Hans

Re-setting the Classics

27 posts in this topic

On the ABT's 'Sleeping Beauty' in DC thread, SanderO wrote:

OT, about new productions in general.

Many new productions in opera and ballet involve sets and costumes which appear to be almost totally divorced from the original. In the case of opera the singing and the music is unchanged, but the rest... sets, costumes, lighting etc can be completely new. If you see the MetOpera's Zauberflot you can understand that Mozart never would have imagined such a staging. But he may have liked it never the less. Some classical operas like the recent Barber of Seville, used classic costumes, married to minimalist classical referenced sets which relied on contemporary theatrics and lighting. there was no attempt to make us believe the story was a contemporary one, but we were rather encouraged to use our imagination more and perhaps focus more on the music and singing. I haven't a clue as to the motivation of the producer and designer. Zauberflote was the reverse almost, as you can be overwhelmed by the theatrics. I thought it worked for that fairy tale story.

Last Season's NYCB R+J was not especially well received because of the sets for one, again an interpretation of Verona which to many looked gaudy, cartoonlike and seemed to detract from the production and perhaps the dancing. I sense the same thing happened with the ABT Sleeping Beauty. They couldn't pull off the new interpretation because they made some bad choices artistically which were a terrible distraction. Apparently they tweaked it somewhat based on bad press.

Why do so many contemporary interpretations/stagings seem to miss the mark and some manage to really work, such as Met's Zauberflote of Madama Butterfly? I am leaving the choreography and the singing in opera out of this question. Are these producers trying too hard to be modern and not skilled enough to translate the past into something with a contemporary look?

It seems that classic ballet also needs to be preserved and the tendency of these new stagings to look disney like or "flintstonic" may not be doing any favors to these classic works in the end. What say you about the new looks for the classics?

Share this post


Link to post

Hans,

Sorry about putting the comment in the wrong thread... and excuse my shallow experience with some of the re interpretation of classic works.

I don't get around much performance wise... NYC seems to be it for me. Obviously some companies have the cash to mount expensive productions with elaborate sets and costumes and others can't. Some of the Met Opera sets are incredible in their historical detail, like Tosca or La Traviata. I personally like some of the elaborate sets, but don't find them necessary. Some contemporary stagings are really fun and I didn't find that I missed "anything". Others just don't cut it. The Zeferelli La Traviata is great but the one Netrebko did with Villizon in Germany (I have the DVD) was awful. The singing was fine, but it was too MTV like.

Classical productions have a certain magic about them that some modern one simply miss. Don't they?

Share this post


Link to post

Please don't apologize--I just wanted to give your topic the space it deserves. :clapping:

Off the top of my head, my own opinion on the subject is that I am really not opposed to altering the sets/costumes for a ballet. I think a more minimalist Sleeping Beauty could work well if it were done the right way. I would also stipulate that the choreography must be respected. As far as ABT's new SB goes, my problem is not that the sets and costumes were not traditional, it was that they were cartoonlike, glitzed-up versions of the traditional ones. It looked like a ballet for children (and the choreographic decisions reinforced this) and while there is nothing wrong with ballet for children, Sleeping Beauty is so much more than a simple fairy tale, as we have discussed before on the board. Ballet is already stereotyped as something for little girls only, not meaningful art, and ABT has, in my opinion, just reinforced that stereotype. If they had made a bold, well-thought-out artistic decision to perhaps emphasize what SB is about in a new way using unusual sets and costumes, I could have at least applauded the attempt to show off the facets of this "pure diamond" of a ballet, to borrow a phrase from Balanchine. However, instead of taking the opportunity to show us the ballet afresh or at least doing us the courtesy of presenting it traditionally, danced with respect and life, they dumbed it down to a cheap (despite the obviously large budget) spectacle, and that is what I object to.

Share this post


Link to post
it was that they were cartoonlike, glitzed-up versions of the traditional ones. It looked like a ballet for children (and the choreographic decisions reinforced this) and while there is nothing wrong with ballet for children, Sleeping Beauty is so much more than a simple fairy tale, as we have discussed before on the board. Ballet is already stereotyped as something for little girls only, not meaningful art, and ABT has, in my opinion, just reinforced that stereotype.

