When I was working recently on a profile of the baritone Sanford Sylvan for this newspaper, I watched a DVD recording of one of the performances that brought him widespread acclaim in the opera world. It was in one of the iconic productions of the 1980s: Peter Sellars’s version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.
The production became famous as the “diner Così,” but in its original incarnation it was about as specific, as locavore, as opera can get. The first performances were in 1984 at the Castle Hill Festival in the coastal town of Ipswich, Mass. The diner set was not just any diner, but a roadside establishment that anyone in the audience would instantly recognize, the kind that dotted nearby Route 1A.
It is not surprising that this production was of an opera by Mozart, as were two of the others that brought Mr. Sellars recognition during the brilliant early period of his career: a Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem and Le Nozze di Figaro in the penthouse apartment at the Trump Tower. Of the major opera composers, only Wagner offers more natural room than Mozart for this kind of updating and conceptual transformation, but Mozart’s works have always been more immediately and widely appealing. Audiences love them, and they reward directors with their dramatic acuity and full, human characters.
They challenge directors, too. Mozart remains the wild card of the operatic canon, with a tone delicate and almost impossible to capture, veering from farce to tragedy in the course of a scene without ever seeming too much. Strauss self-consciously echoed his bittersweetness, but there is no other composer who created operas as exquisitely ambiguous as Mozart’s. The end of Così is like one of those choose-your-own-adventure novels; it’s unclear what has happened to the wreckage of the two young relationships at the center of the plot, and even who ends up marrying whom is up for grabs.
But Mozart’s operas have become so familiar that they are sometimes taken for granted. Many people still assume that they are Masterpiece Theater spectacles, inert and well behaved. At least that is the depressing conclusion to be drawn from the Così productions at two of the world’s most important opera houses, one at the Metropolitan Opera that was brought back last season and one at the Paris Opera, a revival that I saw last month. Well lit and without ideas, both are interested in the opera for its picturesque aspects rather than its psychological depth or aesthetic sophistication.
For those qualities we will have to wait until March, when the New York City Opera presents Christopher Alden’s production of Così. His Don Giovanni for City Opera in 2009 was committed to the full range of the work’s emotions, both its eeriness and its bitter comedy; in London this summer he directed a haunting version of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream that was even better. He is working at the top of his game.
In Barcelona in June I saw a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by the legendary director Peter Brook, whose Tragedie de Carmen was a daring, influential adaptation of Bizet’s crowd-pleaser. (The much-traveled Flute production went from Spain to New York for a run at the Lincoln Center Festival.)
In a gesture simultaneously self-effacing and pretentious, Mr. Brook called his production A Magic Flute, apparently using the indefinite article to suggest that his version is but one of many possibilities. Whatever.
In Mozart’s other well-known operas—including Così, Figaro and Giovanni—the entire libretto is sung. The Magic Flute, on the other hand, is a Singspiel, a genre that combines spoken dialogue, special effects—magic and fantasy figured prominently—and self-enclosed musical numbers. It is closer to operetta or modern musical theater than to what we think of today as opera. The performances tend to be hectic, with room for improvisation and sharp veering from the script. It was vaudeville avant la lettre.
For A Magic Flute, Mr. Brook and his collaborators distilled the opera into a neat chamber ritual. Performed by a single, hardworking pianist, the new score flies from snippet to snippet of the original in a style that owes much to Liszt’s famous piano transcriptions but has none of their bombast; the effect is virtuosic and pleasing but also gauzy and vague, like Debussy on Xanax. The cast has been pared down to the essentials: the principals, plus two actors who serve as stagehands and sources of all-purpose mystical intervention. (In the performance I saw, both of these actors were black, and the uncomfortable, unfortunate evocation was of the stereotype of the “magical Negro,” using occult powers to facilitate the love plot of white protagonists.)
The set was simple, the stage bare except for a stylized forest of unembellished poles, which were picked up and used as makeshift props and indicators of scenes. The young cast was excellent, and new insights popped up throughout: the Queen of the Night, usually distant and imperious, with her dazzlingly high coloratura, was here just another girl, wounded and angry.
But the overall effect was wan. In the guise of a fresh rethinking, the production treated the work with numbing reverence. The whole thing had an elegance that was aggressive to the point of stultifying. The singing was lovely, the piano arrangement pretty and thoughtful. But there was no sign of life, let alone vaudeville. It was bloodless and boring.
It could not have been further from René Jacobs’s recent recording of the opera, the latest in his dazzling Mozart series on the Harmonia Mundi label. The recording careers breathlessly and exhilaratingly—O.K., sometimes exhaustingly—through the score. Mr. Jacobs’s interpretation can be bewildering until you get used to it. The singers and orchestra don’t always wait for each other; they’re constantly finishing each other’s sentences and moving on. There’s an antic quality, a sense that things might fly off the rails. It couldn’t be more different from what we think of today as an ideal performance.
The tempos speed up and slow down unpredictably. Instruments pop out of the orchestral textures that I’ve never heard there before; there are improvisatory passages that would have been natural when the work was first performed but are now strange and new. Listening to it, I got the uncanny sensation, as I have from all of Mr. Jacobs’s magnificent Mozarts, that I was there, in late-18th-century Vienna. This, it seems, is what it must have been like: all the energy and dazzle, the unpredictability and life, that those early audiences must have gotten from him.
Last week there was a very different form of that unpredictability and energy in a new production of Don Giovanni conducted and directed by Ivan Fischer and presented as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. At first it seemed like the show would feature still more of Peter Brook-style preciousness. On stage as the audience sat down were a few figures covered entirely in ashy, gray chalk, like George Segal sculptures. They were sitting in various positions, serious and still.
Yet unlike A Magic Flute, here the elegance had intellectual heft. Like Mr. Alden’s City Opera production of Don Giovanni, Mr. Fischer’s explored the work’s central thematic preoccupation: repetition, the inability to stop. In his program note he connected this explicitly to the problem of addiction, and the mood of the production was an addict’s, aching with isolation and long, lonely hours. The characters’ disguises, their difficulties identifying each other, were echoed in the anonymity and interchangeability of the gray figures, which—appearing both alive and dead, controlled and free—became the chorus and the extras. I was aware as never before of the pathetic inability of the characters to change their circumstances; Mozart and his great librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, created psyches that were the mirror of unchanging social facts, classes that refused to budge.
It was all done on two small platforms and an otherwise bare stage, a set even more spare than Mr. Alden’s had been. Both productions, two of the finest to come to New York in recent years, have raised the bar for the next major Mozart on the horizon: the Met’s new production of Don Giovanni, coming in October and directed by Michael Grandage, who won the Tony last year for Red.
On Thursday Mr. Fischer’s distinguished Budapest Festival Orchestra played with ferocious precision. The cast, particularly Laura Aikin as a desperate Donna Anna and Jose Fardilha as an alternately wry and overwhelmed Leporello, was excellent, with rich, full voices and generous, passionate acting. As in Mr. Jacobs’s The Magic Flute, there were fleeting sensations of utter authenticity. This, you could let yourself imagine, was what Mozart wanted us to see.