Question: When is a forest not a forest? Answer: When in a modern stage production the text specifically calls for one. Director’s theater—which I define as the artistically impotent becoming managerially omnipotent—has been bad enough in the theater; in opera, nowadays, it is lethal. If the action is laid in a pleasure garden, expect an abattoir; if in a village square, expect a spaceship. Until fairly recently, the idea was to make an improbable setting still vaguely believable; now it is to make it totally preposterous and thus exquisitely titillating.

My concern here is with two mountings of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, one at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, staged by Peter Sellars, the other at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, directed by Jonathan Miller. I have given more than passing thought to which was the greater abomination, but I still...


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