Hans, is this based on a performance you saw in the last few days in Washington, where it has apparently been altered at least somewhat, or did you also see it last year in New York, when the reviews were reflecting this 'cartoonlike' thing that turned me off too. I was interested in the other reviews, but I have serious reason for wanting to know, as it may or may not affect some plans.

If they had made a bold, well-thought-out artistic decision to perhaps emphasize what SB is about in a new way using unusual sets and costumes, I could have at least applauded the attempt to show off the facets of this "pure diamond" of a ballet, to borrow a phrase from Balanchine. However, instead of taking the opportunity to show us the ballet afresh or at least doing us the courtesy of presenting it traditionally, danced with respect and life, they dumbed it down to a cheap (despite the obviously large budget) spectacle, and that is what I object to.

Did Balanchine say that specifically about 'Sleeping Beauty?' I seem to have realize it's my favourite ballet, too, and I therefore hope so. Before you answer the above, though, I still think it's likely I want to see another company's SB perhaps a bit more than ABT's. I don't like ABT's 'Swan Lake' at all, but a 'Sleeping Beauty' I didn't like would be still more upsetting. Thanks.

Related to Sander0's discussion of modernized operas, I usually don't like extreme stretchings, bringing Pelleas and Melisande up to the current date, for example. But I recently watched DVD's of Kirov 'Boris Godunov' and also Bolshoi. The Tarkovsky production (not sure who did the costumes and sets) was less traditional and simpler while remaining lavish in many ways, but the Bolshoi was much more opulent in a more traditional sense (I think this is right, although my knowledge of Russian opera is just beginning, and I'm reaching for stereotypes, as it were.) I liked both quite a lot, although I don't know which one I prefer.

Share this post


Link to post

Papeetepatrick, I just saw the production for the first time today. Balanchine did indeed refer to Sleeping Beauty as a "pure diamond," citing it as the greatest of Petipa's ballets. If you are looking for a good production, the Sergeyev staging is excellent although imperfect (no mime). I think the best one is the 1895 reconstruction, but we may never see that again in the US. The Royal Ballet's revival of its 1942 (?) version was also critically acclaimed; I don't know if you saw that one when they toured here. I missed it, unfortunately, it was either that or the Maryinsky's "Giselle." Hopefully others can suggest some good productions, too. :clapping:

Share this post


Link to post

The current RB production of Beauty is the 1946 Messel production, which was the production of my youth. Yes, it was dowdy in many respects, but there was an electricity that ran through it; perhaps Petipa attending all those scientific lecture-demonstrations had a salutary effect after all! Often, my prescription for companies losing their way in classicism is to mount this production.

Share this post


Link to post

One thing about "Sleeping Beauty" is that it is about harmony, order and balance. The settings should reflect this as Petipa's choreography surely does. My suspicion is that Kevin McKenzie doesn't really appreciate the unhurried, formal, purely classical aspects of this ballet and so he tried to rework it into something BIGGER, FASTER, ACTION-PACKED, CINEMATIC, etc. More guys dancing big jumps. Special effects. Lots of glitzy, bright, shiny sets that look like they come from a kids playset or computer game. However, the order, the symmetry and the elegance are lost. Some of the idiocy and the overthinking clearly has been jettisoned as have some of the more egregious costume, scenic and choreographic excresences, but the misguided sense of the piece probably still lurks under the surface.

None of the sets seemed in balance and broke up the stage floor, the costume colors were a riot of pastels and loud bright tones, nothing meshing or creating aesthetic harmony. Now "Sleeping Beauty" has enough internal integrity of conception through choreography and music that it will survive a lot. But when a staging concept, whether modern or "storybook" goes against the essential grain of the work, then it will fail.

Compare for example with the Maria Bjornson production that the Royal Ballet toured fifteen years ago and is on the DVD. The sets are deliberately off-kilter and from odd perspectives like a Lewis Carroll or Salvador Dali concept of the ballet. But the choreography was kept very intact and close to the original. The company is brought up in the style and mime and elegance comes naturally to them. You could ignore the oddly stylized sets and see through them to the core of the piece. The ABT production just had random bits where I felt the original magic but then your eyes were assaulted with some new horror.

