Turandot de Puccini dans la mise en scène de Calixto Bieito © PASCAL PAVANI / AFP
Turandot de Puccini dans la mise en scène de Calixto Bieito © PASCAL PAVANI / AFP

The 5 most nefarious opera performances

Outrageous for some, brilliant for others… France Musique proposes you a selection of 5 much-discussed opera performances.

In 2017, Mozart's Così fan tutte staged by Christophe Honoré caused a scandal. Programmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and then at the Edinburgh International Festival in late August, the latter decided to offer refunds to ticket holders ahead of the opening, since the controversial opera was considered too “provocative and sexually explicit”. Let us take this as an opportunity to make a – non-exhaustive - selection of the most controversial opera performances.

Andrea Breth's version of La Traviata by Verdi, Brussels, 2012

Andrea Breth, an important figure of the avant-garde German theatre, wanted to rewrite the hypocrisy and cynicism of the ruling classes denounced by Verdi in his opera, adapting it to our time. On the stage, we can see how she repeated this social critique showing decadent society parties, alcohol and sadomasochism, all in a cold, black and white setting. During Act II, there’s a moment that profoundly shocked the audience and some critics, in which a child satisfies the sexual desires of a much older man. In order to deal with the scandal, the director of the opera house had to intervene to calm the audience down, and directors Castellucci, Warlikowski, Joosten and Py rushed to help Andrea Breth, in the name of artistic freedom.

Burkhard Kosminski's version of Tannhäuser by Wagner, Düsseldorf, 2013

"Tannhäuser", German opera in three acts, is usually a work that generates emotions. But this is not the case for Burkhard Kosminski’s version, which embarrassed all. By transposing the drama into the era of Nazi concentration camps, the director aroused a feeling of outrage in the Düsseldorf audience, to such an extent that the spectators found themselves in discomfort, some of them even seeking medical help, booing and screaming. From the beginning, Bukhard Kosminski revealed himself to be extremely provocative: there were scenes of people dying in gas chambers, surrounded by a glass block. The opera included rape scenes, violence, swastikas and members of a family having their heads shaved ahead of their execution. As a result, Tannhaüser was cancelled after only one performance, before being transformed into a concert version by the Düsseldorf Opera House.

William Tell by Rossini, directed by Damiano Michieletto in London, 2015

“Inexcusably nasty”, “voyeuristic”. This is how the British press painted and denounced the gang-rape scene in Damiano Michieletto’s version of William Tell, which was transposed to Bosnia in the mid-1990s. In the revised third act, a woman was dragged along the floor, stripped and raped by about 20 soldiers for five whole minutes. This uncomfortable scene was greeted with boos, and the noise forced the orchestra to stop playing for a brief moment. The director of the Royal Opera House, however, insisted on defending Michieletto, declaring that “The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during wartime, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war.”

Puccini’s Turandot, directed by Calixto Bieito, Nuremberg, Belfast and Toulouse, 2014

It is impossible to write an article on the most controversial operas without mentioning Calixto Bieito, a real expert in this field... His version of the Masked Ball by Verdi had left a deep mark in 2002, and more specifically its opening scene, featuring a row of businessmen perched on toilets. In 2014, his Turandot seemed to bring together all his characteristic controversial elements. Instead of China in the Middle Ages as imagined by Puccini, it showed a Chinese doll factory directed by an oppressive and sadistic Turandot, featuring workers tortured with endless whippings and even raped. Everything was a scandal: dismembered dolls, women wrapped with plastic film, a woman forced to touch herself, bloodstains... This critique of the oppression of the masses and of unbridled capitalism conceived by Bieito did not, once again, leave the audience indifferent.

The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart, directed by Martin Kušej, Aix-en-Provence Festival, 2015

It is not censorship, this is maturity”. In 2015, Bernard Foccroulle, director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival asked director Martin Kušej to change his staging of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Transposed into a jihadist camp populated by men armed with Kalashnikovs, the opera was referring too violently to a painful reality, that of terroristic attacks and of the rise of the Islamic State. Thus, being “unbearable” according to the director of the festival, two images were corrected in the show: the Daesh black flag was presented plain with no letters, and the final scene, where the heads of some prisoners were displayed on trays in plastic bags, was cancelled. But, despite these changes, and even if it was officially set in the 1920s, the spectator was able to understand that the director was talking about our era, especially due to some scenes where hostages were filmed and tied up.

"L'Enlèvement au Sérail" ©Pascal Victor/ArtcomArt
"L'Enlèvement au Sérail" ©Pascal Victor/ArtcomArt