To Mess or Not to Mess

  • Posted on: 29 October 2017
  • By: Friends of Music

Is it fair to fool around with the classics?

A recent New York Times story by classical music editor Zachary Woolfe muses about whether "La Bohème" is off-limits when it comes to adulterating performances of crowd pleasers at the Metropolitan Opera ( GM Peter Gelb, he writes, hasn't hesitated when it comes to new productions of "Tosca," "Carmen," "Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni," "Madama Butterfly," and many others. "The central repertory has been, for better and worse, almost entirely overhauled over the past 10 years. 'La Bohème' alone remains untouchable."

Why? Woolfe opines that in some sense, the opera, so connected to our first encounter with it perhaps in childhood, may be untouchable. Still, he takes us through a recent revision of "Bohème" by the Royal Opera in London, under Richard Jones' direction, with undue attention drawn to the mechanics of stage sets and a few cartoonish touches thrown in (example: Musetta throws her panties into the crowd at Café Momus). He also gives us a preview of an upcoming production at the Paris Opera, with more radical changes, which German director Claus Guth has kept mostly under wraps, except to promise, "The second the curtain opens, you have a fist in your face." But for a writer who often argues for new adaptations of operas, Woolfe reaches a surprisingly conservative conclusion. If Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 staging of "Bohème" is the gold standard, why mess with it?

All this reminds me of the most durable--yet malleable--artist of all time: Shakespeare. No other playright has been subjected to so much pummeling in production. I'm not talking about some brilliant adaptions like "Chimes At Midnight," Orson Wells' 1965 film that draws on Henry IV, Parts I & II, along with pieces of Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Or Tom Stoppard's fabulous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), the tragic comedy that focuses on two very slight characters from Hamlet. Akira Kurosawa did amazing takes of Macbeth ("Throne of Blood," 1957) and King Lear ("Ran," 1985) that were Japanese to the core, yet preserved the gravity and greatness, the majesty and might of Shakespeare. I mean "improvements" to the Bard or attempts, good and wretched, to make his work "relevant" to modern audiences.

These efforts began a mere 65 years after Shakespeare's bones were laid down in Stratford-upon-Avon. We have Nahum Tate (1652-1715) to thank for this. An Irish versifier who became England's poet laureate, he produced some useful verse: "The Enchanted Lovers" served as the model for the libretto of Purcell's sublime "Dido and Aeneas." But his version of King Lear, ominously subtitled, "Reviv'd with Alterations," did some violence to the play by giving it a happy ending (Cordelia, far from dead at the end of the play, marries Edgar) and airbrushing out the Fool, one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions. His version of Richard II was so transformed as to be unrecognizable.

Most adaptations since haven't mutilated the plot or the sublime poetry to that extent, but have played around with settings and costumes. Shakespeare opens himself up to this sort of latitude since he provided exceedingly few stage directions beyond "Enter" and "Exit" lines. (The most famous, of course, comes from The Winter's Tale and describes the off-stage fate of poor Antigonus: "Exit, pursued by a bear.") 

The reworkings I've seen have been decidedly mixed. Many years ago I saw a Broadway production of Much Ado About Nothing put on by the ever-imaginative Joseph Papp. It starred a young Sam Waterston as Benedick and Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice. Setting the play in pre-World War I America, with canoes, straw boating hats, puffy-sleeve dresses and a carousel added touches of innocence and zaniness; Waterston's and Widdoes' rapid-fire banter was hilarious and head-spinning.

But the various adaptations of Macbeth I've sat through have suffered from distractions that rob the play of its speed and power. The first production I saw, at Connecticutt's Stratford Theater, was as a tenth grader. Dressing the cast in ski parkas was, I suppose, somebody's idea of turning the corruption of ambition into ... sport? I can't remember if Macduff used a ski pole to finish off Macbeth. Years later, at Shakespeare's Globe in London, I saw a version where everyone dressed in tuxedos. The stage, as I recall, was dominated by a huge slab that served as both bed and banquet table; I also seem to remember Lady Macbeth on a seesaw. And if all that weren't perplexing enough, audience members in the pit were so rowdy that the actors twice halted the production to scold those who had probably had a few too many pints at lunch. But by far the worst adaptation of Macbeth was a more recent production that reduced ALL characters to three women, who played every part. Worse, one of the actors was an understudy who hadn't learned her lines and carried a script with her everywhere; the pacing and rhythm--so key to that play especially--collapsed from the opening scene of the weird sisters. Weird, indeed.

There's no end to this debate, of course. Those things that make opera and drama great--words and music--usually abide if even the most radical interpretations preserve them. Except when they don't--and adulteration turns to pure adultery.