Share this post


Link to post
Now "Sleeping Beauty" has enough internal integrity of conception through choreography and music that it will survive a lot. But when a staging concept, whether modern or "storybook" goes against the essential grain of the work, then it will fail.

I'd just like to add that as Disneyfied as ABT's production is, for me, the dancers transcended it Saturday afternoon. I was moved.

Share this post


Link to post
I think a more minimalist Sleeping Beauty could work well if it were done the right way. I would also stipulate that the choreography must be respected.

I would love to see a truly artistic "minimalist" version, with elements of the court suggested rather than elaborated. It should be costumed richly but without too much detail, avoiding the baroque and fussy. Brilliant lighting design could replace expensive and cumbersome sets. The look would be elegant rather than baroque, fussy, and frou-frou. Think of what superb dancers could do without over-crowding or distraction.

Share this post


Link to post
I think a more minimalist Sleeping Beauty could work well if it were done the right way. I would also stipulate that the choreography must be respected.

I would love to see a truly artistic "minimalist" version, with elements of the court suggested rather than elaborated. It should be costumed richly but without too much detail, avoiding the baroque and fussy. Brilliant lighting design could replace expensive and cumbersome sets. The look would be elegant rather than baroque, fussy, and frou-frou. Think of what superb dancers could do without over-crowding or distraction.

I agree. I'd be very interested in seeing such a production.

Thanks to Hans, for shifting SanderO's comments and thanks to SanderO for bringing up the issue, which always seems to spark a good discussion!

Share this post


Link to post
I would love to see a truly artistic "minimalist" version, with elements of the court suggested rather than elaborated. It should be costumed richly but without too much detail, avoiding the baroque and fussy. Brilliant lighting design could replace expensive and cumbersome sets. The look would be elegant rather than baroque, fussy, and frou-frou. Think of what superb dancers could do without over-crowding or distraction.

I totally agree with you on that, bart. That's exactly the way i felt when i first saw the stuffy MCB's "Nutcracker" or the glitzy ABT's "Swan Lake" as opposite with their cuban ultra-sober counterparts , closer to your description,(which is literally Mme. Alonso's mantra, BTW)

Share this post


Link to post

A cleverly done minimalist interpretation would be very stunning and provide enough historical reference and context, yet allow the audience AND the dancers to focus more on the choreography.

I found that the recent Barber of Sevilla production worked precisely that way. I didn't miss the magnificently detailed and rendered MetOpera sets, which I must admit, I had a habit of looking at (with binocs) instead of the singers.

I think the same level of "distraction" is present in elaborate sets and worse when the aesthetics are "jarring" as they seemed to be the new Sleeping Beauty. I have not had the pleasure of seeing a more traditional version, but I did find the sets, costuming etc a bit over the top.

Less is more.

Share this post


Link to post

Actually, this streamlining has been going on for over a century. Look at the 1890 Vikharev reconstruction of "Sleeping Beauty" vs. the Sergeyev (Konstantin) production from circa 1950. In the 1890 reconstruction there were lots of elaborately decorated costumes, lots of props, a shell with garlands for Aurora in the Vision Scene to balance on for her entrance. A helmet with lilacs for the Lilac Fairy and a shift and staff. A friend said it looked like British panto and she would know - she is from Ireland and remembers it when. Same dowdy, Victorian overstuffed grandma's attic look. Kind of heavy and literal in places. Sets and costumes in all kinds of colors and shades (sets looked a littled faded and old, the costumes a little too shiny and new). I think a different designer did each act. The corps was broken down into different divisions with different costumes - different lengths of skirt with different decorative objects sewn on them. The different costumes broke the corps into different units dancing together. Lots of mime scenes with no dancing, processions, every thing took time and unfolded in a leisurely, deliberate fashion. If a character wasn't dancing in that scene, he or she wore heeled shoes and a heavy costume. Tutu and slippers only in grand pas sequences. Big apotheosis tableau at the end with a vision of I don't know what, royalty spanning on forever.

