Newness can be a selling point even for a production of a 250-year-old opera. But for director Robert Carsen, who is restaging his Chicago Lyric Opera version ofGluck's Orfeo ed Euridice for the Canadian Opera Company, reviving a show can also be a novel exercise, in adapting from one set of conditions to another.
"I really enjoy revisiting productions," says the 56-year-old Canadian. "For me, it's never finished after the first night. And [countertenor]Lawrence Zazzo is different from David Daniels, who did it in Chicago. When you're doing Orfeo, you have to make it work for the singer. It's as near to a one-man show as I know in a three-act opera."
Since his last project with the COC (Harry Somers's Mario and the Magician) 19 years ago, Carsen has become one of the most sought-after opera directors in the world. In September alone, he'll open La Scala's fall season with a new staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni, direct a new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw in Vienna, and open the COC season with Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in a production already seen in four other theatres, including London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden.
Orfeo is the first and most famous of Gluck's so-called reform operas, in which he and a librettist tried to return an overelaborate art form to the directness of its early days. Carsen says the same spirit should guide the way the story is presented today. "The theme of Orfeo is so fundamental - the idea that someone has such intense love, he's willing to do anything to bring back the woman he loves," Carsen says. "Gluck is always connected with the essentials of that drama, and he never lets himself show off."
Orfeo presents some real challenges for a director, especially in the second act, in which, as Carsen says, "nothing happens, twice." The hero goes down to Hades, sings the Furies into a pacified state, continues on to Elysium and goes gaga over the beauty of that environment. Only at the end of the act does he collect the dead wife with whom, in act three, he meets his agonizing dilemma: whether to save Euridice by ignoring her, or lose her again by showing his love.
Carsen has tweaked the second act a little for the COC, again in line with the particular character of the lead singer. It's clear that for this director the concept of a production bears fruit only if you follow it through in every detail, in line with the detailed clues contained in the text and music.
"Robert has a very good intuitive sense as far as the music is concerned," says Michael Levine, the Canadian designer who has collaborated with Carsen on more than 20 operas. "He has a very keen awareness of the emotional needs of the music. That's incredibly important for an opera director, and I can tell you, not everyone [who does this work]has that." Carsen is also very adept, he says, at the advance planning, logistical manoeuvring and diplomatic skills needed to get large opera houses and marquee singers to do things his way.
The Gluck operas took on new resonance for Carsen after he designed a Grand Palais exhibition three years ago related to Marie Antoinette, who as a girl was a pupil of Gluck's in Vienna and brought him to Paris after she became queen. Carsen's design work on two other Parisian exhibitions, related to the architect Charles Garnier and (still to come) on the theme of the Gypsy in European art, convinced him to try designing sets and costumes for an opera for the first time.
His design for The Turn of the Screw will employ the lighting style and black-and-white palette of film noir, he says. He was led in that direction by the opera's suspense; its short, almost cinematographic scenes; and the elusive mentality of a governess whose experience of ghosts is never plainly defined as real.
"She's like one of those Hitchcock blondes, who has a problem, and obsesses about it," Carsen says. "You have to keep the thing open-ended enough, and to do that, I'm doing something much more complicated than I've ever done when there's somebody else designing."
Ultimately, he says, whatever the concept, opera is always about telling a story, and about getting at something essential in our experience of time.
"So often, we feel that life is too short," he says, "and yet we're desperate to find ways to spend time or even waste it, because we don't know what to do with it. When you go into a theatre, you're spending a limited time to see something. But that time can expand magically and take you to a timeless place, in communion with other people. It can be only entertainment, or it can mean something intense that can work on you later. There aren't many things that can do that."
The COC's production of Orfeo ed Euridice opens at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre on Sunday.