Robert Carsen is Opera’s Most Trusted Perfect Director


SALZBURG, Austria — “I personally don’t like the word ‘reliable’,” said Robert Carsen in an interview here recently. “Sounds so boring.”

I approached Carsen with a theory: he might be the most reliable director in opera. I meant this as high praise: His work is by no means repetitive, cautious, or boring. However, it has been unmatchedly reliable in over 125 productions over three decades in the field.

You can expect Carsen productions to be sophisticated, clever, and conceptually airtight. While they connect with newcomers, they also leave room for mystery and provocation. They are elegantly designed, even strikingly beautiful, but not superficial. And always – reliably – their confidence reflects Carsen’s mastery of the material at hand.

All this is evident in Handel’s staging of his oratorio. “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” It is shown at the Salzburg Festival until 17 August. But it’s also evident in the 10 productions I revisited in the video this summer.

If you’re an opera fan, you’ve probably seen at least one of these. Carsen’s career has varied—including theatre, exhibition design, and fashion—but he estimated that about 75 percent of that was in opera. Carsen, 67, who was born in Canada but trained as an actor in London and acquired a home there until Brexit prompted him to move to Portugal, was released in 1988 with a clumsy and ironic staging of Boito’s rare “Mefistofelle”. made a breakthrough. Take on “Faust” for the Geneva Opera.

It wasn’t a modest introduction: Carsen countered the piece’s messiness with a spectacle of softly shifting records of candor and sarcasm. Production went far beyond Geneva and Revived by the Metropolitan Opera As recently as 2018.

Carsen has said that since “Mephistopheles” he never had any real plans for his career, but he has always been attracted to the essential components of opera: concrete text and abstract music. “When the two are in harmony, you have this wonderful experience,” he said. “Your head and heart are busy, satisfied, and in dialogue with each other.”

Carsen has preferences. “I don’t have an emotional reaction,” he said of Rossini; his favorites are Janacek and Handel, “because they are so honest”. And he has wanted to stage Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” for 25 years.

If Carsen got that piece, it would probably start with Auden’s libretto. Due to his acting education, he obsessively studies texts, which explains the completeness of his concepts.

“If something doesn’t work completely, you have to throw it away,” he said. “Something has to work from start to finish for me to be satisfied, and sometimes people only finally understand why you made a certain choice.”

For example, in a “Tannhäuser” staged in Barcelona, ​​he carried Wagner’s story of a singing knight to a contemporary painter’s studio. Rather than succumb to a struggle between the sacred and the profane, the artist reconciles them with a new genre of art that was initially rejected, but in the final moments of the opera he joins a gallery of masterpieces misunderstood in his own time.

A bittersweet ending that doesn’t seem to follow the libretto. But it makes sense: Tannhäuser’s salvation is ultimately not in his hands, whether in medieval Germany or in the pantheon of Western art.

From time to time, Carsen made his Tchaikovsky debut at the Met in 1997 (and Available on request in a movie from 2007). Surrounded by high white walls, the stage covered in autumn leaves is a remarkably substitute player playground. At the end of the opera, Carsen breaks tradition and fights back in World War II before Onegin’s fatal duel with his best friend. Finishes the curtain.

When that moment finally comes, after the break, it leads directly to the jovial polonaise that opens the third act, now shockingly ironic: Onegin does not miss a beat after killing his friend, staying where he is while his servants spray him perfume and clothes. for a ball of him. It is Echt Carsen: faithful to the opera, but still based on it.

Tatyana in this “Onegin” was Renée Fleming, who reunited with Carsen for Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Royal Opera House in London. Came to the Met in 2017. This could be Carsen’s perfect production: gorgeous, sensual and cleverly thought out, an impressive coup de théâtre in closing.

He carried the action of the opera to the time and place of its premiere: the Vienna I. nouveau riche arms dealer. There are other touches drawn from extravagant moments in the text; Carsen takes Marschallin out of the opera arm in arm with another young soldier, based on a story he begins to tell his lover Octavian in Act I, before suddenly changing the subject. Opera may be about one relationship, but this is neither the first nor the last.

The production unexpectedly resonated in the first months of the Trump presidency when it reached the Met, where the country felt on the verge of an uncertain future after the abrupt end of the Obama era. The first scenes reflect the unsustainable excess of pre-war life; The walls of Marschallin’s bedroom can barely hold the weight of all the portraits and history of his family. And the set literally explodes in the opera’s final measures, revealing the fog of cannon fire and frontline soldiers – a rough awakening from the opera’s dream of romance.

For “Il Trionfo” in Salzburg, things might look more contemporary: the character Bellezza (Beauty) is presented as the winner of the “World’s Next Top Model” and is then drawn into celebrity life by one of the judges, Piacere. (Pleasure) – while the other two, Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Insight), engage in some kind of battle for his soul. But as it continues, production becomes more and more abstract.

The first half is a parade of glamorously hedonistic paintings whose use of video, unusual in a Carsen production, is more of a dramatic tool than a gimmick. At one point the videos focus invasively on Bellezza, who, despite the apparent damage to her mental health, has come under the brutal scrutiny of fame; You can imagine her as Britney Spears or Naomi Osaka.

But as Tempo and Disinganno lift the curtain of the theater of truth, as they say in the second half, the stage becomes shallower and is finally replaced by a mirror that gives way to the absence of any set: an exposed backstage with only Bellezza as the back door. opens, goes out into the street. At the end of this oratorio there is no more theater, only reality.

A powerful closing look for a work that wasn’t even intended to be staged in the beginning. Still, Carsen makes it into sustainable drama with her yes, perfection that she can count on to deliver.


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