Then the Sergeyev 1950 version. Get rid of the mime. Get rid of the processions and the court etiquette and routines. Every ballerina is a ballerina in every scene with toe shoes and tutu throughout including Lilac Fairy. Have her dance more. Every corps person dances in same costume, all ballerinas in the short, stiff plate tutu in different pastel colors perhaps but all uniform. Corps is one unit creating unified patterns all over the stage. Sets are drops and simple frame like trellises, candelabras, chandeliers and frame doors and gates, etc. No elaborate built-up sets just drops and a few platforms off to the side and in the back leaving the main stage open for dancing. Color schemes are carefully worked out with coordination between the tonal hues of the scenery and lighting and the costumes. Pastel sets, pastel costumes. Soft brown earth tones in the sets, muted whites, browns, russet, gold and black in the costumes. Lilac comes on in her bright, saturated costume into the hunt scene, she is a vision from another world. Last scene is all blue and white and gold. (No royal apotheosis). In modern design the color palette is restricted to make artistic and dramatic effects. In the Victorian era, very few designers were working that way.

The 1946 Messel I thought used some scenic elements of the Diaghilev production (Bakst?) from the 1920's - am I wrong? Or was that just the "Aurora's Wedding" they performed as Sadler's Wells? Anyway, that also is a streamlined and more elegantly stylized visual representation of the 1890 original even though it is closer to the original text than the Sergeyev version. I believe that the current reproduction of Messel's designs once again has altered his designs and shifted the color of the costumes to be more soft, subtle and more unified in palette.

Share this post


Link to post
Please don't apologize--I just wanted to give your topic the space it deserves. :off topic:

Off the top of my head, my own opinion on the subject is that I am really not opposed to altering the sets/costumes for a ballet. I think a more minimalist Sleeping Beauty could work well if it were done the right way.

When extensive research to re-create baroque operas as in the era they were created and extensive effort to find what is considered to be appropriate voices for the creation of a performance that shows fidelity to the works and their creation, why is the above question being posited for production of century old ballets?

I find someting nihilistic in such proposals.

Share this post


Link to post

I must politely request that you please read beyond the first three sentences of my post before using the term artistic nihilism, as I am "proposing" no such thing. However, as clarification is apparently necessary, I have written the following:

It is not really artistically necessary to reproduce a work the way it would have been performed 100-200 years ago. For one thing, it's impossible to make a modern performance into a facsimile of the original, although one can still perform the work with appropriate voices, style, &c. As far as opera goes, the music must absolutely be respected, and that means playing and singing in the baroque style (whether modern instruments are used or not). As I wrote above, I feel the same way about ballet--the choreography must remain intact, and it must be danced with respect for the period. However, this doesn't mean every ballet must be a precise facsimile of the original production. If that were the case, we would not have Sleeping Beauty at all to judge by the enormous resources the Maryinsky's reconstruction required. It is entirely possible to pare down things like sets, costumes, and supernumeraries, even to reduce (to an extent) the corps de ballet while keeping the "architecture" of the piece intact. It may feel a bit like watching a skeleton to some, but good dancers can give it life.

For the record, lest anyone think I, of all people, am somehow opposed to historically accurate productions, I love the Maryinsky's reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty. It puts so many things into perspective and blows away the choreographic "dust" from many of the dances. (Now if only they would dance it in their trademark pure style, it would be ideal. I'm not asking them to don 19th-century pointe shoes and turn in their legs, but the mannerisms that company has started to affect have really got to go.) The reconstruction, which I hope the Maryinsky keeps performing, or at least films, is a great starting point for future productions of the ballet (certain flaws, such as the Bluebird pas de deux, notwithstanding) but that does not mean that every ballet company that wishes to dance Sleeping Beauty should be bound to re-create the same sets and costumes and employ hundreds of supernumeraries to fill out the court. It is a ballet that will always require a large company along the lines of ABT, PNB, &c to produce, but a thoughtful, tasteful production using simpler sets and costumes is no artistic crime, nor is it nihilistic in the least.

To summarize, yes, extensively researched productions of ballets including historically accurate sets, &c, are important and should be performed, but it is not wrong, as long as the choreography is kept intact, to alter certain elements that are not necessarily integral to the work.

