The last three and a half weeks here at New York’s Metropolitan Opera have been interesting, to say the least. We have been busy staging Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, or technically speaking, “remounting” the production that was set forth some 20 years ago by sometimes “controversial” opera director Giancarlo del Monaco. This self-proclaimed “hater of opera” is (unfortunately) most well known for being the son of famed operatic legend Mario del Monaco. I parenthetically use the qualifier “unfortunately” above, because Mr. del Monaco (Giancarlo, that is) has something to say, and even more to give as a director. I worked with Mr. del Monaco over 10 years ago at The Washington National Opera on a production of Romeo et Juliette, and found his direction to be four-square solid, relevant, and quite insightful. Ten years later, my opinion has not changed. I watched him work with our current cast of operatic luminaries, which include Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, Lucio Gallo, and Dwayne Croft, and personally witnessed improvements in all of their respective character developments. “Focus on one another!”, “Don’t command with your arms!”, “Move with purpose!”, “Now THAT is sexy!”, were a few of his comments; along with (in an attempt at full disclosure) “I hate opera!”, “Kill him!”, “Look at the monitors, not directly at the conductor!”, “I had a gorgeous tenor voice myself!”, “Why can’t they just do what I tell them to do!!”, and my personal favorite, “We spend more time on breaks than we do rehearsing!!!”.
True, Mr. del Monaco can be short tempered and difficult, micro-manages perhaps too many moments of stage action, and most of the time just cannot drag himself off of the stage long enough for the various production photographers to get a stage-shot without him in it (yes, even in the stage orchestra dress rehearsals he is traipsing around the stage almost non-stop). And yet, I have to say that it is obvious that he knows every square inch of this musical score…right down to the orchestral entrances, interludes, and obligatos (obligati), of seemingly every instrument. He is passionate about this music, and the theatrical drama that is attached to every sentence of every scene of every character!! His direction is clear and so is his intent; not newfangled, but honest, natural, and real….not a moment “forced” in my opinion. In many respects, his stagings may be considered “old fashioned” (or “old school”–take your pick), such as those of John Copley, John Cox, Franco Zeffirelli, Bruce Donnell, and others. But in a world where everything on-stage seems to be sooooo exaggerated (ie. anything that has the Cirque du Soleil name attached to it, all the overproduced reality “talent” shows, every Super Bowl half-time show, Lady Gaga concerts, etc, etc, etc.), isn’t it somehow positively radical to watch conventional staging that actually seems simple, sensible, and rational!!??!!
I, for one, find it refreshing indeed; and while I cannot fully ascribe to Mr. del Monaco’s personal directing temperament, I am willing to do as he asks because it somehow seems far more tangible than many of today’s theatrical alternatives. I am further willing to put aside all the comparisons that are made between he and his father, and just focus on what my job is….to take direction, sing my music well, and make it all believable/understandable for the sake of our audience. This seems to be Mr. del Monaco’s prime directive as well; so I think that this time I will come down on the side of: “He really is a very good director…..he’s just misunderstood.”