaningfully shaped drama by a poet greatly suited to our crumbling time. It hurt to see a gifted director lose her way while trying to supplant the author; it’s a hurt I’ve often felt these past few years.
It can be felt even when the directing is great. Choreographer Trisha Brown’s staging of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, just revived for the “Mostly Mozart Festival,” is a masterpiece of its kind. Brown’s dark, abstract palette of movement catches the essence of each song in this story of a disheartened lover’s journey to sorrow and death. The baritone Simon Keenlyside, who conceived the notion of Brown staging what’s normally a concert work, not only sings with nuanced beauty and power, but takes with aplomb physical risks that would make many classical singers shriek with terror. Few baritones would start a song with a running leap onto their knees. Brown’s achievement here is undeniable. Yet it’s also in some way unnecessary: Schubert and his poet, Muller, put so much feeling and detail into these songs that a great singer-pianist duo (Keenlyside’s fine accompanist was Pedja Muzijevic) is all the theater they demand. The movement was beautiful, and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting gave near total darkness an exquisite glow, but I longed for the concert platform, with the pianist and Keenlyside’s expressive face blazingly lit. I don’t want work like Brown’s to disappear; I just wish it could have the stature of inevitability. Perhaps directing will only be itself again when directors have relearned that they aren’t one of the theater’s basic elements.