I went last night to see a performance at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) of Les Arts Florissant performing two short operas; Acteon of Charpentier and Dido and Aeneus of Purcell. Les Arts Florissant is a wonderful group of singers and instrumentalists founded and run by William Christie, renowned specialist of Baroque music. The tickets were given to me by the director of the production, who was also the director of Agrippina in Berlin.
I could describe the whole thing to you, but honestly, I think Anthony Tommasini does a really god job in his review that appeared in the New York Times. But suffice to say that the production was really moving and extraordinarily effective. But it was definitely not expensive - the only set was a large mirror, there were no props, and the costumes, although elegant, were quite simple. The simplicity yet excellence of the production sparked a conversation between me and my friend about why more regional opera companies who are strapped for cash don't employ this same idea for their productions. Does Carmen always have to be done on a rickety set from the 1970's with rented costumes that smell horrible and look worse and oversized wigs and drag queen makeup? Too often with regional American companies, the aesthetic of the performance is about something that looks traditionally like what people might think an opera is "supposed" to look like, and the quality suffers as a result. But would an audience in timbucktoo, US appreciate a Carmen staged with a big mirror as the only set piece?
I say yes, but only if the direction was as clever and as good as the production I saw last night. Of course, it certainly didn't hurt that the performers have all trained under one of THE baroque music specialists of our time, and so the musical values were so high that the performance was bound to be very moving if only from a musical standpoint. But I have to say that the simplicity of the production only added to the excellence of the music making in this case. If an audience in a regional U.S. town is expecting a Barber of Seville with fans and stucco garden sets, it's true that they may be a little taken aback by a sparse set and more natural looking costumes in the first few moments. But I truly believe that a well directed, well lit opera becomes a visceral experience for an audience, and even if they were expecting something more "traditional" they will be moved to change their opinion by the end of the night. That's what I would focus on if I were running an opera company. That and education - but that's a whole other blog post.