From Argentina, the most European and intellectual country in South America, came to Europe those spirits that have enlightened and entertained our stages, such as Copi, Jérôme Savary, Alfredo Arias, Astor Piazzolla or the recently deceased Jorge Lavelli, who staged a Faust that was violently booed and yet lasted for forty years, becoming a classic at the Paris Opera. Argentina is also home to minds like Jorge Luis Borges, whose works continue to enlighten us, reminding us that the world can be beautiful in all its complexity.
Yet Argentina has just brought to power a character from the Great Circus who wields a chainsaw as a sceptre.… Shakespeare would surely have dreamt of this, because these characters we thought were fictional are starting to invade our reality. For once, it is not the theatre watching the world, it is the world becoming, alas, a tragic stage. A full horror night's dream
Another place, another drama : the fortress of Machaerus in Jordan, which dominates the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and which, according to biblical legend, was the scene of Salome's dance contortions, is at the gates of a region now once again plunged into the black hole of hatred and bloodshed. This is the same Salome by Richard Strauss that has just triumphed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's production at the Hamburg Opera, whose management, in the wake of events in the Middle East, found it necessary to warn in the programme that the libretto contained anti-Semitic diatribes.
A full horror night's dream
In this world, which seems to be living through a Shakespearian apocalypse, theatre and opera are of course placed heavily in the limelight, and yet there are those who tell us that opera was supposed to be a happy island of painted canvas colours and feathery smiles cradled by music that “soothes the savage beast”.
Opera, like all art, has never been anything but a reflection of the world, simply because it is first and foremost theatre, as its founders dreamed, a theatre that wanted to come as close as possible to its origins in Greek tragedy.
And precisely because it is first and foremost theatre, opera uses the medium of staging to speak to the world, as the language that translates the work to show it to the audience. Staging is thus not a superfluous tool, but the mediator in the process of transmitting the work. Because it transmits, staging constantly takes into account the audience, which by the laws of evolution evolves according to time, era and context. The audience of 2023 is therefore singular : it watches operas as an audience of 2023 and not of 1876 (Ring, Wagner,Bayreuth), 1891 (Salome, Oscar Wilde) or 1905 (Salome Richard Strauss).
This is why we do not understand the current debate about 'modern' directors who do not respect operas and their authors, as if their 'modernity' meant rape or betrayal of an untouchable heritage. Wagner's great lesson is that staging is not simply arranging the performers on a stage, but making the whole come alive and form a coherent whole that can be described as a 'vision'. This is why directing is an art in its own right, complementing the other dimensions by simply giving them meaning and possibility. Staging provides an angle, light, emotional context and analysis. It defines the scope and impact of a work at a given time and in a given context.
Respecting works of art is about showing that they can stand the test of time, the multiplicity of contradictory viewpoints and the debates they provoke. It is about showing that they tell us something different every time, not about respecting an untouchable fortress of beauty. The staging illustrates André Gide's beautiful phrase : 'The importance is in your gaze and not in the thing you look at'.
Thus Hernani's anger, his boohs, his battles, which have always existed, are of little importance. Through their violence and ridicule, these folkloric vanities speak of a deeper truth that must be stubbornly defended : live performance still has a dynamic role to play in society.
What would limp consensus theatre be ? It would empty theatres.
That is why we find this controversy about 'modern' staging being detrimental to opera so distressing, mainly because the terms of the opposition are unclear : What do we want instead ? 'Beauty' rather than ugliness, 'respect' rather than betrayal, 'conformity' to the libretto rather than transpositions that are not always readable… On the understanding that 'modernity' in itself is not a value, but an experience for the future, and therefore a duty. Time will recognise its own, as in Chereau's Ring in Bayreuth, initially hated but later becoming a cult…
Let us then reread two sentences (among others) that tell us what opera should be :
"It is a music built on the same principle of negation as “leftist” opera, which denies in the theatre simplicity, realism, intelligibility, the natural resonance of the word”
“The “leftist” ugliness in opera emanates from the same source as the “leftist”ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, science".
They are attributed to Stalin and are taken from the Pravda article of 28 January 1936 denouncing Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. These obscurantist words resonate particularly when one reads the 'arguments' of the new crusaders at war against 'disrespectful' modern productions and so-called Regietheater…
These morals are not for us.