Robert Carsen Is Opera’s Most Reliably Excellent Director

NYT Music

SALZBURG, Austria — “I personally don’t like the word ‘reliable,’” Robert Carsen said in an interview here recently. “It sounds so boring.”

I had approached Carsen with a theory: that he might be the most, well, reliable director in opera. I meant it as high praise: His work is by no means repetitive, cautious or dull. But in more than 125 productions over three decades in the field, he has been peerlessly dependable.

You can expect Carsen productions to be sophisticated, intelligently conceived and conceptually airtight. They connect with newcomers, while also leaving room for mystery and provocation. They are elegantly designed, even strikingly beautiful, yet not superficial. And always — reliably, you could say — their confidence reflects Carsen’s mastery of the material at hand.

All this is evident in his staging of Handel’s oratorio “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” which is running at the Salzburg Festival through Aug. 17. But it also can be clearly seen in the 10 more of his productions that I revisited on video this summer.

If you’re an opera fan, chances are you’ve seen at least one of them. Carsen’s career has been varied — also including theater, exhibition design and fashion — but about 75 percent of it, he estimated, has been in opera. Carsen, 67, who was born in Canada but trained as an actor in London and made a home there until Brexit prompted him to move to Portugal, had his breakthrough in 1988 with a staging of the Boito rarity “Mefistofele,” an unwieldy and ironic take on “Faust,” for the Geneva Opera.

It was no modest entrance: Carsen greeted the piece’s messiness with a spectacle of smoothly shifting registers of sincerity and sarcasm. The production traveled far beyond Geneva, and was revived by the Metropolitan Opera as recently as 2018.

Since “Mefistofele,” Carsen said, he has never had a real plan for his career, but he has always been attracted to opera for its basic ingredients: concrete text and abstract music. “When the two come in harmony, you get this amazing experience,” he said. “Your head and your heart are engaged, satisfied and in dialogue with each other.”

Carsen has his preferences. Of Rossini, he said, “I have no emotional response”; his favorites are Janacek and Handel, “because they’re so honest.” And for 25 years he has wanted to stage Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”

If Carsen did take on that piece, he would likely start with Auden’s libretto. Because of his training as an actor, he studies text obsessively, which explains the thoroughness of his concepts.

“If the thing doesn’t work all the way through, you have to throw it out,” he said. “A thing has to work from beginning to end for me to be satisfied, and sometimes it’s only in the end that people realize why you made a certain choice.”

In a “Tannhäuser” he staged in Barcelona, for example, he transported Wagner’s tale of a singing knight to the studio of a contemporary painter. Rather than succumbing to a struggle between the sacred and profane, the artist reconciles them into a new kind of art that is initially rejected, but in the opera’s final moments joins a gallery of masterpieces that were misunderstood in their own time.

It’s a bittersweet ending, one that may not seem to follow the libretto. But it makes sense: Tannhäuser’s redemption is ultimately out of his hands, whether in medieval Germany or the pantheon of Western art.

At times, Carsen has found that a libretto speaks well enough for itself, as in his minimalist production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, first seen in 1997 (and available on demand in a film from 2007). It is an arrestingly spare actors’ playground, surrounded by towering white walls, the stage covered in autumnal fallen leaves. Late in the opera, Carsen breaks from tradition, ending Act II before Onegin’s fatal duel with his best friend.

Once that moment finally arrives, after intermission, it leads directly into the joyous polonaise that opens the third act, now shatteringly ironic: Onegin doesn’t miss a beat after killing his friend, remaining in place as his servants spritz him with perfume and dress him for a ball. It is echt Carsen: loyal to, yet building on, the opera.

The Tatyana in that “Onegin” was Renée Fleming, who reunited with Carsen for Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Royal Opera in London, a staging that came to the Met in 2017. This may be the quintessential Carsen production: gorgeous, sensual and smartly considered, with an affecting coup de théâtre at the close.

He moved the opera’s action to the time and place of its premiere: Vienna on the brink of World War I. He was inspired by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s small but telling changes to the libretto, which made the Marschallin the wife of an army leader and Faninal a nouveau riche arms dealer. There are other touches drawn from throwaway moments in the text; Carsen has the Marschallin exit the opera arm-in-arm with another young soldier, based on a story she begins to tell her lover, Octavian, in Act I before abruptly changing the subject. The opera may be about one affair, but it is neither her first nor last.

The production was unexpectedly resonant when it arrived at the Met, in the early months of the Trump presidency, when the country felt, after the abrupt end of the Obama era, on the edge of an uncertain future. The early scenes reflect the unsustainable excess of prewar life; the walls of the Marschallin’s bedroom seem barely able to hold the weight of all the portraits, the history, of her family. And the set literally bursts open in the opera’s final measures, revealing the haze of cannon fire and soldiers on the front — a rude awakening from the dream of the opera’s romance.

For “Il Trionfo” in Salzburg, things may appear more contemporary: The character Bellezza (Beauty) is presented as the winner of “The World’s Next Top Model,” and is then wooed into a life of celebrity by one of the judges, Piacere (Pleasure) — while the other two, Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Insight), engage in something of a battle for her soul. But as it goes on, the production becomes increasingly abstract.

The first half is a parade of glamorously hedonistic tableaux, whose use of video — unusual in a Carsen production — is more of a dramatic device than a gimmick. At one point the videos are invasively focused on Bellezza, who is subjected to the relentless scrutiny of fame despite its visible toll on her mental health; you could imagine her as Britney Spears or Naomi Osaka.

But as Tempo and Disinganno raise the curtain on the theater of truth, as they say in the second half, the stage becomes shallow, filled with a mirror that eventually gives way to the absence of any set: just an exposed backstage whose rear door Bellezza opens, exiting to the street. At the end of this oratorio there is no longer theater — only reality.

It’s a powerful closing image for a work that wasn’t even originally meant to be staged. Yet Carsen fashions it into sustained drama, with the excellence that he can be, yes, relied upon to deliver.


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