Share this post


Link to post
When extensive research to re-create baroque operas as in the era they were created and extensive effort to find what is considered to be appropriate voices for the creation of a performance that shows fidelity to the works and their creation, why is the above question being posited for production of century old ballets?

I find someting nihilistic in such proposals.

I think Hans has replied to leonid's comments in a nuanced and thoughtful way. But I see leonid's point, as I am a huge fan of the baroque opera re-creation "movement"--indeed, I don't enjoy hearing Mozart played by a modern orchestra anymore--and often bristle at the ballet world's paradoxical elitist recourse to "tradition" and coarse market-driven resistance to historical accuracy (ballet company rhetoric often sounds more strategic than principled: middlebrow?). Yet I just don't think the playing fields are equal. The development of music/vocal technique has occured on a far different and older track than the development of ballet, with far less comprehensive documentation of past productions and performance details. "Revived" baroque operas don't entail any diminishment of technique or virtuosity on the part of the performers either. That's why I think we do need to posit questions about how to revive ballets, and consider carefully the effects of that reconstructing. For instance, I think Scholl's "revival" of Sleeping Beauty is amazing, but my love of it doesn't eliminate the problems in reception ("where's the dancing?") that I also acknowledge. (By contrast, historically "accurate" re-creations of baroque operas have found nearly universal acclaim.) While dance tends to operate in a zero-sum mentality--"if this version exists it will render all others impure/inaccurate/missing the essence, etc."--we might back up a bit and imagine that there's room for multiple interpretations. The Met Opera still does Mozart, after all, even if I won't go to see it there.

Share this post


Link to post

Is this all about the notion of "interpreting" a set piece? I would think when you have artistic people and all sorts of new possibilities because of "technology" etc. they will think, let me interpret this classic and bring something "new" to it. It brings out the creative juices in a way that hyper accurate facsimiles can't. And I think the ADs and so forth have a need to be creative more than "historians".

I think there is a place for both and I think that companies need to be more clear that what they present is an interpretation and not a historical "reproduction". We seem to be more comfortable with the artistic latitude found in theatrical productions, don't we?

I, for one, would love to see a very accurate reproductions of some of the classic ballets.

Share this post


Link to post
Is this all about the notion of "interpreting" a set piece? I would think when you have artistic people and all sorts of new possibilities because of "technology" etc. they will think, let me interpret this classic and bring something "new" to it. It brings out the creative juices in a way that hyper accurate facsimiles can't. And I think the ADs and so forth have a need to be creative more than "historians".

I think there is a place for both and I think that companies need to be more clear that what they present is an interpretation and not a historical "reproduction". We seem to be more comfortable with the artistic latitude found in theatrical productions, don't we?

I, for one, would love to see a very accurate reproductions of some of the classic ballets.

Points well taken. I think, though, that many modern historically minded revivals of baroque operas are also creatively superb. (I'm thinking now of productions that employ very contemporary stagings coupled with rigorous, musically authentic practice) That is, the opera world to me seems to be moving beyond the romantic-era dichotomy of tradition/history vs. innovation. Perhaps it's all that MONEY.

Share this post


Link to post

I attended a dress rehearsal at the Met recently for Manon Lescaut. When the rehearsal was concluded, the producer (I think... don't know who it was and wouldn't recognize him if I did) stood on stage and had James Levine run through a number of passages. Whomever he was, HE was telling Levine (I thought) how he wanted those passages to sound. perhaps change the tempo or something. I am not good enough to know what was actually being done.

But what was clear is that there is lots of interpretation going on, even at the level of the music and it is a collaborative effort with the AD or the producer calling a lot of the "shots". Franco Zeffirelli has made an imprint on opera and I don't know if he ever studied music! Weird isn't it?

Share this post


Link to post
Ray, I think you and I are on the same page. :off topic: Your post makes me think of the "Semele" with John Mark Ainsley and Rosemary Joshua (a clip can be found
) in which the music is performed appropriate to the Baroque period but the staging, sets, and costumes are modern. Obviously in ballet the staging cannot really be altered, but one could still do something different (but still tasteful and considerate of the ballet) with the sets and costumes.

