And that’s one of the keys to director Jonathan Miller’s vision of the piece. “People might be surprised by the stark simplicity of the setting,” he says, “but it gets stifled with upholstery and heavy representational realism. The luxury suffocates the work. I like some measure of simplicity and even abstraction.”
Miller sprawls in a lawn chair in back of the Alice Busch Opera Theatre, jeans and work shirt giving him the appearance of someone who’s just cut the grass. He waves to passing cast and crew, murmuring words of greeting to them as he considers the project at hand.
It’s a Glimmerglass Opera tradition to present operas in English, and Miller is happy to oblige. Even as he acknowledges that it’s a touchy issue. “People get very snobbish about it. Obviously, it’s less than perfect: the best thing of all would be a bilingual audience. But in the absence of that, I think it’s best to have it spoken in a way that lets the audience understand exactly what’s going on at the moment it’s being sung.
“I understand that, in the case of great libretti, there’s a perfect marriage between the syllabic structure of the language and the rhythmic structure of the music, and of course it’s better and wittier when we can hear Da Ponte’s words married to Mozart’s music. But that’s the best of all possible worlds, and we don’t have that. As soon as opera is let out on parole as it were, away from its family and habitat, and you really want to make it a theatrical experience rather than just a concert approximation, I think you’re bound to introduce the audience to what’s going on at the moment.”
If the voice and manner seem familiar, it’s thanks to Miller’s many appearances in other guises. His television series “The Body in Question” brought him to the attention of PBS viewers, and the same network broadcast his staging of “The Mikado.” He is artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, where an acclaimed “King Lear” was one of his most recent productions.
He first came to the attention of the theater world dramatically quickly: as one of the quartet behind (and in) “Beyond the Fringe,” a satirical revue that played on Broadway. He attained much notoriety with an English National Opera production of “Rigoletto” that re-set the Verdi opera in modern times with a mafia family.
“As soon as you have any idea about an opera that’s not self-evident or traditional,” he explains, “you almost always come up against prejudices about the supposedly conventional way of doing it. Occasionally I transpose things into modern period. I do it very sparingly, only if it reveals something very powerful about the work which is undisclosed. And I won’t do that with any 18th-century works; I do it only with 19th-century works, because 19th-century works are so loosely attached to the historic settings which were chosen by the composers. The 19th-century composers were loosely interested in history; it wasn’t a genuine history they were after, it was historical color.”
But this approach would not work with “La Traviata,” despite a fondness on the part of other directors for doing so. “I think it actually must be done in the year in which it was written. I don’t think it would make much sense outside that. sort of world. It didn’t exist before: there wasn’t anything like it in the 18th century. There were brothels, but not a demimonde. That’s the creation of the bourgeoisie. It’s a world unique to that period in Paris. It wouldn’t make any sense after that: once you get into the 20th century nobody would behave like that.”
He offers a tour of the stage, where crew is hammering and painting. Bernard Culshaw, a frequent collaborator with Miller, designed the sets and costumes. The latter are promised to be fully in keeping with the period, but the set is little more than a giant, marbleized box. Miller grins. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he says. “Not at all what you’d expect.”
Miller’s association with the Glimmerglass Opera began very casually: he mentioned to friends of his, board members of the opera, that the setting sounded lovely and he might be interested in directing there someday. And that sense of casualness remains, adding to the pleasure of his four weeks of working in Cooperstown. “It’s like a family here. It’s also like a very talented summer camp, perhaps some sort of music camp. Everyone knows their jobs and they’re all rather good at it. There’s also a sense of festive conviviality, out in this beautiful countryside, living close together, eating together, working together.”
Soprano Stephanie Friede sings the title role, with tenor James Schwisow as Alfredo. Baritone Brian Steele returns after his success in this and previous seasons’ productions of “The Mighty Casey” to sing the role of the elder Germont, Alfredo’s stern dad. Glimmerglass Opera Music Director Stewart Robertson conducts the orchestra.
Performances are at 8 p.m. tonight and July 26, 28, Aug. 1, 3 and 5, and at 2:30 p.m. July 24, 30 and Aug. 7.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 22 July 1989