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In Europe, Opera Takes On Our Time

Mr. Foccroulle’s approach was evident in the other work I saw at Aix, Bizet’s “Carmen.” It’s opera’s ultimate golden oldie, but Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production, meticulously staged and performed with rare intensity, questions why we keep coming back to this story. The traditional Spanish setting has vanished, in favor of a complex framing narrative in which an alienated modern man in therapy is prescribed the enactment of Bizet’s deadly love story so he can reconnect with his emotions.

This is the production’s sense of our world: deadened masculinity. It essentially replaces Don José’s obsession with Carmen (the character) with an obsession with “Carmen” (the opera). Despite its intricacy and novelty, though, it still felt utterly true to the characters’ stories.


Center foreground, Catherine Naglestad in “Die Gezeichneten” at the Bavarian State Opera.

Wilfried Hösl

I can’t, however, make the same promise of accessibility when it comes to Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Franz Schreker’s 1918 rarity, “Die Gezeichneten,” which had its premiere at the Bavarian State Opera the previous week. While the libretto sets the work in the Italian Renaissance, this staging plays out, like “Rake,” among an immoral contemporary elite, a group of men in a corporate boardroom.

The plot concerns Alviano Salvago, a disfigured outcast who constructs an island paradise, the pleasures of which go awry when other aristocrats use it as a base for abducting and assaulting the maidens of Genoa. Schreker wrote a cautionary tale of moral decadence, but his effusive post-Romantic musical style makes sin sound really good.

This production was, above all, a showcase for the Bavarian State Opera’s outstanding, powerful orchestra, led here by Ingo Metzmacher. Singing with conviction and endurance, the cast included John Daszak as Alviano, and Catherine Naglestad as the painter Carlotta.

Mr. Warlikowski’s production is best when he pushes at the boundaries between art and life, pleasure and immorality. A self-reflexive thread made Alviano into a Schreker stand-in, with the loss of his island paradise standing in for this composer’s condemnation by the Nazis. Sometimes the allusions were too much. (I still can’t figure out what the references to a Kafka story about mice were up to.) But Mr. Warlikowski’s enigmatic, melancholy images of showgirls, boxing rings, silent movies and performance art can be entrancing in their ambiguity, like a puzzle from a strange mind. If you’re into David Lynch, Mr. Warlikowski is the director for you.

Perhaps the strongest argument for opera in Europe is the variety of approaches. In Zurich, a revival of Andreas Homoki’s production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” offered a very different model of what opera can be. Set in a 19th-century Alpine village, it features characters who are pointedly closed off to a wider society. (This, in itself, may be a comment on that — on our — world.) The evening plays out in a plain wooden box, and the costumes of lederhosen and dirndls, while picturesque, are hardly the medieval dress of a conventional “Lohengrin.”

The production rejects otherworldly effects: The knight-savior Lohengrin appears in a nightshirt amid a crowd of chorus members and never seems to wield any magical powers. The cast, with Brandon Jovanovich and Rachel Willis-Sorensen in the leading roles, was heartfelt, but, perhaps intentionally, never transcended the production’s intimate scale. The opera became a simple, quietly compelling, all too reverberant tale of a community in crisis.

Mr. Homoki’s rejection of allegory is unusual for “Lohengrin,” an opera whose questions of faith, trust and social cohesion have often lent themselves to fanciful interpretations, like Hans Neuenfels’s mouse-themed production for the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. After the rich food for thought in Aix and Munich, I found Mr. Homoki’s approach rather plain, however luminous Fabio Luisi’s conducting was. But it is never boring, and its careful craft and expressivity have their own kind of honesty, particularly in the intimate space of Zurich’s opera house.

It’s also noteworthy that all these productions featured prominent, and excellent, performances by American singers: As well as Ms. Naglestad, Mr. Jovanovich and Ms. Willis-Sorensen, the list also included Michael Fabiano in “Carmen,” and Paul Appleby and Julia Bullock in “Rake’s Progress.” You hope they will bring something from these adventurous and intense operatic experiments back home.

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