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COVER STORY

The Directors' Cuts

Opera used to mean old warhorses staged by old warriors. But nowadays provocative stagings, often by artists in other fields, are the trend. Next up at L.A. Opera: Franco Zeffirelli updates 'Pagliacci.'

September 01, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

The twin gray pillars of a highway overpass tower toward the proscenium on either side of a cinder-block tenement building. Graffiti stakes its claim on a lower wall, not far from the neon bar sign, while a clothesline sporting jeans, shorts and a dress shirt hangs above.

A group of men, women and kids, including one guy on roller blades, mills about near a stand selling Fritos, chips and Coke. A fire-engine-red convertible sports coupe is parked upstage, and a beat-up camper-trailer rests downstage amid a clutter of trunks.

The setting is a neighborhood where a traveling company of variety players has temporarily thrown down anchor. But it's hardly the bucolic encampment of a late 19th century commedia dell'arte troupe that veteran opera-goers might expect.

This is not your father's "Pagliacci." It is Franco Zeffirelli's.

The new Los Angeles Music Center Opera production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's popular verismo standard--which opens Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and stars Placido Domingo--marks the director-designer's L.A. operatic debut.

And it's far from a traditional period approach to the 1892 work.

"I have a very contemporary vision, a present-day approach to the piece," said the engaging Italian director, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, as he held forth by the pool at the Hollywood Hills home where he is temporarily quartered, while twilight gathered one recent evening. "This production happens today, in a suburb of Naples."

Although better known here and throughout America as a filmmaker, Zeffirelli is also one of the most widely seen opera directors of his time. He has created nearly 100 new productions in major houses throughout the world--10 of which are in the active repertory of the Metropolitan Opera alone--and has worked with great stars from Maria Callas to Domingo. He has also made opera films, including "La Traviata" and "Otello."

But Zeffirelli is, in many ways, one of the last directors you would expect to find doing an update.

"I'm against 'Hamlet' in modern clothes or [making the heroine of] 'Traviata' like a hustler today," he says, referring to the contemporary fashion of re-dressing classics.

"These productions are so confused, so abstract," he says. "I haven't been [taken] by the egomaniac idea of 'Yes, it is Verdi, but it's old-fashioned, so let's Brecht the whole thing.' I was never tempted to do a 'Boheme' where Mimi dies of AIDS."

His objections to most updates notwithstanding, Zeffirelli believes that "Pagliacci," which centers on marital infidelity culminating in murder, is a different matter. Leoncavallo's melodrama is one of the earliest works of the verismo school--a late 19th century opera movement whose emergence paralleled that of naturalism in the novel and foreshadowed mid-20th century realism in the theater--and actually slightly predates the genre's true beginning.

" 'Pagliacci' was the first realistic opera," Zeffirelli says. "Leoncavallo invented, without really knowing or being fully aware [of it], verismo. Opera could be real. It could tell of people today, not just romantic fantasy.

" 'Pagliacci' was born as a document of real life, from a story that the author read in the paper," says the director, who has created three previous stagings of the same opera, the first in 1959. "So I felt absolutely justified and motivated in bringing it closer to us. 'Pagliacci' is a piece that works better [reset] than if you do it in the period when it was written."

*

It may be somewhat ironic in view of his avowed devotion to the classical style of interpretation, but in bringing the tale of the cuckolded clown into the world of today, Zeffirelli is right in step with current operatic fashion.

Owing in large part to heightened concerns about the aging of its traditional patron base and the difficulties of attracting new audiences, opera has, in the past decade or so, seemed increasingly receptive to provocative stagings and programming, often with innovative, crossover directors at the helm.

L.A. Opera, with one or two outings (out of about seven total productions) each season in the "new and unusual" category, has made its mark as a company that is a part of this trend. It has presented new operas such as Peter Sellars and John Adams' "Nixon in China," although not as premieres, and new productions such as last season's abstract symbolist version of "Der Fliegende Hollander" (The Flying Dutchman) by Julie Taymor. It has matched grand opera with movie directors such as Herbert Ross, whose "La Boheme" was mostly traditional even if the choice of director wasn't. And it has enlisted visual artists such as Gerald Scarfe and David Hockney to do design and, in Hockney's case, directing as well.

Cultivation of the unexpected has, in fact, been part of L.A. Opera's game plan from the get-go.

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