I think it's far more difficult in ballet to maintain such a clear distinctin b/t elements of performance practice ("the steps" or "the formations") and all the other, mostly visual, elements of the staging--perhaps b/c dance is a visual art? (Though some would argue that opera often crosses a line of propriety.)

But yes, Hans, I really do enjoy opera's ability to juxtapose modern sensibility and rigorous, traditional/authentic practice. Often the results are quite poignant, as in the recent Met production of Peter Sellar's Lohengrin.

Share this post


Link to post

But yes, Hans, I really do enjoy opera's ability to juxtapose modern sensibility and rigorous, traditional/authentic practice. Often the results are quite poignant, as in the recent Met production of Peter Sellar's Lohengrin.

I believe the Met's Lohengrin is the work of Robert Wilson, not Peter Sellars.

Share this post


Link to post
I believe the Met's Lohengrin is the work of Robert Wilson, not Peter Sellars.

OOPS you're right, sorry about that Robert and Peter! For an example from Sellars, his wonderful, modern setting of the St. Matthew Passion at BAM a few Easters ago. Again, a modern staging but impeccably performed "authentic" reading of the score from both vocalists and instrumentalists.

Share this post


Link to post
Ray, I think you and I are on the same page. :clapping: Your post makes me think of the "Semele" with John Mark Ainsley and Rosemary Joshua (a clip can be found
) in which the music is performed appropriate to the Baroque period but the staging, sets, and costumes are modern. Obviously in ballet the staging cannot really be altered, but one could still do something different (but still tasteful and considerate of the ballet) with the sets and costumes.

I think it's far more difficult in ballet to maintain such a clear distinctin b/t elements of performance practice ("the steps" or "the formations") and all the other, mostly visual, elements of the staging--(Though some would argue that opera often crosses a line of propriety.)

But yes, Hans, I really do enjoy opera's ability to juxtapose modern sensibility and rigorous, traditional/authentic practice. Often the results are quite poignant, as in the recent Met production of Peter Sellar's Lohengrin.

perhaps b/c dance is a visual art?

Yes, it's more difficult because there is no 'text' to work from - in some cases there's nothing more than muscle memory!

I think a certain composer would be most upset if we referred to the opera as anything other than "Wagner's Lohengrin." :)

I would suggest, and this is not aimed at anyone in particular, that we avoid locutions along the lines of "Are you accusing me of This?" or "Are you calling me a That?" unless someone has actually said, "You THIS!" or "You THAT!" in which case we moderators will step in, have no fear. Thanks, all.

Otherwise, great discussion. Carry on.

Share this post


Link to post
I think a certain composer would be most upset if we referred to the opera as anything other than "Wagner's Lohengrin." :clapping:

Well, it's quite out of his hands now, isn't it. But I'm sure no one will forget who wrote it.

Share this post


Link to post

I don't see anything intrinsically wrong about making production changes; it's all down to why and how. Too often, perhaps, the updating is a gimmick to draw attention away from a generally inferior production, and I think audiences are right to be a little suspicious - but not to dismiss them on principle.

Take a step sideways and consider Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; in most theatres today, it would be simply impossible to stage it 'as Shakespeare intended', and few would argue that it always should be presented that way.

While Shakespeare could never have forseen the vaiety of developments to his work - including West Side Story and the Ballet - I don't think revolving remains is a likely scenario. And some versions have probably made the original more accessible to modern audiences.

If it's true for R&J, It's probaby true for "The Taming of the Shrew", which would otherwise have faded out almost entirely.

Back to ballet, change has breathed new life into many classics, and perhaps made some of us more appreciative of the original as a result of having to consciously compare. And potential audiences always have a choice.

Producers should surely be free to use new materials for costumes, 'see thru' curtains and back lighting to create effects limelite could not, and back projection too.

We can judge the various versions on their own merits.

Also, with the wonders of the digital age, we can keep a record of the original / pure form for later comparison, and possible revival. That's assuming the companies don't refuse to release them on the grounds that "it's no longer part of our programme".

Share this post


Link to post