The limits of the stage, by Arturo Reverter

Los límites de la escena, por Arturo Reverter
Staging of Un Ballo in Maschera under the direction of Calixto Bieito

We are used today to opera performances with stagings taking strange directions. In an art which, as a matter of principle and from early baroque, is global, total or complete, being all those terms valid. Richard Wagner made it clear in his musical-dramatic-plastic-choreographic summas, in his musical dramas, where a series of complementary elements were put together in constructive synthesis; in what he used to call Gesamtkunstwerk, which we like to translate, as logically has always been the case, by “a complete work of art”.

In the early days, when it was customary to recite in singing Monteverdi-style, the voice was the fundamental vehicle for transmitting the affetti. The instruments of the orchestra were more or less suggested by the composer, who often was not explicit as to which ones were required. The musicians chose themselves the set of instruments according to convenience or availability; and so this was getting by. In late baroque and classicism, the remarks were already more precise in this and other aspects, but the vocal line, with all its florituras and its belcanto rules, remained the essential factor. The stars were born and still exist today, although in a different way. The romanticism kept on promoting the leading role of the vocal cords, even though the pit was growing, gaining ground and taking on a greater form. After all, the foundations had been laid in Italy, where the voice was essential, the uniform singing, the wonderful sound, with its overtones, produced by something as prosaic as a simple rubbing of two cartilages in the larynx. The genre became richer while moving towards the north ofEurope. Wagner gathered the Italianizing heritage and combined it with that of the young German romantics, Weber or Lortzing among others. And he created his own world of an exceptional complexity, in which the orchestra had almost managed to be equated with the human voice; and incorporated the other elements that made the opera a totum all but revolutum. And obviously, the pit was widened and the orchestras grew bigger and bigger.

Then the figure of the musical director appeared, a figure that was acquiring an unusual importance with Von Bülow or Richter, leaving the way open to all-consuming personalities like that of Toscanini. Although the singers were still essential, they had much less room to do what they pleased with the staves or to exercise their fantasy, as they would do formerly in da capo. Even though, sometimes, it was the composers themselves who made room for them. An heir of Toscanini, Muti, has recently established himself as a leader, a representative and a king of the kingdom of the batons. His authority was, and still is, very strong. Nevertheless, the balance between voice, pit and stage had not been upset, even if the latter, one must admit, was often left in a precarious state. It was necessary to give the stage – never more appropriately said – its space, and to serve one of the parts of the whole on an equal footing, even though, at least in the baroque, classic, romantic and postromantic opera, the voice must be the essential thing, in suitable doses. Along with Mahler, Roller was one of those who began paving the way in the Opera of Vienna. This direction was followed since then. The role of the stage director has been growing in a way unthinkable and exaggerated up to, in some cases, practically erasing from the map the other fields, the musical ones in the strict sense: voices, orchestra and baton.

This situation is as unjust as the previous one. We have many and very recent examples all over the world. To name but one happening right now and in this country: the opera led by the Polish stage manager Krzysztof Warlikowski, who presented in the Real his production of King Roger by Szymanowski, released in Paris a couple of seasons ago and brought to Madrid by his mentor Gerard Mortier, the current artistic director in charge of the Theatre. It caused uproar in the French capital, repeated here on April 25. The boo was considerable, although not as monumental as in the Bastille. Certainly, the staging by the naughty and iconoclast stage director – the one of many who today do what they please – is open to criticism for the undersigned. However, it is not the point to analyze it here, as the corresponding chronicle will be published in the magazine. The point is to highlight exactly this fact, which has not been discussed practically in any way, and if it has been done, with much less focus: the place of the musical part, essential to understand a piece abstruse on its own. The titles have referred almost exclusively to the scenic production and criticism towards it has taken up most of the space. And it is unjust, because Paul Daniel did splendidly in the pit and obtained a high performance from the whole Theatre, and the voices, headed by a magnificent Mariusz Kwiecien, maintained a worthy tone. When will an end be put to the reign of these men of theatre, some coming from the cinema, who are allowed to harm and to betray without hesitating, and to change irremovable things of music and text in order to offer their personal vision instead of presenting the authentic poetical – musical content of the operas, within admissible limits, or looking for it at least?

Arturo Reverter

Published originally in Scherzo

Translation by Anna Boulova