"Regietheater" is German for "Director's Theater," and we see a lot of it in the opera house these days. In it, directors are allowed to impose their "concepts" over a dramatic work, and, in doing so, they often go directly against the wishes of the work's authors.
This current season at the Metropolitan Opera House, we have a new production of Mozart and DaPonte's Cosi fan tutte which moves the action from 18th-century Naples to 20th-Century Coney Island. A few seasons ago, there was a new production of Verdi's Rigoletto with the action moved to 1960s Las Vegas.
Richard Rodgers once said that when a musical show is successful, the sets and costumes look the way the orchestrations sound. Every creative artist from every department is on the same wave length, and they are each making the same general statement with their contributions to the show. That's my ideal as well, and I see less and less of it at the opera house.
I can cite specifics from two recent Met Opera productions.
The Met's 2016 production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde sets the action on a big, modern ocean-liner. During the Vorspiel (Prelude), images from the ship's sonar device are projected on the screen. Fair enough. It's nice to have something to look at while you listen. When the opera itself starts, the first voice we hear is that of a young sailor singing while on watch. The stage direction from Wagner's libretto says "(heard from a height, as if from the masthead)" Our young sailor sings:
Westwards the gaze wanders; eastwards skims the ship.
Fresh the wind blows towards home: my Irish child, where are you now?
Is it your wafting sighs that swell my sails?
Blow, blow, you wind!
What sails? This is a modern ship with an engine. The ship moves whether there's a wind or not. Why is this sailor even out on deck? If he's on watch, his place is sitting in front of the sonar screen, We just saw it!
Also from 2018, there was a new production of Strauss's Elektra. This opera is supposed to start with a big, loud, brassy burst from the orchestra, stating the Agamemnon theme. Instead, the curtain opens on a bunch of servants with brooms, sweeping the courtyard in silence. This goes on for a while, and when the orchestra does enter, it seems arbitrary, and is robbed of it's power.
The librettist's wishes are no longer honored, and neither are the composer's wishes.
Lest you think I am a Luddite, resistant to all change and innovation, I'll close by citing one modern director who, by me, creates thrilling theater without betraying the source material. I'm speaking of William Kentridge. So far, the Met has commissioned Kentridge to design and direct productions of Shostakovich's The Nose, and Berg's Lulu. Both productions are huge successes, both artistic and financial. Much of the success is due to Kentridge's sensitivity to the styles of the composers; his designs match and enhance the music. I'm eager to see more such work, not only from Kentridge, but any other directors who have the courage to make a true collaboration with the composer and librettist. May it be so!