May 29, 2007

We'll Meet Again

There's been an interesting mini-trend in operatic directing in the past few months: updating 19th-century comic operas to World War II settings. Emilio Sagi's WWII La Fille du Regiment, originally produced in Bologna, had notable revivals at La Scala and in Washington (it comes to Houston later this year); here in Boston, the Boston Conservatory's spring production of "L'elisir d'amore" had a WWII setting, as did Intermezzo's Signor Deluso; and now Marc Geelhoed sends word of Chicago Opera Theater's Béatrice et Bénédict.

In general, I'm more sympathetic to high-concept modernizations of opera than most. Bad ones just vaguely toy around with making the piece "relevant" or other such nonsense, but good ones are after bigger game: the immediacy of the dramatic situation. One of my favorite modernizations was Peter Sellars' 1988 Tannhäuser for the Chicago Lyric Opera, with the title character a fallen televangelist in the Jim Bakker mold. The production was a scandal, mainly to those who already knew the piece; but for those of us who didn't (including me, at that time), it made the dramatic stakes immediately apparent, rather than something in need of explanation or exposition. (For those who remember the staging with disdain, I'll simply defend it by saying that it got me interested in Tannhäuser, and Tannhäuser is the opera that got me interested in Wagner.)

I charitably assume that directors with similar ideas are after the same thing, rather than mere novelty or shock. A rather charitable assumption, in many cases, but if we apply it to this latest spate of 1940s military imagery, what does it mean? It means the directors are sure that, as soon as we recognize the setting, we'll be put in the proper frame of mind for light romantic comedy. Which is pretty weird, when you think about it.

I would think that, after the last century's carnage, we would be pretty immune to the romanticization of war, but I guess these days, historically hung over from Vietnam, mired in Iraq, the perception of nobility and moral clarity offered by World War II has become more and more appealing. Of course, that conflict had as much ignobility and moral ambiguity as any. (Ponder the Allied response to the Holocaust, or the internment of Japanese-Americans. I'm not implying a blanket condemnation of our reactions in those situations, but just offering an example of how wartime is always messier and more complicated than we like to remember.) And WWII vets had the same difficulties readjusting to civilian life, something that was more readily discussed at the time than it is now. (Case in point: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 to critical acclaim.)

And yet, the 60 intervening years have made that event not only comparatively benign, but a suitable backdrop for some of the sunniest operas in the repertory. It's worth noting that nobody (myself included) has experienced these productions as cognitively dissonant, or somehow trying to directorially inject a note of bleak despair. I think what they're tapping into is that peculiar historical moment, when it seemed that, for all the cascading political complications as the war ended, the Allied cooperation and the lessons of 1919 would ensure that the brave new post-war world would really be a better place. Romantic comedies are, after all, essentially optimistic; I guess the level of underlying poignancy depends on how well you know your history.

4 comments:

Marc said...

I think you're a little too charitable. The era fell into a warm haze of nostalgia when everything was good and optimistic, and the detritus of that era fell away. Studs Terkel interviewed numerous people in The "Good" War who were traumatized by it and who noted that the Soviet Union was our enemy even before the last shot was fired.

Opera directors are tapping into the warm fuzzies enveloping the Greatest Generation in these productions, and unless there's a character who can be caricatured as Hitler, they'll probably retain that sunny tone.

Marc said...

That came out a little harshly, sorry about that. Great post, and you are on to something.

sfmike said...

Dear marc: You weren't too harsh at all. Read Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" for a different glimpse of The Greatest Generation War or Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" with its depiction of Dresden being incinerated.

However, there's another explanation, which is that all the operas mentioned ("La Fille du Regiment" "L'Elisir D'Amore" and "Beatrice et Benedict") all involve stories with soldiers as major characters, they are all sunny, and there aren't that many modern wars that would fit without being completely grotesque.

John Cox directed a "Cosi Fan Tutte" recently at the San Francisco Opera set in Monte Carlo at the onset of World War One, and it was one of the more effective stagings I've ever seen. When anybody can be dead within the week, absurd avowals of True and Faithful Love tend to make more "sense," in both the practical and comic meaning of that word.

Matthew said...

Marc: yeah, I err on the side of charitable. But we're both getting after the same thing. As for the the immediate postwar era, I think the creation of the UN, the Bretton Woods conference, etc., point to, at the very least, an awful lot of unwarranted optimism about wartime diplomatic marriages of convenience. (Anyone else coming across this, Terkel's The Good War is required reading. Quite probably the best book ever written about WWII.)

sfmike: you're right about the lack of other available wars. What's interesting to me is that, twenty or thirty years ago, treating WWII in a similar way would have been equally out of bounds. (There's a reason 1941 tanked as badly as it did. I mean, it's a lousy movie, but it's not that lousy.) I'm peeved that Kenneth Branagh's WWI Magic Flute hasn't found a US distributor yet, as I think the piece has a dark undercurrent that would be fascinatingly served by the same sort of tension that you describe in the Cox Così.